Network analytics will change everything

Network analytics will redefine IT's abilities to handle the complexities of today's enterprise access networks.

data analytics information investigate study profit loss 100613708 orig
Thinkstock

The way we manage and monitor networks is morphing. 

Passive, reactive tools are being replaced by more proactive network analytics systems that give the entire network team a single source of truth about network behavior and a much deeper understanding of where infrastructure issues are hiding and what to do about them.

Before IT was forever changed by the arrival of mobile devices, virtualization and cloud apps, fixing network problems was relatively simple because users plugged into the network from one location to access local applications and resources.

But with the proliferation of diverse wireless clients – a range of hardware using different versions of different operating systems (the permutations can quickly scale into the thousands) – and the use of applications and services that are often not under IT’s control, getting to the heart of individual user and systemic client network problems has become the new nightmare.

This is particularly acute in the access network. Just think about a single user connecting to the network. The first leg in the journey is contending for Wi-Fi access, where various problems can scuttle or degrade the effort. Next the user must authenticate to the network, obtain an IP address and resolve DHCP requests, all of which can be problematic. And finally, they access applications locally or traverse a wide area link to the cloud, introducing still more opportunities for things to go south.

A hiccup with any individual step can result in service disruption and poor performance, but the user just chalks it up as a problem with “the network” (and probably as “a problem with IT”).

But for IT, was it a device OS problem? A Wi-Fi issue? DHCP? ARP? DNS? An application failure? A WAN problem? And can you find the answer without having to scour through volumes of log data, packet captures and pretty screens and graphs generated by various vendor management systems?

Because that’s the reality in any IT shop today: boatloads of discrete vendor tools to troubleshoot individual products in specific parts of the network. 

That model is no longer tenable due to the amount of data that must be gathered and correlated and analyzed to optimize performance. Blimey, everyone on the team needs to be a data scientist.

Big data analytics, combined with cloud computing and machine learning, is driving the emergence of a new class of infrastructure network analytics that examines the data traversing the network to derive a holistic view of the health of the network and attached devices and the services and applications, all from the perspective of the user. 

This will fundamentally redefine how IT can become more proactive.

Not exclusive to any single vendor, the new class of solutions focused on this approach has been coined “user performance management” (UPM). Although still in their infancy, UPM platforms promise to fundamentally alter the traditional reactive workflows of IT. 

Think Netflix for networks

It’s important to understand the difference between a monitoring solution and an analytics solution. Consider how Netflix works. When you watch a movie or TV show, Netflix is learning what might interest you based on historical viewing data it keeps. It then suggests shows that you might like to watch without you even asking. That is analytics.

Now try applying this analytics concept to enterprise access networks.

The network analytics platforms collect wired packets, device data, wireless metrics, applications and WAN data, and crunch all this data concurrently to understand important patterns and trends impacting user network performance from virtually any vantage point.

These new analytics-based solutions constantly stare at all parts of the network, watching and learning the behavior of client transactions up and down the stack as they happen, storing this data historically to identify larger patterns and trends that emerge.

These systems are uniquely positioned to help IT be more proactive, by learning how different parts of the network are working (or aren’t working) together. They then suggest, ala Netflix, what to do about it, giving network managers a list of configuration recommendations to fix specific client incidents or systemic infrastructure problems impacting user performance across the entire infrastructure.

Most infrastructure vendors, especially those that have Wi-Fi products, are beginning to have an early version of network analytics. Advanced analytics approaches now coming to market from new upstarts are among the most sophisticated vendor-neutral systems in this space. With highly scalable cloud-based platforms designed to crunch massive volumes of data and correlating it across different dimensions, these new solutions figure out what’s actually going on. In turn, remediation recommendations can be automated and surfaced, often times, before network staff even realize there is a problem.

What client device operating systems are behaving poorly within the network? What network services are overloaded or responding slowly? What Wi-Fi access points are providing poor coverage or performance? Which of these is having the biggest impact on user performance and should be fixed first?

Answering such questions proactively with a new generation of network analytics technology is the holy grail for enterprise network staff and represents a major leap in transforming network operations from a cost to a profit center.

This article is published as part of the IDG Contributor Network. Want to Join?

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.
Now read: Getting grounded in IoT