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IT network management and SMBs: What to look for

Resource-challenged small, medium-sized businesses need special tools to help them oversee their networks. What to look for.

Unexpected network slowdowns and outages continue to be one of the leading challenges for IT managers, especially those at small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). Industry-supplied IT network management tools aren't a panacea: Many are challenging to use and they often do not provide the insight required to remediate problems. As a result, IT administrators at SMBs can often be confused by the plethora of software, hardware and cloud-based network management and monitoring products that vendors contend can solve their problems.

Failure of traditional network suppliers

Network vendors continue to focus on technology and not necessarily the usability or management of their network products. New products deliver higher speed, port density, compact form factors and improved energy efficiency -- but at times they fall short in terms of being easy to install, use, troubleshoot and manage. IT managers typically are required to obtain detailed and lengthy training certifications (e.g., the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert or CCIE). SMB owners, meantime, struggle with the challenge and cost of recruiting network expertise to their IT organizations.

Trend towards increased complexity

These market forces are converging even as the complexity of managing and monitoring network operations continues to grow. Among the trends:

  • Wireless LAN. Almost all organizations now have wired and wireless LAN connectivity -- and each has its own unique skill set for network performance tuning and problem solving.
  • BYOD. Bring your own device is a mandate in many organizations. Providing network connectivity and security for a wide variety of devices (often on wireless networks) remains a challenge.
  • Wide area and branch networks. The new reality of work from anywhere, anytime complicates network operations. IT must provide secure VPN links to remote workers and Internet connectivity to all branch locations. Additionally, IT must manage cloud-based software as a service applications and data, ensuring they perform as needed.
  • Voice over IP (VoIP). Many organizations have migrated traditional voice services to VoIP. High-quality voice calls require low network latency, and IT managers must respond quickly in the wake of complaints about poor voice quality.
  • Security. IT organizations must secure their LANs and WANs against a variety of security challenges.

Plethora of network management tools

IT managers know they need help to troubleshoot their networks, but remain challenged about which products to evaluate and select to actually solve network issues. Among the options available:

  • Network vendor-supplied tools. All leading network gear suppliers offer their own network management products, including Cisco, Arista, HP, Brocade, Juniper, Aruba, Meru and others. Many of these products tend to be fairly specific to a given supplier's network gear and can be challenging to use in multivendor environments.
  • The key issue, especially for non-network gurus, is leveraging this array of data to actually solve the network problem.
  • Third-party IT network management products. Providers include CA, Fluke Networks, IBM, NetScout, Riverbed Technology and SolarWinds.
  • Cloud-based management tools. Offered by subscription, these "as a service" tools remotely monitor and manage wireless and wired networks.
  • Open source network management products. Among this group of suppliers are initiatives such as Zenoss or OpenNMS.

Network management requirements for SMBs

Next-generation network management products are able to capture more information than ever before. Leveraging deep packet inspection (DPI), these tools can track a wide range of variables on high speed networks, including device type and location, type of traffic, location of network slowdowns and outages, and network throughput.

The key issue, especially for non-network gurus, is leveraging this array of data to actually solve the network problem. The challenge is analogous to finding a needle in a haystack. Many tools create a tremendous amount of data (and lots of alerts), but provide little actionable information. Management tools that offer easy-to-understand network maps and graphic representations can help ease the complexity.

IT managers, particularly those overseeing networks at SMBs, need management products that automatically resolve problems based on "set and forget" policies. Most organizations are best served by network management products that are easy to install, can be integrated with IT systems management tools and can be operated by mainstream IT personnel.

Recommendations for SMB managers

Operating networks and solving network slowdowns and outages remain a challenge, especially for those organizations without experienced network engineers. IT managers need to evaluate network management tools in the context of overall IT systems management, including server and application management.

IT managers can be overwhelmed by the features and capabilities of the wide array of available network management products. They need to pick the right tools for their environment by seeking simple, easy products that provide digital dashboards and automatic problem resolution. Continued network complexity means that SMBs will continue to need assistance from network professionals, their value-added resellers and other outside consultants.

Next Steps

Adding business intelligence to network monitoring

Setting performance baselines

This was last published in January 2015

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