Network monitoring and diagnostic tools – features to consider

By Steve Goodman, PacketTrap Networks  |  Networking, netflow, network management

We hear it all the time – IT departments are under pressure but budgets and IT staff aren't growing proportionately. Matters only get worse as disruptive technologies like SaaS, VoIP and virtualization begin to proliferate enterprise networks. Yet network administrators are forced to use highly fragmented, complex, and expensive management solutions that don't provide good visibility. At what point does the network administrator go postal or gets fired because the VoIP system cuts out during prime work hours and the CEO can't make his phone calls?

Network Management Has Become More Complex

Network management used to be an easier proposition – there were more people in a given IT department and each had his or her own set of duties. Back then, a lot could be done with homemade scripts. But with the advent of critical SaaS applications, server and storage virtualization, VoIP, and other new technologies, network management has become more complex. The steep learning curves, or time-to-productivity involved with HP Openview, IBM Tivoli and other monitoring and diagnostic solutions can be prohibitive. Also, the speed at which technologies are changing make it difficult to stay current.

Companies Must Now Do More with Less

It is easy to say that organizations must be more current and comprehensive in all aspects of their information technology – network management, backup and other procedures. But most IT departments are stretched and cannot afford to devote the kind of resources necessary to operate the network at optimal levels. In fact, Aberdeen Group reports that a recent study shows 44% of organizations intend on outsourcing a portion of their network management services because of budget or lack of headcount. The reality is that most enterprises count on increased productivity using fewer resources and reward employees who can demonstrate they can do more with less.

If Variety is What You Want, Variety is What You've Got

For companies looking to improve their network management system, the good news is that there are an incredible number of options available to you that offer point solutions for specific network problems or tasks. These options encompass open source, commercial or a combination of the two. Some are open source die-hards and as such, implement applications such as Nagios, Cacti or MRTG for their network monitoring needs. However, if your IT staff isn't well versed in writing code to customize these open source applications, there can be inherent difficulties in implementing them. There are also commercial point-products available in the market, many of which are free. SolarWinds offers a TFTP diagnostic tool from, and Spiceworks offers a PC inventory tool, for example, and so-on-so-forth. Most recently, a host of hybrid companies like Hyperic and GroundWorks are customizing open source tools and adding a support element to its business model. But that topic sparks significant debate in and of itself so it should be saved for another day.

The Problem with Today's Network Management Products

In other words, few products can address all network management needs so most IT infrastructures are managed by dozens of disparate point products. What this means for IT departments is a patched-together network that has too many parts to manage, little-to-no integration and support calls to different help desks. And while every network management vendor says its solution is "easy-to-use", I think we all agree with eWeek's networking editor Paula Musich when she says, "Vendor solutions are getting too long in the tooth." In addition to the above, today's products lack good network visibility, are expensive, and often have steep learning curves.

The Solution

Today's IT departments need a straightforward, simplistic and comprehensive network monitoring and diagnostic solution that does what it says it does. Following is a list of recommended features and functions when evaluating a network management solution.

Time to Productivity – Takes less than 15 minutes to implement. Quick implementation usually means the network management system should have network discovery feature, as well as switch port mapper, and fast configuration capabilities.

Good visibility – A solution that includes a monitoring dashboard with charts or graphs that display the health of your network at-a-glance. Your solution should also include the ability to easily change your perspective from your network to a remote office network for troubleshooting and remediation purposes.

Integrated – The most efficient and effective way to manage your network is to implement a solution that provides monitoring, diagnostic, troubleshooting, and remediation capabilities. In other words, your solution should enable you to monitor your network, alert you to a problem, diagnose it, and then drill-down further. For example, a solution that has a traffic-flow tool that allows you to find the traffic issue and then integrates other tools that allow you to shut down a port if unauthorized traffic is sucking up resources.

Setting Baselines – IT managers are riddled with "false positive" alerts that take up time and effort. A solution that allows you to set baselines customized to your network is an important way to eliminate the "false positive" issue.

Historical Reporting and Alerts – IT managers constantly need to battle for every dime of their budget so a network management system that includes database features that enable historical reporting allows users to present actual data about the issues relating to the network.

Organizations must look beyond the conventional approaches and toward network management systems that incorporate the best in component technologies. To do less will probably assure being an early casualty of the tremendous changes coming to the network. The best of the most comprehensive offerings are by HP, IBM and CA, but they are also the most expensive and complicated to maintain. AdventNet and PacketTrap provide good alternatives that focus on usability, affordability and incorporation of only the most critical and necessary features.

Steve Goodman is CEO of PacketTrap Networks

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