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Best Tools for Network Operations Management

Network Operations Management is a broad concept. It incorporates each task performed by network managers and administrators. Likewise, Network Operations Management tools do incorporate several tools in one package. Today, we’re having a look at some of the best tools for network operations management. Often, they are bundles of multiple tools from a single vendor, each addressing a specific task normally associated with network management. They vary greatly in their functionality and in the breadth of their scope. Some tools will only handle a few aspects of network management while others will do more. Some bundles pack many simpler tools while others include just a few full-featured tools.

Today, we’ll begin our exploration by laying out the different tasks normally associated with network management. We’ll explain what they are and why they are important. For the most important ones, we’ll dig deeper into how computer-based tools can provide additional benefits and what these benefits are. We’ll then discuss the different types of tools or tool bundles that can be found. Only then will we be ready to review the best tools for network operations management.

Network Operations Management – What It Is

Defining network operations management is barely possible as it seems that everyone has his own idea of what it is or what it should be. And defining it in the context of tools that help with it is just about as hard. Each vendor has a different offering that is referred to as network operations management but the available products vary widely. 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 tool. The only advantage of the bundle is then financial as you can usually get the bundle for less than the price of the individual components purchased separately.

The Components Of Network Operations Management Tools

As we indicated, network operations management tools vary greatly but we’ve tried to put together a list of the main components that many such tools include. Some tool do include features and functionalities that are not listed here but we felt that these six were, if not the most important, the most commonly found.

Network Bandwidth Monitoring

Don’t we all wish our network have infinite bandwidth? Despite the fact that things have greatly improved and that bandwidth is not as expensive as it once was, it is still limited. And congestion is still one of the biggest issues with every network. Congestion is what happens when the actual bandwidth approaches or exceeds what’s available. 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 to monitor network bandwidth utilization 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 part of the network needs to be upgraded and when.

Most 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 device, allowing them to calculate the average bandwidth utilization and display it along its evolution over time in a graphical or tabular format.

Network Traffic Analysis

Bandwidth analysis tools are great to measure the utilization of a network. However, 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 patterns 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 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 the source 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 sorted by user.

Network traffic analysis tools use a variety of protocols to do their magic. On such protocol 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 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 talk to—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 Operations Management

Our list of the functionalities of network operations management tools could extend for pages as there is no clear definition of what they are and what they are comprised of. Some of these functionalities are present in the products reviewed below while others are not. Some products even have a completely different feature set. What’s important is that they all provide excellent value.

1. SolarWinds Network Automation Manager (Free Trial)

SolarWinds has grown to become a household name with network administrators. It’s been there for about 20 years and 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 as if this wasn’t enough, SolarWinds also makes a few dozen free tools meant to address specific needs of network administrators. Among them, you’ll find an excellent subnet calculator and a TFTP server, just to name a few.

The SolarWinds Network Automation Manager is an offering from SolarWinds which combine the benefits of several tools. Let’s start with a list of 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

All of the above are the primary functions of several SolarWinds tools which were assembled into one bundle for the utmost convenience and the best value.

The performance monitoring component of this product as identical to the Network Performance monitor. It will help reduce 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. It will let you view network performance and traffic details, regardless of device location.

SolarWinds NPM - Network Summary

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 address 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 company. 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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