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Network Monitoring Best Practices And Tools to Use

Network monitoring is an essential part of any respectable corporate network. It is the best way to ensure that a watchful eye is kept on every element of the network, that usage trends are followed and that prompt response can be achieved whenever something goes wrong. However, setting up and maintaining a network monitoring system can be quite a challenge. This is why we’ve put together this post in which we discuss the network monitoring best practices. Our hope is to provide some guidance in your endeavour.

Let’s begin by introducing network monitoring. We can then jump right in and start discussing the best practices. From knowing your network, what to monitor, how, and why to the reasons for monitoring the network and how to choose the best platform, I think we have it covered from most angles. And to conclude, we’ll briefly review three of the very best network monitoring tools. It will give you an idea of what’s available and how the multiple available platforms differ.

About Network Monitoring

There’s a very simple reason why anyone would want to use network monitoring tools. More than anything, it has to do with the fact that we normally can’t see what’s going on inside the network. We’ve all seen networks compared to highways and data packets compared to cars using those highways. But there’s a big difference. The traffic on a highway is visible. You just have to look and you’ll see whether or not there’s congestion.

It’s not so simple with networks. Everything happens at the molecular level inside copper wires or optical fibers. And even if we could see the traffic going by, it is so fast that we wouldn’t be able to make any sense of it. Monitoring tools allow us to visualize the traffic and load levels of wired and wireless networks. Some of them are intended as surveillance tools while others are troubleshooting tools or even forensic investigation tools.

Network Monitoring Best Practices

Implementing Network Monitoring can be a complex and overwhelming endeavour. There are so many things to consider. We’ve put together a list of best practices you may want to follow when planning and deploying a network monitoring infrastructure. It will, hopefully, help you make sure you don’t overlook anything important or waste time on not so important tasks.

Knowing Your Network

Today’s networks tend to be very complex. Routers, switches, and other components connect user workstations to critical applications on local servers and even on the Internet. In addition, security and communications systems including firewalls, virtual private networks (VPNs), and spam and virus filters complicate things.

Before you begin, it is important to understand the composition and complexity of your network. With thousands of data points to monitor on a network, being able to access meaningful, accurate, and current information at any given time is critical. You need to feel confident that you know how your network operates from end to end. It is critical to know your network at all times.

A typical network includes the Internet, local area networks (LANs), wide area networks (WANs), virtual LANs (VLANs), wireless networks, and all the devices, and systems running on them. A network has internal and external users, including employees, customers, and partners. Modern networks are so complex that something WILL eventually go wrong. And with every component representing a potential point of failure, there’s a lot to monitor.

By monitoring network performance proactively and in real-time, you can spot problems and potential issues before they become emergencies. For instance, an overloaded server can be replaced or beefed up before it crashes if you’re notified in advance that its load is rapidly increasing and that a crash is all but imminent. Network monitoring will allow you to know the status of everything on your network without having to keep an eye on everything and to be able to take corrective action to minimize and, when necessary, quickly fix issues.

What You Should Monitor, Why, and How

A network is a mission-critical system. As such, it’s important to constantly have access to timely information about its health. Most importantly, you need to capture status information about network devices (routers, switches, etc.) and critical networked servers. As a network administrator, you also need to know that essential services (email, website, file transfer services, etc.) are available.

Let’s have a look as some elements of the network that we recommend you monitor and why. First and foremost, you want to monitor the availability of network devices. The reason is simple, they constitute the “plumbing” of the network and are essential to keep it running.

The next thing you need to monitor is the availability of all critical services on your network. Even small outages can have a huge negative impact. Loss of email, web server, or FTP server for even just an hour can shut a business down.

The amount of disk space in use on your critical servers is another important metric to monitor. After all, most applications require data storage. Furthermore, any suspicious behaviour in disk capacity could be a tell-tale sign of an issue with an application or system.

Bandwidth utilization is another very important metric to monitor. Just like storage space, network utilization has a tendency to always increase. Closely monitoring it will give you time to react if it ever approaches a critical level and, just like disk space usage, an unexpected and sudden increase could be an indication of an abnormal situation.

Another important metric to monitor is the average memory and processor utilization of your key devices and servers. It is a known fact that overutilization or memory saturation can have disastrous effects on the operation of most devices. For that reason, you’d rather see it coming.

