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What to know: Getting the right network management tool

Network management applications are the first line of defense against costly downtime. But what capabilities should these essential tools have?

Editor's note: In this two-part How to Buy series on what to look for when you're buying network management tools, part one addresses the features and capabilities of today's management platforms. Part two looks at the questions IT managers need to ask as they assess their current and future network requirements.

In today's dynamic world, the network is the lifeblood of the hyper-connected enterprise. Indeed, organizations -- whether private or public -- are entirely reliant on the networks through which their critical applications run and business is transacted. When the network is down, there is literally no business -- a fact reflected by the skyrocketing cost of an outage.

This absolute dependence on the network translates into zero tolerance for network downtime or subpar performance. As a result, the IT organization is under pressure to guarantee not just maximum uptime but consistently high service quality as well. And in networks where voice, data and complex multi-tiered applications all run simultaneously, assuring 100% performance is an ongoing challenge.

To deliver adequate service levels to support this range of application requirements, visibility is critical. Yet the highly distributed and increasingly virtualized nature of today's infrastructures -- combined with the mix of wireless and wireline technologies involved -- makes it difficult to have a clear picture of the health and stability of the network at any given time.

Network management systems must tackle complex environments

Enterprises must arm themselves with the right network management applications to oversee what are evolving and often very complex environments.

To do that, enterprises must arm themselves with the right network management applications to oversee what are evolving and often very complex environments. Traditionally, a network management tool handles a number of crucial functions related to infrastructure faults, configuration, accounting, performance and security. Central to these functions is the ability to track network activity and then isolate and resolve issues. By definition, these tools must monitor network activity accurately and report on incidents that could interfere with service. In addition, in order to support optimal performance, they should come with the ability to address event or congestion issues to minimize downtime.

Network monitoring tools typically work with other applications that manage discrete functions like configuration, event and performance management, security, and asset management. To help them in their quest, enterprises can choose from among a wide variety of network management products, ranging from free utilities and purchased point applications to enterprise management systems that interact with multiple sensors and specialty tools to provide a holistic approach to managing the environment.

At a high level, network management software should provide IT with clear insight into the network itself, identifying any events or traffic issues that could have a negative impact on availability or performance. Such visibility is also important for making adjustments as capacity requirements change.

Automation is another key element; tools should have the intelligence to respond to fault and performance issues dynamically. This allows changes to be made on the fly as required and also reduces errors.

Evolving demands create need for new generation of management tools

Network management tools have been around for decades to help organizations isolate the source of a problem and to help them recover as quickly as possible. But like every other aspect of the enterprise, networking technology has progressed over time, and with these changes come new management complications. Corporate networks have become increasingly distributed. At the same time, the addition of virtualization to the data center, the integration of wireless networks and the advent of software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization, require new management approaches to get an accurate picture of network activity.

These new technologies require network management systems that can track activity as it traverses these sprawling networks. With SDN, the separation of the network and the control layer makes it more difficult for network monitoring tools to get a clear view of traffic conditions. Virtualization requires a network management tool that can track traffic on the hypervisor, as well as traffic on the physical network.

Add faster networks and the introduction of cloud computing to the picture, and network management becomes even more challenging.

Next: Part two of this series on how to buy network management tools addresses the issues IT managers should take into consideration before they decide which type of system to purchase.

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This was last published in December 2014

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Where do you see network management evolving the most rapidly?
I see the need for a centralized network management system to keep companies running in a smooth and efficient manner. As more businesses begin to expand into the global market place, the need for networking management becomes demanding. International markets bring complexity and different demands for any global company. The need for accurate, up-to-date data on local market costs, exchange rates, and new regulations are a vital component for running the day to day operations.