Q&A: Moving to Proactive Network Management

Networks are vital to your organization. We offer suggestions for moving from reactive to proactive network management.

Networks are vital: they provide essential connectivity that ties users together as it supports newer technologies such as VoIP and streaming media. Unfortunately, keeping networks up and running is often a case of reacting to problems, not getting ahead of them.

To learn more about how any organization (and especially small and mid-size companies) can move from a reactive to a proactive network management mindset, we spoke to Ken Klapproth, vice president of marketing for Entuity. Ken offers insight into traps IT can fall into, and offers best practices for turning network management into a proactive activity.

Enterprise Systems: Why is network management more important than ever before?

Ken Klapproth: Never before have businesses of all sizes and in all industries been so reliant upon IT to give them a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Their networks provide foundational connectivity for the latest new technologies that promise the corporation greater productivity and profitability -- such as VoIP, streaming media, collaboration, mobility, SAN, SCM, or virtualization.

At the same time, business users are more service-focused and less particular about the underlying technology. They want reliable connectivity to the services that help them get their job done -- e-mail for example -- and charter the IT organization with the responsibility to deliver. It doesn’t matter how IT assembles servers, routers, switches, software, or protocols as long as “Send/Receive” functions on demand. A problem in any part of the infrastructure between the user and the service origination point -- inside or outside the company -- can have consequences that lower employee productivity, cut off extended supply chains, or even stop revenue flow completely. Done proactively, network management keeps the infrastructure optimally deployed and efficiently performing, giving users uninterrupted access to the services they need.

How are organizations managing their networks today?

Most companies are stuck in reactive mode. SMBs are growing into network management; previously they used diagnostic tools only -- looking back rather than planning and looking forward. These companies need to move from red light/green light dashboards to automation and integration.

There are a range of solutions in use today, from reactive diagnostic tools to “end-to-end” frameworks. There are many approaches, based on software, hardware, appliance, managed service provider (MSP), or “brute-force” -- each with their associated costs, benefits, and risks. Typically the approach used by most companies -- particularly SMBs -- matures over time.

As their networks and business systems grow, the time and effort required to use manual scripts, command line-based approaches, or a collection of open-source “red light/green light” tools becomes prohibitive. As new technologies and services are added to serve the business, their focus evolves from reactive (looking back using a diagnostic tool to troubleshoot the problem after a user raises an issue) to proactive using automated processes that alert of potential operational or performance issues in advance, ensuring service availability and minimal user impact.

A great illustration of this maturation comes from a customer of ours, a small sheet metal fabrication company in the Midwest. Their business had grown to the point where they required a new building for their engineering and office staff, separate from the manufacturing plant. A network connected the business offices and computerized manufacturing systems and provided electronic communication with their customers and suppliers.

Despite using the latest gigabit network hardware, they were plagued by intermittent bandwidth problems and complaints from users of slow system response. They used several diagnostic tools they had picked up on the Internet, but all of the devices were connected properly and were on. The correct patches were applied to the operating systems on the servers and the client applications were up to date.

Frustrated by the amount of time and effort this required, the company began looking for an automated and integrated solution to give them better visibility into the problem and to eliminate the manual steps required by their current toolset. During the first night of their evaluation, our solution captured and alerted that their Exchange server was operating at 100% CPU utilization between the hours of 1:00 and 2:00 AM -- bringing immediate attention to a potentially disruptive situation. Since no personnel were typically in the data center at this time, their current red light/green light monitoring would have never caught this problem.

By automatically capturing historical performance details in a database, a graphical trend report clearly identified the issue and sped the way to isolating a Trojan program using their Exchange server as a spam-bot. The malware was set to only run after hours to avoid detection. With a proactive network management solution keeping watch 24/7, there are no “after hours.”

Instead of looking back, what questions should IT be asking as part of the “looking ahead” approach you recommend?

Fundamentally, the management philosophy changes from fixing users’ problems as fast as possible after they call the support desk to keeping the phone from ringing in the first place. The question becomes, “What can I do to ensure 24/7 availability of business services without having to spend my entire day glued to my computer?”

One of the key processes that helps enable this shift is capacity planning. Capacity planning involves the identification of trends in resource usage, and using that information to plan for the projected changes in resource demand. Today’s on-demand environment has accelerated the speed of infrastructure change, making successful capacity planning more critical for assuring service delivery. Businesses that understand their infrastructure, identify the changes taking place in its usage and identify trends and patterns, then have the opportunity to make the right capacity planning decisions.

A proactive network management solution allows IT operations to match resources to demand. Real-time and historical information is programmatically captured, giving visibility on each asset’s potential and actual utilization. Detailed inventory information allows confirmation that expected and real configurations are the same. Statistics on operating capacity enable IT administrators to efficiently balance the requirements for assured service delivery with expenditures on the underlying infrastructure.

What mistakes do organizations make when moving to this proactive network management approach?

When implementing any new process, mistakes are generally not a matter of blatant blunders or omissions, but are more likely due to a lack of visibility and unforeseen requirements. For example, a retail distributor that is a customer of ours understood the criticality of their network to their business; their entire distribution model relied on electronic collaboration and transaction with their supply chain. Network connectivity between their suppliers and their warehouses was provided by a top-tier ISP who guaranteed five-hour turnaround on all IT issues. The service was not inexpensive, but round-the-clock connectivity was required to keep the supply chain working efficiently.

