Network observability vs. monitoring: What's the difference?

Traditional network monitoring is useful for collecting data about network issues. But network observability can add further insights into network health and end-user experience.

Because of the recent increase in corporate work-from-home policies, network administrators are struggling to gain the necessary visibility and health insights required to assess network and cybersecurity performance from end to end.

When researching network visibility tools, many IT pros get confused about the differences between network monitoring and network observability. Below, we explain these differences and provide information on the benefits, potential challenges and use cases of each.

What is network monitoring?

When the topic of network visibility comes up, most networking professionals tend to think of network monitoring. Network monitoring tools are deployed in multiple ways throughout corporate networks. They provide a centralized view of the operational health of the underlying infrastructure that transports data from one part of a network to the other.

Common network monitoring protocols, methods and technologies include the following:

  • Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) polls and traps;
  • device or network up/down monitoring using Internet Control Message Protocol;
  • NetFlow and flow variants, such as sFlow and J-Flow; and
  • network logging and alerting.

Network monitoring typically requires human intervention to first baseline normal network and traffic behavior. Then, monitoring tools identify and alert teams about changes to the expected behavior.

For example, teams can use SNMP to baseline throughput behavior of a critical network link over time. Once administrators determine the baseline behavior, the monitoring tool can alert them when throughput behavior spikes above what's typical. A network operations (NetOps) technician then fields the alert and troubleshoots why the change in network behavior occurred.

network observability vs. network monitoring comparison chart
Compare the differences between network observability and network monitoring.

What is network observability?

While monitoring provides all the relevant data and metrics required to manage a network, large networks can create too much data and too many alerts to be handled using manual processes. Monitoring on its own often leads to what's known as network monitoring fatigue. When this happens, network administrators don't properly address alerts and oddities that network monitoring tools detected in a timely manner. This can lead to a network that becomes less optimal over time.

Network observability tools build on the data collected with network monitoring and offer a more efficient and scalable approach to maintaining the proper health of a network.

Observability tends to focus less on the networking components themselves and instead on the experience from an end-user perspective. It places greater focus on monitoring performance metrics from one end of a connection to another, as opposed to monitoring each individual network device in between.

Network observability tools were developed to assist with data analysis that monitoring tools identify. They also provide deeper analysis using automated methods that seek to find the root cause of a network performance issue. If implemented properly, observability tools can significantly speed up the time it takes to resolve network issues.

Techniques such as streaming network telemetry, deep packet inspection and AI are integrated into observability tools to help answer why a user, group or entire organization is experiencing network-related problems. The result is a platform or set of tools that provide automated context into what the problem is, where it occurred and how to fix it.

When to use network monitoring and network observability tools

Teams should deploy network monitoring tools in any enterprise network that aims to maintain proper uptime and performance for those that use it. Monitoring provides the bare minimum in terms of giving NetOps teams what they need to identify problems so they can start resolving them.

Network observability tools build on the data collected with network monitoring and offer a more efficient and scalable approach to maintaining the proper health of a network. Thus, observability tools may be a good fit for network teams that are reaching their network monitoring fatigue limit or for organizations aiming to move to a lean IT model.

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