It’s one thing to monitor a ton of metrics but it won’t help much is you have to sit and stare at a screen to ensure that none exceeds normal thresholds. When there are issues, you need to be alerted immediately. It could be done through audible alerts, on-screen displays, or emails and text messages automatically generated by your network monitoring solution. Alerts should be triggered when a problem occurs (such as threshold being approached) but ideally also when a new application or piece of equipment is brought online. Alerts should include information about the device, the issue, and the event that triggered it.

It is, however, important to generate only meaningful alerts and to minimize multiple alerts originating from the same event. For instance, you want to be able to configure your monitoring platform so that it doesn’t alert when scheduled maintenance downtime is initiated. And if access to many devices is lost because of a problem with an upstream router or switch, eliminating the dependent alerts lets you more efficiently diagnose the actual problem.

The Top Nine Reasons For Network Monitoring

1. Knowing what is happening

Network monitoring solutions keep you constantly aware of the operation and connectivity of the elements of your network. Without monitoring, you have to wait until someone tells you something is down before you can fix it.

2. Planning for upgrades or changes

If a device frequently goes down or if the bandwidth utilization of a specific segment is constantly nearing its limit, it may be time to for a replacement or an upgrade. Network monitoring lets you track this type of situation and plan required changes before the impact is felt by users.

3. Diagnosing problems

Suppose one of your servers is unreachable from the intranet. Network monitoring may help you determine if the problem is the server, the switch the server is connected to, or the router. Knowing exactly where the problem is saves you time.

4. Showing others what is going on

Reports—especially graphical ones—go a long way in demonstrating the health and activity levels of your network. They are the perfect tools in proving an SLA conformance or showing that a troublesome device needs attention.

5. Making sure your security systems are operating

Organizations spend a lot of resources on security software and hardware. A network monitoring solution will let you be sure that your security devices are up and running as configured at all times.

6. Keeping track of your customer-facing resources

Many devices on your network are actually nothing more than applications running on a server (HTTP, FTP, email, etc.). Network monitoring lets you watch these applications and make sure your customers can connect to the services that they need.

7. Ensuring customer satisfaction

When customers are depending on your network services for their business, you need to ensure they’re up and running at all times. You’d most likely rather know the moment a problem occurs and fix it before a customer finds out and gives you that angry phone call we all dread.

8. Keeping informed of your network status from anywhere

The best network monitoring platforms applications provide remote viewing and management from anywhere with an Internet connection using different types of devices. That way, if you’re away from the office and a problem crops up, you can still see what’s wrong.

9. Saving money

Although we’re listing this one last, some may think it should have been first. Network monitoring helps you cut down on the total amount of downtime and time it takes to investigate problems. This translates to fewer man-hours spent fixing issues and less lost revenue from downtime.

Choosing a Network Monitoring Solution

First and foremost, a good network monitoring solution should tell you what you need to know in real-time and from anywhere, anytime. Your monitoring solution should also be easy to use, quick to deploy, and offer a low total cost of ownership while still delivering all the features you need. You need a solution with comprehensive capabilities and second to none reliability.

Using network monitoring tools implies the monitoring of tons of network components and collecting tons of information. To make all this data easier to comprehend, a good monitoring solution should display it on some form of an administrator-friendly dashboard that could include a network map, report data, alerts, historical information, problem areas, and other useful information. This will not only make troubleshooting easier, but it will help leverage historical network data to understand trends in device usage, network usage, and overall network capacity.

As discussed earlier, alerts are important. However, just as you don’t want your alarm to go off on Saturday morning, you don’t want your network monitoring tool to alert you during a planned service period. The best systems will let you program your weekly maintenance schedule into the system so it can distinguish between planned and unplanned downtime, thereby reducing the number of false alarms.

Networks need to run 24/7 no matter what hours your employees work. Furthermore, your network generally stays put but your employees sometimes travel. No matter what, you should be able to access your network monitoring solution anywhere, anytime. Also, different users will need to access the system for different reasons. Not everyone should have access to the same level of information. Your monitoring solution should feature role-based views, letting you assign levels of permissions based on each user’s function in the organization.

Finally, a good network monitoring solution should support multiple methods of monitoring devices. SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol) is a time-proven flexible technology that lets you manage and monitor the performance and usage of devices, troubleshoot problems, and better prepare for future network growth. Most network devices support SNMP, making it easy to monitor them using a solution that supports SNMP.

