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Enterprise networks are difficult to manage, even with the most sophisticated tools and practices. Challenges can degrade network performance and security if not properly managed.
As networks expand past corporate office boundaries into branch offices, cloud environments and remote workforces, network teams must identify challenges and use a combination of tools to simplify network operations (NetOps) roles.
Despite the several challenges NetOps teams might face, they can follow a number of best practices to simplify operations. Additionally, cloud network environments and associated tools can help alleviate network management pain points.
Network operations challenges
NetOps is an aspect of IT that focuses on how organizations deliver network services to users on a preexisting network infrastructure. Because the network already exists, teams have some limitations to what adds and changes they can make to the equipment that delivers services, keeps network traffic secure and ensures traffic flows at optimal levels.
Operations challenges that NetOps teams face include the following:
- Keeping pace with other areas of IT.
- Incident response and time to resolution.
- Network maintenance.
Networks previously had well-defined boundaries that teams needed to maintain. Now, modern networks have expanded to support various cloud services and remote workforces across large geographic areas. Portions of network traffic can traverse networks that aren't managed in-house, such as cloud networks or the internet, which complicates end-to-end visibility requirements.
When business goals change, it often requires changes to the applications and services that employees use for day-to-day business operations. Modern NetOps teams need to be ready to scale network infrastructure up or down at any notice.
Given the growing number of network security threats, NetOps teams should continuously assess their security posture to ensure sensitive internal or customer data remains protected from data theft or loss.
Keeping pace with other areas of IT
Other areas of IT, like server management, software development and cloud computing, have adopted advanced automation that could outpace what NetOps teams have in their toolboxes. It creates a bottleneck, as other aspects of IT need to wait for NetOps teams to conduct adds and changes to the network manually.
Incident response and time to resolution
As networks increasingly grow larger and become more complex, it puts pressure on NetOps teams to identify and remediate performance and security issues.
A large part of the NetOps role involves general network maintenance that ensures the network runs at optimal levels. General network maintenance tasks include the following:
- Network hardware patching.
- Regular configuration audits.
- Performance optimization.
- Maintenance of network diagrams and documentation.
These tasks could fall behind quickly if NetOps teams don't use proper tools and processes.
Best practices to simplify network operations
NetOps managers need a well-defined plan to outline the various tasks for which administrators are responsible. For smaller NetOps teams, all members need to understand the responsibilities and associated processes. Larger teams, on the other hand, can divide tasks within the team as long as they have sufficient backup available.
Common NetOps tasks include the following:
- Network performance and security monitoring.
- Incident response practices and service-level agreements.
- Patch management.
- Configuration backups.
- Scale-up and scale-down processes.
- Configuration standards.
- Configuration and security audits.
NetOps teams must also be involved in other areas of IT as they plan to add new infrastructure hardware, applications and other services to ensure the network can handle the new or modified data flows.
To make it easier for NetOps teams to keep up with the pace of business digital transformation, organizations should identify and implement network monitoring, automation and management tools. These tools help teams identify various network incidents; speed up the process of network service moves, adds and changes; and help maintain up-to-date network architecture and procedure documentation.
While these tools can be beneficial, too many overlapping tools can hinder NetOps efficiency in some cases. NetOps teams should routinely vet and replace tools as needed through an annual auditing process.
Cloud networking can help with network management
When NetOps teams manage private networks, they must ensure the networks are optimal and secure. It takes a great deal of preparation to formulate efficient processes and tools to assist with network maintenance.
In many cases, IaaS clouds can simplify this preparation process, as cloud service providers often include the necessary tools and documentation to facilitate NetOps practices. This includes automated tools to patch cloud network appliances, network monitoring, security and performance dashboards.
Cloud networks often take on tasks that were originally the responsibility of in-house NetOps staff. While this limits what tools and processes NetOps teams can use, most large cloud providers spend a great deal of time managing customer cloud networks as efficiently as possible.
Andrew Froehlich is founder of InfraMomentum, an enterprise IT research and analyst firm, and president of West Gate Networks, an IT consulting company. He has been involved in enterprise IT for more than 20 years.