Top 5 network management investments

IT managers under pressure to automate more tasks

The proliferation of virtualization technologies is putting pressure on IT teams to start automating more processes. With little room in the budget for new products, it's critical that companies prioritize their investments.

The march toward greater automation in IT environments has been underway for some time, but virtualization is quickening the pace. Adoption of virtualization technologies is creating unprecedented complexity not only for systems administrators responsible for the infrastructure, but also for network professionals.

Why IT operations teams need automation technology now

"Virtualization creates new sources and destinations for traffic in a moment's notice," says Jim Frey, research director at Enterprise Management Associates. "Network managers in the past didn't have to worry about that rate of change. It's a much more dynamic environment."

To keep up with all the changes, IT teams need to be more rigorous about adopting standard processes, and they need management software to make sure the processes are executed consistently and automatically. But with little room in the budget for new products, it's critical that companies prioritize their investments.

Chart of virtualization survey from Forrester

"With tight budgets, we knew weren't going to get more staff, so we had to find a way to make our current technicians more efficient, make better use of their time and take away the drudge work from them," says Rick Harrison, MIS director for the city of Columbia, Tenn. The city chose the KBox appliance from KACE (now owned by Dell) to automate software distribution, configuration management and help desk functions. It's saving thousands of IT man-hours annually, Harrison says.

For companies looking to gain management efficiencies, here are five ideas for how to best allocate your time and resources.

1. Consolidate management tools across the enterprise

"Most companies have a lot of redundant tools. They've got to refine that portfolio of tools and get rid of overlapping tools," says Glenn O'Donnell, senior analyst at Forrester Research.

While companies will always need tools targeted at specific IT domains, in the bigger picture it's important to manage the broader IT services rather than specific technology silos. "Consolidating tools offers many benefits, including real tool integration, better service perspective, quicker incident resolution and higher service reliability," O'Donnell says.

Plus, there's buying leverage to be gained if IT groups can collaborate and agree on a single tool that satisfies multiple needs -- a log analysis tool for network, systems and applications teams, for instance. "Build your own social network at work, meet with your peers in other spaces," says Jasmine Noel, founding partner at Ptak, Noel & Associates. "It's more effective if you come together, figure out the features you each need, and see if you can get it from one tool."

Oracle just went through an ambitious project to retire piecemeal network monitoring and management tools in favor of a single, consolidated system from Monolith Software for tasks including syslog management, network fault and availability monitoring, and performance management.

"The real driving force for us was the savings on integration," says Craig Yappert, senior director of enterprise monitoring solutions at Oracle. "It's not that the tools we had weren't capable. But if I had to continue to integrate six or seven different tools into my business process every time something changed, I was taking a huge hit in time and valuable people resources to do that integration."

2. Invest in network configuration and change management (NCCM) tools

Network pros need tools that will automatically recognize when new end points are added to the network -- for instance, a half-dozen new virtual machines that are suddenly sending a lot of traffic and disrupting other applications. "Getting you the data more quickly about what has changed requires more automated discovery and automated monitoring," Frey says. "You're not going to get that without good, quality tools that have the ability to keep up with that rate of change."

NCCM tools can help alleviate staffing crunches, too. "Skilled networking labor is expensive and growing scarcer. Much of the work done on networks is repetitive and only requires skilled people because of the cryptic interfaces to perform the work [such as command line interface]," O'Donnell says. "NCCM tools delegate much of this work to lower-skilled, less expensive staff, increase reliability through consistent execution, and increase productivity for all, skilled and non-skilled alike."

3. Increase application awareness

Network managers need to look at network performance data not in isolation but alongside information about active applications and services, who's using them, and what kind of experience users are getting, Frey says.

"Make sure you have awareness of not just what's in your network but how it's being used to deliver applications and services," Frey says. "It's surprising to me how many shops still don't know what apps are being used on the network, which ones are really driving the use of the network, and which ones oftentimes are the source of problems when there are slowdowns."

4. Pay for analysis, not monitoring

Simply collecting and plotting data is passé. "If you are going to spend your money, steer it towards more advanced products that will analyze the collected data for you," O'Donnell says. "It is senseless to pore over charts and graphs with the naked eye when sophisticated mathematical algorithms are available to sift through all of this noise for you.

Vendors such as BlueStripe, NetScout, Netuitive, Network Instruments, OPNET, Splunk and many others, including the major management software vendors, have analysis products that can tell you something meaningful, he says. "They can find the needle in the haystack for you."

The engine in Monolith's platform lets Yappert analyze the business-level impact of an IT event, not simply the device-level impact.

"With our previous tools, we didn't have a good view of all network components that fed and supported our financial and HR system, for example. Now we're able to tag and organize those devices, and the events that happen against those devices, around that business grouping," Yappert says. When a switch, router or firewall has a problem, "we have an understanding of what's impacted by that, at a business level."

5. Exploit untapped capabilities in existing toolsets

Very few managers fully utilize the tools they own, and it's worth it to put the time in to discover how existing tools can fill functional gaps. "Spend a little time, get out the manuals, and figure if there are other features within the tools you own that you're not taking advantage of. There almost always are," Frey says.

Vendors also can often provide free connectors to other management tools, via technology partnerships, that save companies from having to do the integration work themselves. "Integrating tools will usually give you a lot of good value for the time spent, because now you're using the same lingo between tools," Frey says.

Put the onus on vendors to highlight untapped offerings and capabilities, Noel adds. After all, it's in their best interests: The more IT uses a product, the more indispensable it becomes. "Tell them to make it easy for you to start using the features you haven't tried yet," Noel says.

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