Trends in Network Management are understandably driven by the trends in network architecture. Network architecture tends to be viewed as monolithic and unchanging; this is far from the truth. Networks tend to go through cyclical evolutions approximately every five years when the ever-increasing plethora of other network dependent technologies build up a critical mass and force change on the network. Like every other technology the IT manager must face, these changes must be adapted to and managed effectively because of the pressure they place on the networks that keep Information Technology’s life-blood flowing.
Voice over IP (VoIP) has been in the workplace for some time now and most networks have already adopted, or planned for, this technology. Those which have not will need to in short order – if your shop won’t ever use VoIP as it exists today, other convergence requirements will be around the corner. Even if your shop is not using a VoIP technology today, it is foreseeable that the other business areas or the telco providers will provide sufficient momentum or incentive for this change to take place.
Support of VoIP solutions can include the requirement for Power Over Ethernet (POE), Virtual Local Area Networks (VLANs), and traffic prioritization. These technologies have in the recent past outstripped the ability of legacy NMS’ to properly monitor and manage them.
Network-based video conferencing and streaming audio for training and other business (and often non-business) related requirements may not require POE but demand traffic prioritization and VLAN capability on the network. Finding a corporate network solution in place today that does not support either VLAN or traffic prioritization is rare, but what about the NMS that monitors and reports upon these technologies?
The other factor to consider with respect to convergence and it’s impact on NMS choices is that convergence based technologies entering the workplace tend to be very high-profile in as far as the public image and business operation of the workplace are concerned. When the telephones don’t work, or the customer WebEx sessions fail to operate smoothly, customer perception of the organization is negatively impacted.
A NMS choice needs to be designed to support convergence technologies, or be a supported integration with a point solution from the convergence technology vendor (i.e.; have a proven “plug-in” capability with your Cisco IP telephony management toolset).
An increasing demand is placed on today’s networks to support mobile computing solutions from laptops and Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) to wireless VoIP devices. This is by no means an inclusive list, but clearly the expanded use of these types of end-user computing technologies is driving the increase in deployment of wireless networking technologies.
As more wireless Local Area Networks (WLANs) are deployed, a trend is occurring where many shops are looking seriously at the continued value in having multiple physical Ethernet drops for every person’s work area.
The increased dependence on WLANs for business critical functions is a change in networks that is driven in from the network edge, as opposed to outwards from the network core. Having the end-users bring more of these technologies into the workplace with the expectation that they will have access to the same business functionality that they have had from their hard-wired desktop systems is driving this requirement at a nearly exponential growth rate.
Deployment of wireless network technologies to keep pace with the demand can be a risky business, and your selection of NMS needs to be able to keep pace with these demands. If your organization is seeing the growth in wireless technologies ensure that you select an NMS that will have the scalability to add monitoring for the quantity of Wireless Access Points (WAPs) that will be deployed. This can be a significant additional number of “managed nodes.” You will also need to make some strategic decisions as to whether you will be monitoring the wireless devices attaching to the WAPs.
A further consideration when selecting a NMS for a wireless environment is the support for the control and management infrastructure used between the WAPs and the wired network. Often large wireless deployments will have centralized controllers that manage groups of WAPs. These architectures will also likely need enhanced ability to monitor security related aspects.
A trend in networking is the ability to apply security controls at the network edge. This useful concept requires underpinning technology that needs to tie back into your NMS for control and audit purposes. Access to network ports is managed by intelligent edge switches that leverage RADIUS technology and tie it back into the directory systems; thus controlling who is authorized to connect physically or wirelessly to the network.
However you implement this, your NMS of choice needs to be aware of “bad connections” and forward those alarms to your network and/or security people. Perhaps there’s even automated controls you want to leverage for this, but regardless, you’ll need an NMS that is ready to work alongside these identity-driven networks.
When senior management (or worse, external auditors) come knocking asking for reports of network use how will you provide that information? Find out what kinds of audit/reporting requirements your organization may require of the network for privacy or other mandated legal compliance reasons, and use those as further criteria in your NMS selection.
