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Network management tool sprawl plagues IT organizations

More network management tools often lead to manual errors and network trouble. Instead, consider tool integration and how existing tools can fix new problems.

How many tools do you use to manage, monitor and troubleshoot your networks?

I talk with many network infrastructure and operations professionals, and their answers to this question can be shocking. One network engineer once estimated his company had 75 network management tools. His organization had multiple teams responsible for network management, and each team had its own preferred tool sets.

Network teams have significantly expanded their tool sets over the last four years, according to recent research from analyst firm Enterprise Management Associates (EMA). The research, "Network Management Megatrends," is a biennial report that benchmarks network operations tools and practices. The latest research surveyed more than 400 IT organizations.

In 2020, 41% of network teams used four or five tools to manage their networks. This year, only 23% use four or five tools. Meanwhile, the number of teams that use 11 to 15 tools increased from 9% in 2020 to 22% in 2022.

"We're close to 20 tools and six or eight vendors," an IT operations manager with one of the world's largest government agencies said. "Some of those tools don't have a lot of people using them because they are specialized, maybe for a specific vendor."

Why is tool sprawl getting worse?

EMA data showed the larger a company is and the larger its network is, the more tools the network team uses. In other words, with more complexity comes more tools.

Perceptions of tool sprawl also vary depending on where you are in an organization. In our research, network engineers and architects reported a higher number of tools in use than IT middle managers and IT executives. Upper management has no idea how bad this problem is.

Network management teams tend to add a new tool every time they need to solve a new management problem. For instance, our research found the cloud, work-from-home initiatives and IoT all prompt network teams to invest in new management tools. They often fail to examine whether existing tools can be adapted to solve new problems.

"The issue is tools aren't fully onboarded, so you're not using them to their full capacity. People will be working on a tool project and then have to ditch it for a new project," a network engineer at a Fortune 500 bank said. "Companies tend to buy a lot of tools and use them only for 10% of their functionality. It isn't that the new tools can do something that the old tools can't do. It's just that the new tool was sold to somebody who wasn't technical enough to understand that we already had tools that could do the job just as well."

Why is network management tool sprawl a problem?

As network management tool sets increase, workflows become more fragmented. More importantly, network data becomes unwieldly. According to our research, network teams with large tool sets are more likely to struggle with network data quality and conflicts. They are also more likely to struggle when collaborating with other groups in the IT organization.

"I have to use two or three tools to troubleshoot an issue," a network engineer with a Fortune 100 manufacturer said. "As an experienced network engineer, it's easy for me to correlate that data across tools. But, if I present that data to a nonexpert, he will have a hard time correlating it."

With fragmented tool sets and data sets, network managers are more likely to make mistakes. Our research found a direct correlation between the size of a network management tool set and the frequency of network trouble caused by manual errors.

In the average enterprise, 27% of all network problems are caused by manual error, such as a bad configuration change. Network teams that use between one and three tools reported only a 23% error rate. Teams that use 21 or more tools reported a 34% error rate.

What should you do?

Network team leaders should be more strategic about their tool sets. If you're locked into a tool sprawl situation, look for ways to integrate your tool sets.

Most vendors offer open APIs that facilitate data sharing between tools and integrate network management tools with an IT service management (ITSM) platform. Organizations can configure a network tool's alerting system to automatically open a ticket in an ITSM platform and infuse the ticket with all data relevant to an event.

For example, imagine a network performance management (NPM) tool that is integrated with a network configuration management (NCM) tool and an ITSM platform. When the NPM tool detects a fault, it could pull relevant config change data from the NCM system, open a ticket in ITSM, and add relevant NPM and NCM data to the ticket. When engineers review the ticket, they have multiple sources of data in one place to begin correlation and analysis.

In fact, network teams that have the largest management tool sets are the most likely to require third-party tool integration from their network management tool vendors.

Network managers should also think more strategically about tool procurement. EMA research found some network teams are extremely tactical with tool procurement, while others are more strategic. Twenty-three percent of network teams prefer to buy standalone, leading products. They don't integrate and consolidate. They simply buy a new tool when they need new functionality.

On the other end of the spectrum, 26% of network teams look for fully integrated, multifunction platforms. When they buy a network management tool, they look for how it can solve multiple problems at once. And, when a new requirement comes up, they look to the existing tool first before considering a new service.

Our research found these organizations are more likely to have a successful network operations team. On the other hand, organizations that follow a standalone, leading vendor approach to tool procurement have the least successful network operations teams.

The importance of proof of concept

It can be hard to navigate these waters. The network management tool market has experienced tremendous consolidation over the last 20 years.

Many vendors who present their products as unified, multifunction platforms are selling a suite of tools with varying levels of integration. In many cases, they do the hard work of consolidating these suites into true multifunction platforms, but it takes time to get there. The best way to see how well they've done is to install the product for a proof of concept (PoC) and see if it performs on your network.

Always ask a new vendor for a PoC, and see for yourself how well it works for you.

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