Although the ISP had provisioned a network monitoring solution in each of the warehouses, the solution lacked visibility into the routing protocols used between the multi-homing networks and lacked the diagnostic functionality to determine the true cause of abnormalities. When the network went down, the control systems for picking, packaging, and shipping went down. Perishables expired and store shelves went empty, resulting in lost sales and revenue. The customer still uses the ISP but implemented their own network management system to give them the visibility they need into the routing protocols connecting their supply chain.

Do these problems mean that organizations don’t have the IT tools they need or that they’re not using the tools they have properly?

A broad range of solutions is available today for network management -- from freeware to expensive and complex frameworks. In fact, every network device manufacturer provides a management utility bundled with the purchase. The problem is rationalizing the level of effort or investment required to get the desired business outcome from the various tools. To use an analogy: I can build a house using a hammer and a box of nails, but it would be much quicker and more efficient to use a pneumatic nail gun.

Proactive management emphasizes the increasingly important role of automation in the ongoing configuration and maintenance of management tools. In a world of increasingly complex and dynamically changing network deployments -- especially with the introduction of service-on-demand style offerings -- the need for management solutions to track and accommodate these changes with minimal human administrative overhead is becoming increasingly important.

Given the importance of the network for these new technologies, can network management remain a part-time job for the IT folk in SMBs who wear many hats?

The return on investment promised by any of these new technologies presumes the connectivity of the network. The thousands of dollars saved in hardware costs by virtualized servers can be easily negated if every user accessing the enterprise application hosted on that virtual instance now has to wait for their transactions to complete. But the same economic conditions that incent companies to save money through more cost-effective technologies also necessitate doing more with less from a personnel perspective. While IT folks in SMBs will always wear many hats, judicious selection of network management technology can ensure that the hat is the right size and not a burden to wear.

My father used to say, “An expert makes the difficult look easy.” Solutions designed by experts at provider companies who put network management first on their list can significantly allay the difficulties associated with the task. These solutions are designed to be easy to use and quick to deploy without the customization required of the large frameworks or “end-to-end” solutions. More importantly, proactive solutions will utilize Web-based dashboards and data export functionality, allowing IT operations staff to build their own management mash-ups and custom portals as desired. If the operational data is useful to a broader business audience, why should it be held hostage in the management application?

Are these problems limited to SMBs? Do large IT shops have the problem licked?

Large enterprises certainly have more resources at their disposal, but the rapid pace of change and growing complexity of business IT solutions impact everyone. Large enterprises are more likely to implement framework solutions, attempting to automate and manage a broader range of their IT environment. Typically adept at one or two functions -- application and server management, for example -- the frameworks can’t effectively be all things to all people, they’ll fall short is certain areas. When it comes to network management, many framework customers find the upkeep and expense of these behemoths may not be paying off in actual performance.

That was precisely the experience of a major financial services company, which had already invested millions of dollars in a network management framework and spent thousands of man-months deploying the application. Unfortunately, the framework lacked the circuit-level visibility to indicate that the primary fiber link between two main campuses had been down -- for some time. A construction crew installing new utility poles alongside the parking lot severed the backup fiber link. Unfortunately, no one knew that the primary fiber link had failed some time ago, and they'd been running over the backup for weeks.

Another trading company was happy with the event correlation capabilities of their framework, but could never get the granularity of network device monitoring and alerting they needed to run their business.

What best practices can you offer to help organizations move to proactive network management?

The goal of a proactive network management process is to ensure consistent and reliable business services for end users. Best practices in implementing a process address issues standing in the way of that goal.

Typically the first hurdle for many organizations is the problem of poor network visibility. However, it’s not enough to merely know what devices and servers you have on your network. To really assess the business impact of services carried, IT staff must gain a thorough understanding of the connectivity and relationships between these assets. Monitoring performance is also critical, but not just from a “red light/green light” perspective of being operational or not. Tracking key real-time and historical performance indicators allows the system to establish baselines and identify trends which otherwise would be impossible to catch. Finally, no amount of data is useful unless it can be synthesized into actionable information to support sound business decisions. Graphical displays and dashboards can reduce volumes of tabular data into concise representations for at-a-glance insight.

With the viability of today’s IT initiatives reliant upon the network, by far the most important best practice is to simply get started today. Borrowing once again from my father’s advice that “the best kind of exercise is the kind that you do,” the best network management solution is the one you can -- and do -- use.

What products or services does Entuity offer to make this transition easier?

Eye of the Storm (EYE) network management suite helps IT-dependent businesses realize the maximum benefit of their IT infrastructure through automated, actionable network management intelligence. Managing virtualized environments, network-based services, and data sharing strategies, EYE ensures that the network is efficiently deployed for greater stability and responsiveness. Through its comprehensive, flexible reporting capabilities, EYE 2008 delivers accurate real-time and historical data that helps companies proactively predict and respond to network events, before end-user services are impacted. Eye of the Storm allows dynamic business environments to focus on meeting their customers’ needs more effectively, which ultimately increases business profitability.