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Network Management Best Practices and Tools to Use [Guide]

Network Management is a broad and complex concept. It encompasses several different processes and tasks that combine to ensure the smooth operation of networks. Today, we’re having a look at some of the best practices of network management as well as the best tools available to assist you with these. As you’re about to discover there are different components to network management and each is probably as important as the next. Whether you’re looking for network management software tools or you simply want to make sure you don’t omit anything important, we fell that you’ll find something useful in this post.

We’ll begin our exploration of network management by a generic overview of what it is. That will ensure that we all start on the same page. Then, we’ll have a more detailed look at some of the network management best practices. We’ll first look at network bandwidth monitoring, then network traffic analysis, device configuration and change management, switch port and user monitoring and tracking, WAN performance monitoring, and IP address management. Then, we’ll have a look at a few of the very best integrated tools for network management.

Network Management In A Nutshell

It seems that everyone has his own idea of what network management is or what it should be. This makes defining the concept a bit complicated. In a nutshell, network management comprises all the processes, systems, and tools that are used to ensure the smooth operation of networks. Things like bandwidth monitoring, traffic analysis, device configuration and change management are, for instance, part of network management. We’ll discuss the various component in greater detail shortly.

When it comes to network management tools, things tend to get even more complex. Various vendors have different offerings that they call network management tools but their feature sets vary greatly. Some tools are big, multi-purpose packages that can accomplish several network management tasks while others are bundles of individual tools sold together by a vendor. Sometimes, these tools are integrated under a common GUI but often they are really individual tools. The main advantage of such bundles is often financial as you can usually get the bundle for less than the price of the individual components purchased separately.

Network Management Best Practices

We’ve compiled a list of various network management practices and processes. It is not necessarily an all-inclusive list. Instead, we’ve chosen to include processes and tasks that are typically included in network management software tools. While some tools do encompass all of these processes, some only implement a subset of them. But no matter what, they are all part of network management best practices.

Network Bandwidth Monitoring

Don’t we all wish our network had infinite bandwidth? Despite the fact that technology has evolved immensely and that bandwidth is not as expensive as it once was, it is still a limited resource. And congestion is still one of the biggest issues with every network. Congestion is the immediate consequence of the current throughput approaching or exceeding the available bandwidth. Its effect is a noticeable hit on network performance. When you have a congested network, users do notice it.

As a rule of thumb, it’s preferable to keep the 5-minute average bandwidth utilization below 70% of the maximum available bandwidth. On a 1 Gb/s interface, for instance, average utilization should never exceed 700 Mb/s. To keep that from happening, you need to keep a close eye on the actual network traffic level. This is what bandwidth monitoring is.

You may think of a network as a highway where congestion is similar to traffic jams. But unlike automobile traffic which one can easily view, network traffic happens within cables, switches, and routers—or even over the air with wireless networks—where it remains invisible. This is where network bandwidth monitoring can be useful. It gives network administrators the visibility they need to keep things running smoothly.

Another reason for network bandwidth monitoring is capacity planning. Network usage always tends to increase over time. No matter what bandwidth your network currently has, chances are it will eventually need to be increased. By monitoring bandwidth utilization, you’ll always know what segment of the network needs to be upgraded and when.

Most of the best bandwidth monitoring tools rely on the Simple Network Management Protocol, or SNMP, to accomplish their feat. SNMP lets monitoring tools read traffic counters directly from networking devices, allowing them to calculate the average bandwidth utilization and display it along with its evolution over time in a graphical or tabular format.

Network Traffic Analysis

While bandwidth monitoring tools are great to measure the utilization of a network, they don’t tell much about the nature of that utilization. Sometimes, it could be very useful to know what type of traffic or what users are utilizing the available bandwidth. This is where network traffic analysis comes in.

Analyzing network traffic can provide such information as the distribution of traffic by type. For instance, while SNMP monitoring would tell you that a given circuit is used at 90% of its capacity (a figure that is, incidentally, way too high and shall be avoided at all costs), network traffic analysis could tell you that 80% of that traffic is web browsing and that 10% of it is email. But it doesn’t stop at traffic types. Traffic could also be reported by source and/or destination IP address. In the previous example, you could be able to see what precise website is behind most of this web browsing traffic. And by adding some extra intelligence and connecting the monitoring tool to other components of the infrastructure such as the AD domain controllers, traffic can also be viewed by user.

