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SolarWinds Network Configuration Manager – REVIEW 2019

SolarWinds is one of the best-known makers of network and system administrators tools. One of these tools is called the Network Configuration Manager and today, we’re doing an in-depth review of this great product. As its name implies, the purpose of this product is managing configurations. More precisely, it will manage configurations of your networking equipment such as your routers and switches. This tool’s primary purposes are backing up your equipment’s configurations, easily deploying firmware updates to your equipment and applying change management processes. It has, however, many more features, as you’re about to discover. Overall, like most other SolarWinds tool, this one is among the best in its class.

Before we have a closer look at the SolarWinds Network Configuration Manager, we’ll first discuss configuration management in general. We’ll have a look at what it is and what it’s needed for. Then, after introducing SolarWinds, we’ll present the Network Configuration Manager. To begin, we’ll have a brief look at some of the product’s best features and the advantages each one brings. Then, we’ll have a look at the system requirements of this product and we’ll discuss its installation. Next, we’ll dive deeper into some of the tools more elaborate features such as the discovery process and the Network Insight and NetPath features as well as its alerting and reporting capabilities. And finally, we’ll discuss the product’s pricing and acquisition.

About Network Configuration Management

Network Configuration Management is a broad term which encompasses several different concepts. Let’s try to define what it is. First and foremost, it has to do with network equipment. What network equipment, you may ask? Well, any equipment. It mostly refers to network switches and routers but it can also apply to other types of equipment such as firewalls or load balancers. Typically, any device which is not a computer or a server can be considered a piece of networking equipment.

Configuration management entails a few different tasks. First, there is inventory management. The point here is to keep all the information about networking equipment in a centralized place. Another important aspect—if not the most important one—of configuration management is the actual configuration of the devices. If you’ve ever worked on huge corporate networks with dozens of access switches, you know how configuring them can be tedious and error-prone. Configuration management can make it easier.

Crash recovery is also important. Networking equipment, no matter how robust they are, will eventually fail and need replacement. When that happens, wouldn’t you rather push the backed up configuration of the failed device to the new one instead of having to redo it from scratch and run the risk that the new configuration is different from the old and that the device operates differently?

The last important function of configuration management is change management. We live in an era of accountability and various standards such as PCI-DSS or SOX, just to name a few, are imposed on many organizations. Many of these standards require that some form of change management process be put in place.

These are the main elements usually associated with network configuration management but everyone seems to have his own idea of what it is or what it should be. For that reason, network configuration management tools differ enormously in the features they each offer.

The Need For Network Configuration Management

There are several reasons why anyone would need configuration management. Here are a few tell-tale signs that you might benefit from using configuration management tools.

  • Modifying the configurations of the network equipment across your environment has become cumbersome and error-prone.
  • Difficult to troubleshoot and resolve network issues have been found to have been caused by configuration change errors.
  • Adhering to monitoring and auditing policies is becoming increasingly challenging due to the number of devices in multiple locations.
  • Some of the information you keep about your networking equipment is either inaccurate or obsolete.
  • Your configuration backup methods include a combination of various tools, scripts and manual processes which are prone to errors and omissions.
  • Your configuration archives are difficult to search and need some organization. It makes it hard to locate the most current configuration backup.
  • Extensive time and effort are required from your team to monitor and maintain multi-vendor device environments.
  • Your current environment makes it hard to delegate administrative tasks and set who can view device details and make configuration changes.

If you’ve been into one or many of these situations, perhaps it is time you look for a configuration management tool. And if you already have one and still experience some of these, then it might be time to switch to a better tool.

About SolarWinds

SolarWinds has been around for about twenty years. The company provides powerful and affordable IT management software to customers worldwide. Its customer base includes all sizes of organizations from large Fortune 500 companies to small businesses, managed service providers, government agencies, and educational institutions. It has been known to have made some of the best network and system administrations tools. SolarWinds delivers products that are easy to use, maintain but also to find and buy and that can easily scale as your needs grow. Most of its products will cover any of your IT assets, regardless of where they or their users and managers sit. Both on-premise and could-based environments are supported by most products.

SolarWinds is committed to focusing exclusively on Information Technology, Managed Service Providers, and DevOps professionals, and it strives to eliminate the complexity that we as customers have been forced to accept from many traditional enterprise software vendors. This focus, as well as its commitment to excellence in end-to-end hybrid IT performance management, has established the company as one of the worldwide leaders in both network management software and MSP solutions. SolarWinds’ THWACK online community is used by users to solve problems, share technology and best practices, and directly participate in the company’s development process.

