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Final thoughts from Cisco Live: You can't manage what you can't see

Cisco Live 2014, the company's 25th annual user event, is now in the books, and I've had some time to reflect on the show. At the show, Cisco did what it does best and gave attendees a glimpse of the future and where technology is headed. This helps Cisco customers stay out ahead of the industry trends and prepare for these trends to hit their businesses. This year, Cisco CEO John Chambers and the cast of other presenters gave us a heavy dose of Internet of Everything (IoE), cloud computing, data center evolution, mobility, collaboration, video and the need to use the network as a platform.

The glue that connects all of these themes together is, of course, the network. This elevates the network from being the "pipes" of a company to being an enabler of these trends. If the network isn't operating properly then the trends I listed above won’t provide the company the benefits it may be seeking. 

The changing role of the network and increased importance has made managing the network critically important today. However, the legacy tools that most businesses use just aren’t cutting it. In a recent ZK Research survey, I asked how satisfied the respondents were with their current network management tools and a whopping 80% said they were considering changing vendors. (Disclosure: I work for ZK Research)

Why the high dissatisfaction rate with network management tools? Most of the legacy tools were designed in a different era, when things were fairly static, maintenance windows were long, and "best effort" was the norm. That’s no longer the case, meaning organizations need different tools to manage the network today than they used five or more years ago.

One of the proof points for this shift in management tools was the show floor itself. At Cisco Live, one of the highlights for most attendees is touring the "World of Solutions" exhibit hall and visiting with many of the Cisco technology partners on display. I didn't have a chance to do an exact count, but from what I saw, I believe somewhere between a quarter and a third of the exhibitors were management tools of some kind.

Cisco doesn’t give the analysts a lot of spare time to wander the show floor, but I did get down there on a couple of the evenings. One of the days I was there, I sat on a panel at the LiveAction booth with Jeremy Turlin, Senior Network Engineer with Freightquote, one of the company’s customers. He and I had a lively discussion on the importance of network visibility today in front of a packed booth. I thought the panel went great. Here where some of the highlights:

  • Network visibility is key to business success. This was the theme that came across strongest on the panel. With the network playing a key role in so many IT initiatives, there has been a renewed emphasis on network management. However, as we discussed on the panel, you can’t manage what you can’t see and many of the trends that were listed above have created blind spots for the network. Jeremy, who was on the panel with me, discussed how LiveAction’s visual dashboard allows him to see what’s happening on each network segment easily, but at an application flow level instead of just having a basic topology view. The increased granularity is what can remove many of the blind spots that network managers have today.
  • Problem resolution depends on isolating the issue faster. On the panel we both discussed how hard troubleshooting network problems can be. In fact, my research shows that 90% of the time taken to solve problems is simply in identifying the problem. Want to reduce mean time to repair? Invest in tools that make problem isolation faster. Mr. Turlin discussed how the color coding of various application flows allows for him to see problems quickly and react even before users start calling.
  • Automation is mandatory. I know automation sometimes scares network managers. The thought of having a tool that would make changes without any human intervention requires a leap of faith that most of us just haven’t been able to make. However, the fact is that IT is moving so fast today that automation must be embraced. Jeremy discussed how the tool allows him to do things like change QoS settings across the network with the click of a mouse. This is significantly faster than the traditional box-by-box change management methodology that can often take months.

The trends in IT certainly bode well for the network as many of these shifts in technology are network-dependent. However, success for the network professional depends on a willingness to embrace change in the way the networks are managed, and this change starts with improving the visibility of what’s happening on the network.

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