The basic underpinning network management technology in use today is the Simple Network Management Protocol, or SNMP. SNMP versions 1 and 2c (the most frequently used versions) are infamously insecure. These protocols should never be used outside of the secure perimeter of your network, and even regarded dubiously for use inside. Most network gear you buy today support the use of SNMPv3, the secure encrypted version of SNMP. The challenge comes when evaluating the NMS, as many still do not support SNMPv3 out of the box. This is certainly something to check for.
If a part of your network is outsourced, and you still want or need to manage it, you will need to have an NMS that is capable of understanding proxy-based SNMP management, likely as well as SNMPv3. Many network outsourcing companies will not provide this proxied monitoring so you should be checking with your service provider before making this a NMS criterion.
How is your organization dealing with issues of network device inventory, version control, and change management? Should your NMS be part of the solution or part of the problem?
Your NMS choice does not necessarily have to be part of a framework solution with a full Configuration Management Database (CMDB), but it should at least have significantly advanced polling and collection abilities to keep current on what is out in your network. As well, this data should at the very least be readily exportable to your CMDB choice of today or tomorrow. The polling intervals should be readily configurable, so that you can have different polling intervals for network nodes of different importance.
When considering polling, you should also learn about the polling technology that the NMS uses. Is it basic ICMP (ping) status for up-down? Or is it slightly more complex SNMP-based? As discussed in the security section, consider the versions of SNMP to be used. Additionally, try to understand what kind of polling engine the NMS uses and how it differentiates and adds/removes risk from the management of your network. This is the kind of area where an expert consultant in NMS comes in very handy.
Is it important to you to centrally manage the firmware and configuration of your network topology? There are many point-solution tools from the hardware vendors that provide this, as well as third-party application specifically designed for this functionality. You should determine whether your need are better suited by integrating this functionality into your NMS, or obtaining a NMS that provides this ability. Wanting your NMS to handle your complete configuration management needs will dramatically shorten the list of available products, so it is advised to focus more on the compatibility aspect and leverage the point solution for firmware and configuration management, while letting the NMS manage discovery & status.
Business Driven Requirements
Every decision made in IT is governed by or directly affected by business drivers and requirements. Various requirements for your NMS selection are going to be driven from what is currently happening with other business areas of your organization, or strategic initiatives.
We spoke early in the security discussion about regulatory compliance issues around having data collected and reported for audit, but other areas of consideration should be around mergers or acquisitions, planned growth, or outsourcing. All of these factors require a NMS that is scalable and quick to update its understanding of your changing network topology. It may also require that you have the ability to provide secured, limited access to the NMS for third-parties who have shared interests in the support and maintenance of the network.
Does the organization have any plans around Data Centre consolidation? This kind of activity will mean reduced core network nodes, but increased edge nodes, and an increased backhaul of network traffic. This again leads to scalability of the solution, speed and accuracy of the discovery and polling mechanisms, and the ability to extract the network inventory information readily.
Green IT initiatives may have some impact on your NMS selection as well. While power reduction strategies likely point towards data centre consolidation, they can have other unexpected outcomes for the network, like increased virtualization, possibly outsourcing of certain services, and often less printing means more electronic data movement and the ability to get large files quickly back and forth from the core to the edge on mobile devices.
Ensure that your NMS selection takes these kinds of items into consideration by its ability to provide management to the network edge (or beyond) with speed and accuracy, and a fast and accurate causal engine to help reduce the time spent diagnosing problems that affect the delivery of data to the other business users. They may not always be network problems, but can you back that up objectively and quickly when the VP is standing in your door?
Another area to consider is managing the network as a delivered service to your customers and the data collection, analysis, and reporting requirements for that. Service Delivery Management in the NMS is also rare but tends to be a feature available more commonly when you are using framework solutions. You can get to this point without a framework if you carefully consider how you will make the measurements of the Service Level Agreements and Service Level Objectives available to the customers of your network, both internal and external to the organization.
Lastly, the biggest impact that business driven requirements have on NMS selection is that of diminishing budgets and the requirement of doing more, or the same, with less. This can lead you to consider how to budget for your NMS & its ongoing support and maintenance, but also gives you the opportunity to consider making it an operational cost by leveraging some form of “Software as a Service.” Many vendors provide this solution, where for monthly or annual fees they will manage your NMS and provide the output you require from it by either hosting the NMS remotely (debatable due to security considerations) or implementing and maintaining the NMS on your site.