SolarWinds Network Configuration Manager (Free Trial)

The SolarWinds Network Configuration Manager handles several network configuration management tasks. It will back up your equipment’s configuration and also help ensure that all equipment configurations are standardized. You can use the tool to push bulk configuration changes to thousands of network devices. From a security standpoint, the tool will detect unauthorized changes which could be a sign of malicious configuration tampering. There are also some very interesting vulnerability assessment features and the tool’s integration with the National Vulnerability Database gives it access to the most current Common Vulnerability Exposures helping it identify vulnerabilities in your device configurations.

SolarWinds Network Configuration Manager - Config Summary

The SolarWinds Network Configuration Manager can help you quickly recover from failures and restore backed up configurations. You can use its change management features to quickly highlight what has changed within a configuration. Furthermore, this tool will allow you to demonstrate compliance and pass regulatory audits, thanks to many built-in, industry-standard reports.

The SolarWinds Network Configuration Manager is based on the Orion Platform, an underlying architecture on which many of SolarWinds’ major tools are built. The platform provides an integrated web-based dashboard from where you can access all the installed tools. It also provides several common features such as reporting or alerting and notification.

Main Features And Benefits

Let’s have a brief look at some of the SolarWinds Network Configuration Manger’s best features and see what benefits each one can bring.

Scheduled configuration backups

You can use the tool to perform scheduled configuration downloads and uploads, device reboots, command script execution, and more. Furthermore, the configuration backups are stored in a relational database for archival history but also as flat files in an intuitive folder structure for easy viewing.

SolarWinds Network Configuration Manager - Config Backup

Policy management

To help ensure device compliance with regulatory frameworks, government regulations as well as corporate standards, the tool’s Policy Reporting Manager includes several policy reports, such as SOX, HIPAA, CISP, among others.

Role-based access control

The SolarWinds NCM can integrate your Windows Active Directory or local system user accounts. You can manage users based on their role and establish individual device login credentials per user. The tool logs all user activity, allowing you to keep a trace of who’s performing what changes.

Multiple vendor support

The tool uses industry-standard protocols allowing you to monitor network devices from multiple hardware vendors in a hybrid network environment.

Bulk changes

This tool lets you perform bulk changes to many devices simultaneously. You can, for instance, modify to community strings, passwords, and blacklists across many devices at once. These bulk changes can either be performed in real time or within a scheduled change window. Uploads, changes, and global command scripting can be scheduled by device type, physical location, owner, or whatever custom property you choose.

Configuration change history

Thanks to the tool’s change logging feature, you can get reports on what devices have had configuration changes over a specified time period. These configuration change reports can also automatically compare current configurations with a baseline configuration and alert you whenever a change is discovered.

Establishing a baseline and understanding config drift

The tool will save you time by identifying out-of-compliance configurations using multi-device baselines. You can either use single or multiple baselines across your network to monitor critical configurations and leverage the baseline diff viewer to quickly identify changes within them.

Configuration viewing, tracking, and comparing

You can use SolarWinds NCM to remotely view, track, modify, and compare network device configurations. It can even be done without logging in to the physical NCM server. The Orion Web Console offers these functions to the users you select.

SolarWinds Network Configuration Manager - Baseline Diff

Orion alerts integration

Default SolarWinds NCM alerts can be used in the Orion Alert Manager to specify actions to run when this alert triggers. Furthermore, you can view the results of those actions along with the notification.

Device configuration change templates

This tool allows you to use templates to generate an appropriate sequence of commands for relevant devices for which you need to make a specific configuration change.

Device configuration change management

You can also set up a request and approval system for processing the workflow of device configuration changes. This is a requirement of several regulatory frameworks and it’s a great thing to have it built right into your configuration management solution.

SolarWinds Network Configuration Manager - Approval Requests

Device end of support and end of sales tracking

The system will track the end-of-support and end-of-sales status of most of the devices that you manage with it.

Firmware upgrades

Security fixes for networking equipment are often distributed as new firmware revisions. Upgrading firmware can help network administrators correct security vulnerabilities. The SolarWinds NCM can upgrade the firmware on several devices at the same time.

Vulnerability assessment of your network devices

You can use this tool to generate vulnerability reports of your network devices and compare your current firmware versions against warnings provided by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

SolarWinds Network Configuration Manager - Firmware Vulnerabilites

System Requirements

Like other products based on the Orion Platform, the SolarWinds Network Configuration Manager requires two servers. One hosts the application while the other hosts the SQL database. Although both servers could be virtual and run on a single physical host, the SQL server’s database must reside on a separate, physical drive.

Hardware requirements for the application server are as follows. You need at least a dual-core processor running at 3 GHz. It must at least 6 GB of RAM and 30 GB of hard disk space. As for the server’s operating system, it must be either Windows Server 2012, Windows Server 2012 R2, or Windows Server 2016. Furthermore, installing on Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials is not supported. The OS must be in either English, German, Japanese or Simplified Chinese. Microsoft IIS version 8.0 or later must be installed on the server as well as the Microsoft ASP .NET 2.0 Ajax Extension and the Microsoft .NET Framework version 4.6.2.

