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Eyes on the network

Dan Klimke, Portable Network Analyser Marketing Manager, Fluke Networks.A network monitoring system monitors an internal network for problems. It can find and help resolve snail-paced webpage downloads, lost-in-space e-mail, questionable user activity and file delivery caused by overloaded, crashed servers, dicey network connections or other devices.

Network monitoring systems (NMSs) are much different from intrusion detection systems (IDSs) or intrusion prevention systems (IPSs). These other systems detect break-ins and prevent scurrilous activity from unauthorised users. An NMS lets you know how well the network is running during the course of ordinary operations; its focus isn't on security per se.

Network monitoring can be achieved using various software or a combination of plug-and-play hardware and software appliance solutions. Virtually any kind of network can be monitored. It doesn't matter whether it's wireless or wired, a corporate LAN, VPN or service provider WAN. These systems can help you identify specific activities and performance metrics, producing results that enable a business to address various and sundry needs, including meeting compliance requirements, stomping out internal security threats and providing more operational visibility.

“CIOs and CTOs are challenged today to enhance client experience and decrease MTTR values. This typically leads to client experience enhancement, market share expansion, and less revenue loss. Monitoring systems help clients achieve these challenging objectives because they allow engineers to monitor user experience, report on network availability, and enhance operational KPIs,” says Osama Qadan, Managing Partner of Equinox International, explaining why companies adopt these tools.

Deciding specifically what to monitor on your network is as important as giving network monitoring a general thumbs up. You must be sure that your corporate network topology map is up to date. That map should accurately lay out the different types of networks to be monitored, which servers are running which applications on which operating system, how many desktops need to be counted into the mix and what kind of remote devices have access for each network. A dose of clarity at the outset makes choosing which monitoring tools to purchase down the line somewhat simpler.

Traditional network monitoring starts with the basics at the network's core. It checks and reports WAN link bandwidth numbers, latency or response time from your switches, routers and servers, and server CPU utilisation numbers. For example, a server running at 100% utilisation should raise more than just an eyebrow.

However, vendors say that there is a growing recognition that traditional network management tools are not providing enough visibility for network support teams to detect and solve application performance problems. “While the charts and graphs of the typical NMS look attractive, many network professionals are realising that they need more depth of capability. We are also seeing a resurgence of interest in packet analysis,” says Dan Klimke, Portable Network Analyser Marketing Manager, Fluke Networks.

Kevin Gillis, VP of Product Management and Strategy, Ipswitch Network Management Division, adds that major technology game-changers such as virtualisation and cloud computing are also forcing companies to re-evaluate their performance monitoring systems for networking and storage infrastructure and consolidating when possible ultimately driving to a more efficient, higher performing company.

Budget constraints are driving rapid and widespread virtualisation, adoption which leads to the need for new performance monitoring and management systems for these pure virtualised or mixed environments. “A very common example is all the physical to virtual migration projects underway where companies are consolidating and reducing their server footprint, sometimes very significantly but they expect and demand the same performance, utilisation and reporting visibility as they currently have with the physical infrastructure. We have customers that have achieved server reductions of 5 to 1 and in scale, for larger enterprises, that represents a significant drop in capex and opex, but if you lose performance visibility, you lose benefits of the transition,” says Gillis.

Network monitoring can help you manage users too. Tools with automatic discovery offer the ability to monitor devices as they're added, removed or undergo configuration changes. Some tools can group devices dynamically (on a parameter such as an IP address) or by service, type and location; these are extremely helpful when managing a large network.

As the network becomes more complex, so must the monitoring system. Converged networks combine voice, video and high-speed data transmission over a single pipe. These need real-time performance management and monitoring. This type of network needs a system that examines each packet for jitter, latency and packet loss, and that's just for starters. “Active network monitoring has been around for some time. We can consider the trending of ping tests as a simple example of active testing. But of course, the shortcoming of this type of test is that it really says nothing about the performance of the actual applications. While it is essential to know up/down status of key devices, links and services, availability is not performance. We believe IT managers are interested in whatever technology can give them that critical perspective -the actual user experience of real application traffic,” says Klimke.

If your network has become simply too complex and you can't keep tabs on what's happening, other people can do the job for you. There are companies to whom you can outsource your monitoring that provide various monitoring, management and analytical services. With service vendors, you're likely to be able to choose from a buffet-style menu of monitoring services; these may tally up to a savings over device purchases depending on network priorities. There are other trade-offs. Purchasing services may give you the advantage of rubbing elbows with the latest monitoring technologies; in contrast, purchasing appliances can provide more control.

One thing's a certainty when it comes to network monitoring. The cost of not using these technologies can be greater than you think, if you're not getting the performance and availability you're paying for and if you're not willing to spend sufficiently to ensure that your network is healthy and secure. What's it really worth? It could be worth your job.

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