In the Windows world, WMI (Windows Management Instrumentation) is the standard for retrieving information from applications. WMI comes installed by default on SQL Server, Exchange, and Windows 2000, 2003, Vista, and XP systems. It is an important tool for monitoring network environments running Windows yet only a few network monitoring solutions currently include WMI monitoring among their capabilities.

The Top Three Network Monitoring Tools

There are literally dozens of network monitoring tools available. The short list we’ve assembled here is what we consider to be the best ones. Their features will give you a pretty good idea of what is available among the various tools. Each tool has a slightly different feature set so the best one for your specific purpose is a matter of personal preference.

1. SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor (Free Trial)

Many network administrators already know SolarWinds. After all, the company has been famous for a while for its excellent network administration tools and for publishing many free tools to accomplish specific tasks. SolarWinds’ flagship product is called the Network Performance Monitor, or NPM. It is a complete network monitoring solution that comes packed with a broad array of features.

The SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor polls network devices using the SNMP protocol and reads their interfaces’ counters and other meaningful metrics. It then stores the results in an SQL database and uses the polled data to build graphs showing each interface’s usage.

SolarWinds NPM Enterprise Dashboard

The software boasts a user-friendly GUI where adding a device is as simple as specifying its IP address or hostname and SNMP connection parameters–known as community strings. Once that is done, the tool queries the device to list all the SNMP parameters that are available. It is up to you to pick those you want to include on your graphs. A typical network switch or router, for example, will have traffic and error counters for each interface as well as CPU and memory utilization counters.

The Network Performance Monitor’s scalability is one of its best features. It will adapt to any network from the smallest of them up to large networks consisting of tens of thousands of devices and spread over multiple locations. And to make it even easier, upgrading licenses is a seamless process.

Another great feature of NPM is its ability to automatically build network maps and to display a visual representation of the critical path between two devices or services. This feature is invaluable when troubleshooting application access issues.

Price-wise, the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor starts at just under $3 000 and goes up depending on the number of devices to monitor. Ideally, you should contact the SolarWinds sales team for a detailed quote. Should you want to try the product before buying it, a free 30-day trial is available, as it is for most non-free SolarWinds products.

2. PRTG Network Monitor

PRTG or, more precisely, the PRTG Network Monitor is another excellent monitoring platform from Paessler A.G. It is an enterprise-grade product which Paessler claims to be the easiest and fastest to set up. According to the company, PRTG can be set up and you can start monitoring within a couple of minutes. Your experience may vary and we certainly spent a bit more than that but it’s still very easy and very quick to set up, thanks in part to its auto-discovery feature that will find your networking equipment and automatically add it to the system.

PRTG Screenshot

PRTG is not only easy to install. The product is also feature-rich. For instance, it comes with a few different user interfaces. You have the choice between a Windows enterprise console, an Ajax-based web interface, and mobile apps for Android and iOS. Furthermore, the mobile apps fully exploit their respective platform’s capabilities and can, for instance, scan QR codes affixed to equipment to quickly access their graphs.

The PRTG Network Monitor can be obtained directly from its website. You’ll need to choose between two download options. There’s the free version which is full-featured but will limit your monitoring ability to 100 sensors or the free 30-day trial version which is unlimited but will revert to the free version once the trial period ends. Each monitored parameter counts as one sensor. For example, monitoring bandwidth on each port of a 48-port switch uses up 48 sensors.

3. ManageEngine OpManager

OpManager from ManageEngine—yet another top-of-the-line maker of network management tools—is our next selection. The tool runs on either Windows or Linux and boasts many great features, Among them, there is an auto-discovery feature that can map your network and display it on its dashboard. The miniature, colour-coded graphs shown at the top of each page are also a great feature of the product.

ManageEngine OpManager Dashboard

Back to the ManageEngine OpManager’s dashboard, it is super easy to use and navigate and it has drill-down functionality. If you are so inclined, there are also apps for tablets and smartphones that will let you access the system from anywhere. This is an overall very polished and professional product.

A free version of the ManageEngine OpManager is available should you want to try it before purchasing. This a truly free version and not a free trial. It is, however, limited and will let you monitor no more than ten devices. If you manage a tiny network, perhaps you can get by with the free version. As for paid versions, you can choose the Essential or the Enterprise plans. The first will let you monitor up to 1,000 nodes while the other goes up to 10,000.

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