For the database server, it needs to be running one of these versions of Microsoft SQL Server:

  • SQL Server 2017
  • SQL Server 2016 and SQL Server 2016 with SP1
  • SQL Server 2014 and SQL Server 2014 with SP1 or SP2, and with Always On Availability Groups
  • SQL Server 2012, with or without SP1 and SP2, Standard or Enterprise

Installation

Installing the SolarWinds NCM is easy enough that we don’t see a need to give you a step by step tutorial. If you need detailed instructions, that can easily be found on SolarWinds’ website. A single, universal installer allows you to install all SolarWinds products based on the Orion Platform. While you’re installing NCM, perhaps you’ll want to consider evaluating some of the other excellent products from SolarWinds. These two are often chosen by NCM users to complement their installation.

Network Performance Monitor – A multi-vendor fault, performance, and availability monitoring tool with visibility into the cloud providers’ network.

Server & Application Monitor – A tool for monitoring the performance, capacity, and health of Linux and Windows servers and applications across data centers, remote offices, and the cloud.

Discovery

Once the product is installed, the next order of business if the discovery process. NCM uses it to find and identify network elements. The network is scanned for nodes which you can add to the SolarWinds Orion database for monitoring. After you discover and add devices to the Orion Platform, you then need to add them to NCM by establishing a connection profile between NCM and the node you want to manage. Although it sounds complicated, this actually quite easy and well-documented, Overall, the installation, discovery and configuration process of the SolarWinds Network Configuration Manager is pretty easy and unchallenging.

Some Of The Product’s Advanced Features

Let’s have a closer look at some of the SolarWinds Network Configuration Manager’s more advanced features. They are actually features of the Orion Platform and as such, they are available on any product sharing the platform.

Network Insight

Going beyond the basic monitoring data, the SolarWinds Network Configuration Monitor offers deeper integration into selected brands of devices. Some of these features are referred to as Network Insight, a module of the Orion Platform.

Network Insight for Cisco Nexus provides insight into the health of your Nexus devices and visibility into your virtual port channels (vPCs). It also automates the management of your Nexus infrastructure to help ensure service availability. With NCM, you can view the configuration details of vPCs. You can easily manage the access control lists of your Cisco Nexus devices, compare them, search and filter rules, identify rules that have not been applied and detect shadowed rules. You can also automate firmware upgrades of selected devices and run device inventory reports.

Similarly, the Network Insight for Cisco ASA automates the monitoring and management of your ASA firewall infrastructure. It can monitor the health and performance of the ASA devices, get visibility into VPN tunnel connectivity, analyze access control lists, and identify shadowed and redundant rules.

Discovering Network Paths With NetPath

The SolarWinds NetPath feature will let you “see” inside Internet cloud service providers’ networks—or any network, for that matter. It is more than a visual traceroute. The NetPath feature gives you an unmatched insight into all your critical network paths, allowing for deeper insights (no pun intended) and faster time to resolution.

The SolarWinds Network Configuration Manager enriches the data in NetPath, an Orion Platform feature, by showing relevant prompts when a configuration change might be the root cause of issues with the network. And if you are evaluating the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor together with NCM, the two products can enrich each other through the NetPath feature and show a comprehensive picture of your network.

Alerts And Reports

One of the main reasons for using network configuration management tools is their monitoring component which can assure you that all is running smoothly and that no unauthorized changes are taking place without requiring you to be on a constant lookout. This is where alerting becomes an important component of these tools. Alerts are used to draw your attention to a problematic area of the network that requires action.

The SolarWinds NCM comes with predefined alerts for common problems such as a node going down, high interface utilization, packet loss, and many more. Many of these predefined alerts are enabled by default. As soon as you’re done discovering the network and adding devices to the Network Configuration Manager monitoring and alerting kicks in without having to configure anything.

Reporting is another important element of any network management tool. SolarWinds is well-aware of that and the reporting engine that is built into the Orion Platform is impressive. Reports are conveniently located on the main menu under Reports. From there, you can view a list of predefined reports, customize the predefined reports, or create your own reports. And if you want some of the reports to run at regular intervals, you can also manage their schedule. Scheduled reports will automatically run at a specified time and will be delivered to anyone you select.

SolarWinds Network Configuration Manager - Reports

Pricing and Purchasing

Pricing for the SolarWinds Network Configuration Manager is based on the number of managed devices. A managed device can be a router, a switch, a firewall or just about any other network device that supports remote access and a command line interface. The product is available in six licensing tiers that support between 50 and 3000 devices plus a device-unlimited tier. Prices start at $2 895 for 50 devices. You also have the possibility of taking the product for a test run before purchasing it as a free fully-functional and node-unlimited 30-day trial is available.

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