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How to monitor network traffic in 7 steps

Effective network monitoring is an ongoing process that requires constant vigilance by IT groups. This step-by-step plan can fine-tune network monitoring strategies.

Today's complex virtualized enterprise puts IT managers through a serious administrative test. As network administrators...

grapple with how to best monitor network traffic and ensure operational excellence, they routinely seek guidance on best practices and the right tools for the task.

In this era of digital transformation, the enterprise network underpins all the sweeping changes underway. The network infrastructure that facilitates critical operations connects to more systems and devices than ever before. Like the businesses and governments that depend on it, the enterprise network has become much more dynamic. And, because organizations are so reliant on that network being fast, secure and reliable, operational excellence is the expectation.

Network traffic monitoring services are important tools to capture traffic data that is essential for analysis and optimization. But selecting the right tools and deploying them effectively require a good understanding of the organization's network infrastructure, priorities and challenges.

Here are seven steps you can take to monitor network traffic in order to support a reliable and consistently high-performing enterprise network infrastructure.

Step 1: Take stock

When managing any network environment, you need an accurate inventory of all the devices and applications running on the network. Large and complex networks are more difficult to monitor, especially through manual methods. To get a clear picture of the assets and interdependencies, IT managers can use a network mapping tool that can discover devices automatically and capture a complete asset inventory. Also, it's a good idea to periodically check for asset changes.

Step 2: Set a standard

To understand when anomalous network activity happens that could indicate a problem, including a potential security breach, the IT group first needs to establish a baseline that shows normal traffic activity. Network managers can use data capture or traffic sniffing tools to collect information on network activity over time. Data capture should be an ongoing process as changes in the network are constant. From this data, IT can conduct network traffic analysis to troubleshoot issues and make changes to improve service levels.

Step 3: Check and refine configurations

Network monitoring is an ongoing process -- not a one-off activity. Continuous network monitoring is one way to identify when devices aren't configured correctly. Used in conjunction with network configuration management software, monitoring and analyzing network performance can also help IT identify opportunities to refine device configurations to provide faster data transfers across the network. Graphical reporting tools can make it easier for network managers to assess and address service-level issues.

Step 4: Apply escalation procedures

You'll need a formalized policy in place that can alert the appropriate IT staff member when a network issue occurs. Automated tools can launch this process, escalating the incident to the appropriate expert as more information becomes available. These tools can also alert IT and line-of-business professionals when an issue may affect adjacent areas or operations. Keeping an escalation template up to date is crucial to avoid wasted time and extended outages.

Step 5: Plan for disaster, aim for continuity

Architecting the network with no single point of failure is critical to avoiding major extended outages.

An underperforming network can impede productivity. An outage can completely derail operations, resulting in costly losses. Effective network monitoring and performance management can help IT spot issues before they become full-blown problems, minimizing their effect on the business. But, to ensure high availability and limited downtime, IT needs to have a business continuity and disaster recovery plan that details the appropriate failover measures. Architecting the network with no single point of failure is critical to avoiding major extended outages.

Step 6: Plan for change

Today's networks are constantly evolving, as organizations grow and sometimes consolidate. Broad adoption of cloud computing services also has an effect as more enterprises adopt a hybrid IT model with some resources on premises and others running in third-party environments. It is important to continually assess how changes in the business may affect the network -- and then adjust accordingly.

Step 7: Up to the task

And, like the network, the tools to monitor and manage it are always changing. On a regular basis, IT managers need to evaluate if the network monitoring and performance management tools in their arsenal have the appropriate features. The IT organization also needs to make sure staff members have the appropriate training to get the maximum benefit from these tools.

Tools for monitoring network traffic

Several network monitoring tools -- and adjacent services -- are available for IT groups to monitor network traffic. Some tools provide a discrete capability, such as asset discovery, while others offer integrated network monitoring and performance management features.

As IT departments reassess their needs periodically, they should look to fill gaps in their monitoring capabilities, either with stand-alone options or a fuller feature replacement.

Network monitoring requires several elements to be successful, including automated inventory discovery to properly map the network. Alerting and reporting tools provide the notifications IT needs to stay on top of issues and other reports to fine-tune configurations.

Fault isolation and troubleshooting sheds light on exactly where the issue is. Network traffic analysis gives network managers insight into what the source of the problem is so they can expedite remediation and limit undesirable outcomes.

3 network monitoring challenges

Visibility into the opaque network. Getting an accurate and clear picture of traffic activity on an enterprise network that is both highly virtualized and distributed can be challenging. Add the cloud to the equation and seeing what is happening in near-real time gets even more difficult. While tools are improving, there is still a long way to go in monitoring certain environments, such as multi-cloud architectures.

Mapping the network and establishing a baseline. The dynamic nature of the network today can make mapping the interdependencies problematic. Without this piece, IT loses a key insight into performance by losing important context of traffic flow. At the same time, the ever-changing disposition of the network makes getting a real performance baseline challenging. Without this, it is impossible to gauge service-level issues or make proactive configuration adjustments.

Optimal configuration. One of the biggest benefits of effective network monitoring is the ability to fine-tune performance through configuration changes. Determining where and what to do to make these adaptations can be daunting. And, if a device is misconfigured, the outcome could be serious. IT organizations need to have consistent change management policies that require testing to ensure the system is configured properly.

This was last published in January 2020

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