Network traffic analysis tools use a variety of technologies to do their magic. One of these is Cisco’s NetFlow technology. Originally only available on Cisco devices, it is now present of equipment from many vendors in one form or another. Several vendors have their own versions such as Juniper’s J-Flow or InMon’s sFlow. While they all have differences, they all accomplish the same goal.

Device Configuration And Change Management

More than anything network configuration and change management has to do with documenting and/or somehow preserving device configuration data. Whenever a network switch breaks and needs to be replaced, wouldn’t you rather pull its configuration from some archive than have to redo it from scratch? Especially when considering how this can lead to useless delays and inconsistencies.

Device configuration management also helps with deploying standard device configurations. This makes maintenance much easier and also helps with troubleshooting. The configuration standardization offered by configuration management can also help with regulatory compliance. Several regulatory frameworks—such as PCI/DSS, for instance—have strict guidelines as to how switches should be configured and what configuration options should and should not be present. Configuration management will help you audit switches and demonstrate their compliance.

As for the change management part of this activity, its primary purposes are auditing switch configuration for unauthorized changes as well as demonstrating adherence to change management processes. Haven’t we all heard of malicious users trying to gain access to corporate networks by first modifying networking devices configuration to put backdoors in place? Whether this is a true risk or an urban legend is open to debate but we’re never too careful and auditing device configuration for unauthorized changes important. And even if you’re not that paranoid, isn’t it always better to err on the side of caution.

Switch Port And User Monitoring And Tracking

Knowing what is connected to each port of his networking devices is any network administrator’s dream. And although you could thoroughly document everything as you build a network, a network is a living thing and, over time, undocumented changes will happen and you’ll lose track of what connects where. Even worse, you can often end up losing track of what ports are available. And while it would seem to be a simple matter of looking at your switch’s status, it could be misleading. One user could, for instance, be out to a meeting with his laptop computer, making his office connection appear to be available although it is not. Switch port and user monitoring and tracking tools will help you know what and who is connected to each and every port on your network.

WAN Performance Monitoring

WAN performance monitoring is almost identical to bandwidth monitoring. The main difference lies in the fact that WAN circuits typically have lower bandwidth than local networks and, as such, are easily congested. Also, the adverse effects of WAN congestion have a tendency to have much more impact than its LAN counterpart. It’s actually not that rare to see extreme WAN congestion situation be so bad that a whole site loses access to the corporate network. Although the costs of WAN are not as high as they once were and it is common today to have decent bandwidth on WAN circuits, they are rarely as wide as local networks. For that reason, they need to be closely monitored.

IP Address Management

IP Address Management, or IPAM, is the process of managing IP address allocation as well as establishing an IP addressing plan. It may seem trivial to many but in reality, this is one of the most important parts of network administration. It is also the part that is typically given the less thought and, consequently, where many issues can develop.

Managing IP addresses can be as simple as keeping a spreadsheet of what address is assigned to what resource. This is a simple and efficient way to do it—and a cheap one too—but it has a few flaws. First, it assumes that each and every change will be correctly documented. This is where problems start to roll in as the documentation is rarely kept up to date.

The best IPAM tools will often interact with—or take control of—your DNS and DHCP servers. It makes sense as the former is what is used to resolve hostnames into IP addresses while the latter automatically assign addresses to end devices.

The Best Tools For Network Management

Now that we’re familiar with the best practices of network management it is time to have a look at what software tools are available to assist you with that considerable task. Not every tool includes every network management process and some include processes or tasks that we have not yet discussed. They all share one important thing, though: they are designed to help network administrators with their management tasks. This is a rather short list but our goal was to give you an idea of what’s available while reviewing the very best products from some of the most reliable vendors.

1. SolarWinds Network Automation Manager (FREE TRIAL)

Most network administrators have heard of SolarWinds. After all, the company’s been there for about 20 years and it has brought us some of the best network management tools. Its flagship product, the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor, consistently features among the top SNMP monitoring products. And to add the icing on the cake, SolarWinds also makes a few dozen free tools designed to address some specific needs of network administrators. Among them, you’ll find an excellent subnet calculator and a TFTP server, just to name a few.

SolarWinds NPM Network Summary

When it comes to network management, the SolarWinds Network Automation Manager combines the benefits of several tools. Before we dig deeper, let’s have a quick glance at what the product has to offer in terms of features.

