The prospect of a unified network management system has long been of interest for IT administrators. The idea that one could use a single-pane-of-glass tool for the configuration, monitoring and troubleshooting of wired and wireless networks is highly appealing. Yet, problems have always plagued unified network management system software in the past.
Everything from poor multivendor support to challenges found in maintaining uniform software updates made unified management platforms more trouble that they were worth. Early adopters felt as if they had been fleeced. And that fleecing led to the somewhat-popular opinion that a single-pane-of-glass management approach is nothing more than a myth. In this article, we're going to look at the latest trends in the unified network management space to see how proponents of these platforms are hoping to turn this myth into reality.
Challenges to overcome overseeing wired, wireless foundations
If you operate a single-vendor wired and wireless network, you had the best shot at being able to deploy a unified network management product. In the past, network hardware and software vendors, including Cisco, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Juniper Networks, have offered network management platforms that assist administrators in overseeing various network appliances using a single-point system.
But as soon as you try connecting third-party network equipment to the tools, things went south in a hurry. And even when some vendors touted multivendor compatibility, features and functionality suffered because of the lack of control the management software vendor had over the third-party software. Thus, many IT shops abandoned the idea of a single management platform due to the proprietary nature of many network devices.
The other key issue often discovered while attempting to implement and manage a unified network management platform has to do with maintaining uniform firmware updates across the entire network. Enterprise networks consist of hundreds or thousands of routers, switches, wireless access points and other network appliances. And not only is it likely that the network consists of multivendor technologies, the age and software versions of the equipment is not likely to be in sync. For example, you may have equipment that is brand-new and running the latest firmware in one part of the network, while in another, the network is limping along, with hardware and software that is incompatible with unified network management tools. Firmware updates of legacy network appliances are a manual process, and many network administrators have long adhered to the "if it's not broken, don't fix it" policy.
Movement to the cloud provides answers to unified management
To resolve issues that haunted previous-generation unified network management systems, many are enlisting the capabilities and philosophies of cloud-managed services. Cloud-managed network equipment packaged in the form of a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model is becoming increasingly popular on both the wired and wireless side of the house. A SaaS model also provides answers to the two problems found in previous-generation unified network management applications. For one, SaaS models commonly provide customers with advanced API tools for the purpose of automation and customization. And many of these API tools are standards-based. These same APIs can be used to more easily develop a robust unified network management software platform with true multivendor support.
The other benefit of the cloud-managed network model is it was designed to better support and work around any issues with aging hardware. Network device firmware upgrades are performed on regular and frequent schedules -- similar to how PCs, servers and mobile devices receive updates. This is in stark contrast to the traditional manual process that was more of the norm. And while older network hardware may not be capable of performing all the new capabilities of newer hardware, the key is that all hardware runs on a standardized firmware version across the entire network. That level of software consistency lends itself very well to a unified network management system, as developers need not put much effort into backward-compatibility issues.
What to expect as proprietary systems diminish
The days of closed, proprietary systems are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. IT administrators are no longer willing to implement equipment and management software that doesn't play well with other vendors. Because of this, look for network vendors to put much more effort into the full support of multivendor equipment in their management platforms.
The recent partnership between Dell and Aerohive is a great example of this, as we see two network companies joining forces to provide a more inclusive package to customers. We are also seeing cloud service providers implementing unified network management software in the form of a SaaS model -- or as an add-on service in infrastructure-as-a-service and platform-as-a-service cloud environments.
If unified network management is going to one day become the norm in the enterprise, platform developers must tackle the issue of multivendor support and firmware compatibility. Fortunately, the cloud computing model provides excellent solutions to both. And if that's the case, it is possible that the mythical single-pane-of-glass network management service we all long for may soon become a reality.
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