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Network configuration basics: Focus on users and software tools

When configuring a network, keep a detailed and updated document to track user needs and network changes. And, of course, take advantage of network configuration software.

Proper network configuration basics start by developing a clear understanding of user and security requirements, both internal and external.

For example, will end users simply read and send email or perform interactive work with specific response time requirements? Will some users have access to highly sensitive data? Will users be located in the same facility or be remote? And will some users connect via mobile devices?

Finally, the goals and requirements must be clearly documented, understood and agreed upon by users. No one will be happy if response times or throughput do not meet expectations.

No network is static because organizations change routinely and new applications are adopted. Therefore, the document prepared to describe the initial network requirements and how they are met must be kept up to date. Equally important, the updated document should describe each requirement change and the corresponding network modification.

The crucial role of network configuration software

Long ago, you could configure a network manually. Those days are over. Networks today are too complex. The process of logging into each device and typing in each configuration parameter is a realistic option for only the smallest networks.

Disciplined network configuration basics and update practices, along with certain software products, can help network managers prevent problems before they occur.

Network managers now rely on robust configuration software that is available from several vendors and sites. These tools offload the work of connecting with each device, automate updates and maintain records of past configurations. They are often integrated with other products, such as network monitors, which further help maintain the network.

Network configuration software plays two crucial roles. First, it provides a baseline that describes the current state of the network. Second, it eases the task of applying updates, a particularly helpful benefit as networks evolve and new configuration changes are needed. Many packages allow you to specify changes but not apply them until times when users are not active.

Using config programs when problems occur

Despite following careful network configuration basics, policies and procedures, problems can occur. And when those happen, it's tempting to fix issues as quickly as possible without using your network configuration software as a resource. That could be a mistake.

It's easy to miss needed changes. For example, let's say you must add an end user to a subnet, but no IP address is available on that net. You must change the mask defining that subnet and the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol server must allocate more addresses.

This is a seemingly simple modification, but it may require a substantial update to subnet assignments across a major section of the network. Virtual LAN assignments and default gateways may also need to be adjusted.

The configurator can perform such tasks much more efficiently, while ensuring peace of mind and preventing future problems. Even if a quick change without using the configurator does not lead to immediate problems, issues might develop later when it's time for a more significant update. That's because the configurator's record of the network will no longer be accurate. If a new update is applied to an incorrect view of the network, the new configuration will create additional inconsistencies and problems.

Measure traffic levels, catch problems early

Configuration software is just one of several tools designed to help IT track network performance issues. Traffic builds up over time as more users are added or as users begin to use an interactive application more intensively. More capacity may be needed, but you might not notice until the load builds to a point where users start to experience poor response times.

These types of problems can be spotted before they become critical by using a network monitor product to measure and record traffic levels periodically throughout the network. These products produce charts and graphs that display traffic levels over time so capacity can be increased before performance suffers.

Monitor software can also detect and report components that are beginning to fail, so they can be replaced before a hard failure occurs. Monitor products are often available from the same vendors that offer configuration software.

Another issue: Complications can result during a network change because someone pulled the wrong cable from a switch port; it's easy to lose track of which cable is which. Cable management software can reduce these errors by generating labels to attach to each end of each cable and by maintaining a record of the path each cable takes. You can use these products with diagramming software, such as Visio, to illustrate each cable's path across a building's blueprints.

The bottom line: Disciplined network configuration basics and update practices, along with certain software products, can help network managers prevent problems before they occur.

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