  • Performance monitoring
  • Traffic and bandwidth analysis
  • Configuration and change management
  • Switch port and end-user monitoring and tracking
  • WAN performance monitoring
  • IP address management

The SolarWinds Network Automation Manager is actually a bundle of several tools’ functionality, each covering on network management practice. This bundling of several essential tools provides the utmost convenience and the best value. Let’s have a deeper look at some of the bundle’s main features.

The performance monitoring component of this product is the Network Performance Monitor. It will help reduce or shorten network outages and quickly detect, diagnose, and resolve network performance issues. It has critical path hop-by-hop analysis and visualization from end to end. The tool will let you view network performance and traffic details, regardless of device location.

 

The SolarWinds NetFlow Traffic Analyzer is also included in this bundle. It will let you monitor interface-level traffic patterns with a fine granularity as low as up to one minute. It will collect and analyze NetFlow, sFlow, J-Flow, IPFIX, and NetStream data to identify users and applications that are generating and consuming bandwidth.

SolarWinds NetFlow Traffic Analyzer Dashboard

The configuration and change management module will let you monitor, back up, and deploy network device configurations, allowing you to recover quickly from hardware issues or human-caused configuration errors. The system can send real-time change notifications, helping to ensure that devices are configured and operating in compliance with any regulatory standard such as PCI, SOX, or HIPAA. Finally, this tool will let you compare configurations side-by-side letting you quickly determine what has changed.

SolarWinds NAM - Config And Change Summary

This all-in-one bundle will also let you understand how switches and ports are being used, as well as which switches are nearing their respective capacity. It will also let you know who and what is connected to your network, and when and where they are connected. It can track endpoint devices by MAC and IP addresses on both wired and wireless networks.

The WAN performance monitoring component of the excellent product goes much further than just SNMP monitoring. Using Cisco IP SLA technology, this tool will also let you simulate traffic data to test the network between a Cisco router and a remote IP device to measure the performance of key apps and services.

SolarWinds NAM - IP SLA

Finally, the tool’s IP address Management features automated subnet discovery and IP scanning which will scour your network and find how IP addresses are used. It will alert you if IP address conflicts, subnets/scopes depletion, or mismatched DNS. The power of this tool will find an open IP address and make the DHCP reservation and DNS entries in a single step and from a single console.

SolarWinds NAM - IP Address Management

Prices for the SolarWinds Network Automation Manager start can be obtained by contacting SolarWinds Sales. Optionally, a high-availability module can be added for better uptime and application and server monitoring is also available as an optional component. If you’d rather try the product before committing to its purchase, a free 30-day trial version is available from SolarWinds.

2. Micro Focus Network Operations Management

Micro Focus might not be as well-known by network administrators as SolarWinds but it is one of the best-known software publishing companies. It is particularly known for its software development tools but it also makes some administration tools. The Micro Focus Network Operations Management is one such tool. Although not as broad as the previous tool, this is still a very potent system. Its key capabilities include:

  • Topology, Health, and Configuration of Network Services
  • Performance and Capacity
  • Policy-Driven Configuration Management
  • Automation and Orchestration
  • Executive Dashboards and Custom Reporting

Micro Focus NOM

This tool will let you manage both physical and virtual networks as well as Software Defined Networks (SDN). It also claims to have The best scalability of any network monitoring and troubleshooting tool in the industry with 80K devices (monitoring) and 120K devices supported (configuration) per global domain. It also claims to the device coverage in the industry, supporting more than 180 vendors and 3,400 devices and delivering device support on a bi-monthly cadence.

Like it is often the case for this type of tool, pricing information can be obtained by contacting Micro Focus Sales. Note that a free 30-day trial is also available.

3. Cisco Tools

Cisco is such an important player in the networking field that we felt we had to include their network operations management offering on our list. Unfortunately, Cisco doesn’t have an integrated operations management tool. Instead, the vendor has many smaller tools, each addressing a different aspect of network operations management.

Cisco has several generic tools for network management such as the Cisco DNA Center, the Cisco Prime Infrastructure. The Cisco Prime Virtual Network Analysis Module which specializes in virtual networks of the Meraki Dashboard, a cloud-based management solution.

Cisco Prime Infrastructure

The vendor also has smaller tools targeting small and medium businesses. The Cisco Configuration Professional for Catalyst can be used to configure network switches via a web-based interface and the Cisco FindIT Manager can help improve security and performance. Cisco also offers several tools for network automation and data center management, both of which can be considered as part of the grand scheme of network operations management.

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