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Will network management functions as a service arrive soon?

Network management as a service isn't widespread, at least not yet. But if past history is any indication, its popularity is bound to grow, once certain hurdles are overcome.

Almost every kind of IT activity once performed on premises and through customized software can now be lifted and shifted to the cloud. Often, but not always, this results in a happily-ever-after situation that is good for vendors, good for IT and good for business.

Yet when it comes to the complex task of handling network management functions, that trip to cloud nine can be anything but smooth.

Not 'pervasive or popular' ... yet

Many things have changed in recent years regarding where applications are likely to live, noted Andrew Wertkin, CTO of BlueCat Networks, which helps organizations centralize and automate domain name system services. Wertkin said the data center was once the obvious answer, but, with the rise of cloud delivery, software from third parties often lives somewhere else. Furthermore, organizations today have more data moving between their internal machines and cloud-based resources than ever before. But where in the cloud?

"The way the applications are architected is different," Wertkin said. Office 365, for example, is available worldwide from Microsoft's Azure data centers. "If I have an operation in Italy, I don't want to have all my [Office 365] traffic routed to a cloud site in Sweden," he noted.

But if you do, that's the kind of bandwidth issue you need to know about. And with so many growing challenges, organizations are looking for new ways to get on top of network challenges. One answer may be network management as a service, or NMaaS, where oversight of a corporate network management functions are handed off to a third party.

That said, network management functions "as a service is still not as pervasive or as popular as one might expect," said Jay Botelho, senior director of products at Savvius, a network performance management vendor. "On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer; NetOps teams are shrinking while demands on the group are increasing," he said. Thus, outsourcing would seem like the logical option. But NMaaS is still more of a service than a turnkey product today. That's because network performance monitoring and diagnostics (NPMD) tools are generally optimized for use by single enterprises, not by managed service providers, according to Botelho. "So the end user still ends up deploying NPMD systems on their network to collect data and, at best, gets a third party to monitor the data and respond to issues as they arise," he said.

Outsourcing would seem like the logical option. But NMaaS is still more of a service than a turnkey product today.

On the other hand, according to Erik Thoen, vice president of product management at 128 Technology, a maker of software-based routers, there is a clear movement among many vendors, value-added resellers and systems integrators to become managed service providers. This appeals to "a lot of enterprises without an internal IT capability, so a lot of managed service providers are now operating NMaaS," Thoen said. However, he noted, the scope of offerings varies, "especially on the managed services side where many entities are talking about other products. For example, they might even take our product and host it in the cloud."

Outsourced network management functions: What to consider

In fact, there are a growing number of vendors building out their software to perform network management functions delivered as a service, said Bob Laliberte, a practice director with Enterprise Strategy Group. Cloud's appeal is that it eliminates the need to host a management application on-site with all the associated hardware costs. Some physical data collectors would still be required to send performance data to the app, but those would be minimal.

The cloud also eliminates the need for patching and upgrading software. Those functions would be handled by the vendor. In considering NMaaS, Laliberte said organizations should understand the underlying architectures, which in some cases could simply be individual licenses. "After that, it would come down to the cost model of Opex versus Capex, along with maintenance," he said.

Laliberte said it is important to find out how the NMaaS offering charges and to determine the cost model and whether there any ingress charges for data collected. One of the other big issues, he added, is security. "If you are in a regulated industry or have sensitive information traversing your network and that data is being sent to the cloud, make sure to get the security team engaged and that they approve the model."

NMaaS also enables the collection and dissemination of benchmarking data, which companies can use to determine how their networks compare to those of their peers. "It is a capability that could be very helpful for organizations to understand and to improve their own environment," Laliberte said.

AI, meantime, is also beginning to change the nature of network management. The addition of machine learning and other automation tools will force enterprises to reskill their workforce, turning network pros into "knowledge engineers rather than just people managing panes of glass," according to Miguel Myhrer, managing director and North American network lead at Accenture.

From a business perspective, the way data is used is always changing. The only way to get real value is to move the right data to the right people or machines at the right time and in the correct context, said Michael Fauscete, chief research officer at G2 Crowd, a review site for business software and services. "All of these needs converge at the infrastructure, and many systems were not designed to deal with the massively increasing bandwidth needs, consolidation needs and integration needs," he said. That strategic need is stretching businesses processes and technical capabilities. And that, in turn, is driving the overall pressure to "consume network assets from a cloud provider that can provide a more elastic and scalable system," Fauscete said. Thus, although NMaaS is less mature than other cloud offerings, he noted, "if history is any indication, the offerings will improve very quickly and provide an important set of assets to network managers."

Given the general trend toward cloud-centric thinking, it's easy to imagine a rapid increase in the outsourcing of network management functions. Most likely, this will follow the well-worn path of a few early adopters, followed by some large enterprises, and then the movement can become self-sustaining. That's not to suggest there will be no on-premises network performance monitoring tools, but the center will shift toward the cloud.

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