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Challenges, best practices for network operations management

Traditional network operations teams are struggling with several aspects of network management. Experts weigh in on why, and what to do to simplify operations.

Network operations has undergone several changes in recent years to support the evolving networking landscape. Factors such as the rise of digital transformation and the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a new era of network operations. Network professionals use new technologies and frameworks to transform their once static, manual-driven networks into dynamic, programmable, software-defined networks capable of connecting a wide range of users and serving their use cases.

As networks grow more complex, they become difficult to manage. New networking technologies could help teams ensure optimal network performance and support their organization's business needs. Before putting any of these new methodologies into practice, though, teams must first ensure network performance. This may be a challenging task, as many network teams struggle with network operations today, said Shamus McGillicuddy, vice president of research at Enterprise Management Associates (EMA), in a recent webinar.

In a survey of network professionals from 409 IT organizations, only 27% of respondents told EMA they believed their network operations teams were successful. The percentage of professionals who said they believed their teams were effective has been decreasing since 2016 -- when 49% of respondents said they believed so -- at a rate McGillicuddy said he believed to be troubling.

So, what's causing these struggles among network operations teams? According to McGillicuddy, an overabundance of management tools was one of the biggest issues. Staffing shortages, cloud complexity and the lack of cross-collaboration between teams were also some of the top reported challenges McGillicuddy noted.

Staffing insufficiencies

Approximately 27% of the surveyed organizations told EMA their networking teams experienced a shortage of skilled networking professionals. While the logical next step is to employ more staff, 13% of organizations reported they find it difficult to hire and retain networking personnel. Several factors contribute to this challenge, such as limited skill sets among candidates and providing employee benefits.

Limited skill sets

About 47% of organizations told EMA that applicants lacked specialized skills, while 40% said the talent pool is too inexperienced. The top skills organizations found the most difficult to hire for included security, automation, monitoring, troubleshooting and public cloud networking skills.

Because hiring skilled staff can be difficult, organizations might find it valuable to invest more money into network management and alleviate some of the burden on network teams, according to Nemertes Research analyst John Burke.

"Consuming more managed services, making broader use of professional services and investing in the tooling and training that will give the network staff more leverage on their problems will make it easier for them to get more done," Burke said.

When McGillicuddy asked organizations if they believed using a commercial network automation tool would mitigate the effects of a lack of experienced staff, he said 79% of companies at least somewhat agreed with the notion.

Employee benefits

Another 40% of organizations told EMA they weren't able to offer the benefits prospective employees expect. A little less than 34% of organizations told EMA that applicants had certain salary expectations they couldn't match.

Enterprises could address the issue of untrained staff and benefit their existing networking personnel at the same time. For example, they could invest in training current staff and reward them for improving their skill set, Burke said.

"Compensate network professionals for learning new skill sets that will make them more effective," Burke said. "Really, it's going to come down to giving them time to develop new skills and rewarding them for learning new skills and applying them."

Cloud complexity

Networking is undergoing a shift toward the cloud, and research suggests the significance of the progression. More than half of the surveyed organizations told EMA that cloud was an important aspect of their network operations management. Around 54% said public cloud and multi-cloud were important initiatives to their network operations strategies, while 52% said cloud-native applications were important.

"Cloud is the strategic driver of NetOps," McGillicuddy said.

Results from EMA's 2022 survey marked the first time since 2008 that server virtualization missed the top spot as the number-one network operations initiative. Now, McGillicuddy said, server virtualization is at the bottom of the list, and cloud has overtaken it.

Even though cloud has become the top driver fueling network operations, it hasn't done so without its share of challenges. According to McGillicuddy, network professionals are struggling with the explosion of complexity and lack of control when running a multi-cloud architecture.

About 91% of organizations told EMA that their network operations teams used management tools to manage their public clouds, but only 18% said they believed their strategies were effective in providing visibility into the cloud. One way network teams are trying to simplify this complexity is by retooling how they use cloud, McGillicuddy said.

Research from other analyst firms shows the same shift. IDC expects much of the networking industry to move toward cloud-based architectures in the future, according to Brandon Butler, research manager at IDC.

Cloud is the strategic driver of NetOps.
Shamus McGillicuddyVice president of research, EMA

With more applications hosted in the cloud, cloud has caused network teams to reassess how they configure a WAN, Butler said. Implementing architectures like software-defined WAN enables teams to increase the reliability and efficiency of their WAN -- and potentially reduce costs. Butler said organizations can use cloud-based management platforms in certain areas of their network while retaining the on-premises controllers and equipment that teams are comfortable using.

"In a lot of ways," Butler said, "this is going to be a journey for networking folks to be able to think, 'Where does cloud make sense for my organization?' and 'How do I need to change what I'm doing to enable my organization to take advantage of the benefits of cloud?'"

NetOps: To consolidate or not to consolidate?

Some experts believe integrating NetOps with other teams, such as DevOps and security, could help with cloud complexity and network operations. Other experts disagree, which only adds to the confusion and challenges of network operations management.

Around 60% of enterprises told EMA their organization has a DevOps team. More than 38% said they will combine their NetOps and DevOps teams, while almost 55% said their NetOps and DevOps teams will work closely together but won't formally consolidate. A miniscule 0.3% of organizations said their teams would have little communication.

"If less than half a percent say the NetOps and DevOps teams really don't need to talk at all, that tells you they should be talking," McGillicuddy said. "Everyone's doing it, at least to some degree."

With NetOps and DevOps consolidation, networking professionals would configure the network to better support developers working on applications. Networking professionals, in turn, would be able to configure and deploy those new applications more easily because they worked directly with the developers.

"The tighter the integration, the more they know what's going on, the more they understand the requirements, the more it enables teams to deliver an optimized solution," said Bob Laliberte, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG), a division of TechTarget.

Enterprises are also looking at integrating their networking and security teams, which can help network professionals manage environments as they grow complex and distributed, Laliberte said.

However, according to a 2021 research study from ESG titled "SASE Trends," 67% of 613 respondents at organizations with network and security teams in close collaboration reported experiencing organizational challenges, including conflicting goals, different orders of the chain of command and issues with communication.

According to Burke, it isn't necessary for most companies to combine teams. Instead, they can talk to each other more but don't necessarily need to be on the same team. A consolidation depends on the goals of an organization's network team, he added.

Best practices to improve network operations management

Although several network operations challenges exist, teams can follow just as many best practices to simplify network operations management. Some best practices McGillicuddy outlined include establishing cloud visibility for end-to-end network operations and upgrading a standard network operations center to a cross-domain NOC.

Teams should also be more open to embracing new technologies that could improve network operations, Laliberte said. For example, machine learning (ML) can help with network management by automating processes like root cause analysis, recommending methods for fixing a problem or fixing the issue entirely.

"As the environment continues to become more distributed, especially with the distributed workforce, the need to leverage those intelligence capabilities from AI/ML is going to become more important to effectively running network operations," Laliberte said.

Network professionals should keep in mind that it may not be enough to simply follow best practices or implement new technologies. Butler suggested network teams follow practices that best align with their organization's overall business strategy and goals.

"My biggest piece of advice is to understand what the business needs from the IT department and from the networking team specifically," Butler said. "All these technology and buying decisions should be driven by what the business needs from the network."

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