What is network management and why is it important?
A cornerstone of all computing is the ability to connect one machine, system or device to another -- enabling what is known as a computer network.
As a computer network grows from a handful of machines to hundreds or thousands of connected network devices, the network complexity also grows. The ability to effectively operate, monitor and control an entire network is the domain of network management.
Network management is a multifaceted discipline that provides network administrators with network management tools, protocols and processes to empower optimized network operations. Network management encompasses several capabilities that are important to network optimization and ongoing availability. Among the key components of network management are the following:
- network performance monitoring
- network monitoring
- network maintenance
- network configuration management
- network provisioning
Network management is an important component of modern IT operations and service delivery. Over time, as networks grows, new applications and services are added. And, as configurations shift, there can be an effect on the network. Network management enables administrators to manage and monitor the network, ensuring overall reliability, availability and performance.
Any network downtime can also have a significant effect on network management. But well-executed network management tools can mitigate the risks and impact of downtime.
How does network management work?
The first step in network management is collecting information from the network that is being managed. The information comes from network devices, such as routers, switches and wireless access points. Data can also be collected via software-based agents in a virtual or cloud service that provide visibility into network and application data traffic flows.
There are a number of common protocols used for network management, including SNMP, NETCONF, RESTCONF and gNMI:
- SNMP. Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) is commonly deployed on networking devices as a decades-old approach for obtaining network information.
- NETCONF. Network Configuration Protocol (NETCONF) is a protocol for network configuration that provides mechanisms for network management tools and administrators to configure connected network devices.
- RESTCONF. The RESTCONF protocol builds on top of NETCONF using a RESTful application programming interface-based approach to update and change network configuration.
- gNMI. The gRPC Network Management Interface (gNMI) protocol provides a way to obtain the given state for a network device or service, as well as the ability to manipulate and modify the configuration for the device.
Network management systems (NMSes) are how most network administrators choose to manage an entire network. An NMS integrates network management protocol support and approaches to identify various elements on a network. An NMS provides capabilities to enable visibility into network flows for performance and availability monitoring. It also provides the ability to make policy and configuration changes to remediate issues and optimize operations.
Modern NMSes are also increasingly using artificial intelligence network management, which provides AI-based suggestions and automation for network management.
Network management benefits and challenges
Network management provides several important benefits to organizations and their users. Network management capabilities are important so organizations can have some degree of insight and control of the network that delivers applications and services.
Network management benefits
- Network visibility. Among the primary benefits of network management is that it provides visibility into the network. Having the ability to monitor a network is a foundational component of good IT best practices.
- Downtime detection. The ability to detect if part or all of a network is down is another key benefit of network management. Downtime is a business-critical event for organizations, and being able to quickly detect and remediate network downtime is of the utmost importance.
- Performance optimization. A slow network can also have a significant effect on an organization. The ability to identify and optimize network performance is another benefit of network management technology and tools.
But network management isn't always an easy task. There are some challenges that face network administrators.
Network management challenges
- Ephemeral IP addresses. Identifying network devices and users was traditionally done via an IP address. With virtualized and container-based applications, the use of ephemeral or elastic IP addresses can represent a challenge for identifying users, applications and services.
- Multisite network administration. Larger networks that span multiple physical and virtual deployments can be complex to manage.
- Cloud and hybrid deployments. Modern organizations typically use a mix of on-premises and cloud services. Having visibility and control over both types of networks in a unified approach can be a challenge.
Cloud-based vs. on-premises network management
Network management can be deployed in an on-premises or cloud-based model. There are benefits to both approaches, as well as potential challenges.
With on-premises systems, network management tools are often installed and operated by network administrators within the organization. On-premises deployments can also be handled by a managed network services provider that remotely monitors and maintains an organization's network. On-premises network management deployments can benefit from lower latency, as the network that is being monitored is the same network that is being managed. Security can also potentially be stronger for an on-premises deployment, as access control can be tightly controlled and monitored by the organization.
With cloud-based approaches, network management is provided in a software-as-a-service model. Cloud-based network management reduces the burden on an organization to set up and maintain its own on-premises network management deployment. Cloud-based network management also offers potentially improved reliability, as it is provisioned and maintained on a network other than the network that it is monitoring. Cloud-based approaches can often provide better remote access for administration and are typically delivered in a subscription model that can provide lower costs for organizations.