Many companies are fighting back the rising tide of total cost of ownership with comprehensive network management systems that can manage everything from a central location.

There are many factors to be considered when purchasing and implementing these systems, which range from management framework products, such as Hewlett-Packard Co.’s OpenView, Computer Associates International Inc.’s Unicenter and Tivoli Systems Inc.’s NetView, to sophisticated trouble-reporting systems, such as Tivoli’s TME, to router configuration programs such as Cisco Systems Inc.’s NetSys.

netplanTo gain the greatest benefit from the investment network management systems require, network managers must plan how — and why — they are going to use the system as well as how it will be implemented.

First, what is the network management objective? It might sound obvious, but the key to creating an effective network management system is to determine what the system is supposed to be managing.

Is the objective to determine if the network hardware and the network communications software are operating properly? Is it to monitor traffic on the network to find bottlenecks and performance problems? Is it to analyze usage of the network to determine how it is being used to support applications or to control use by certain types of applications?

A network manager may have a good idea about what type of information would do the most good. For example, if the manager has had problems with slow communications between different locations, a tool that monitors WAN performance or router operation might be of the most use. If e-mail delivery and performance have been an ongoing issue, a tool that monitors e-mail system operation would deliver the most immediate payoff.

Second, what will be done with the information? Don’t catch “feature-itis” when shopping for a system. Many network management systems have been put in place, turned on and then largely ignored because the information provided couldn’t be used properly.

It is essential for the capabilities of a network management system to be matched with a manager’s ability to use the information produced. For example, for a nationwide network of 2,000 users located in 10 field offices, a centralized trouble-ticket management system might be more trouble than it’s worth, because problems have to be fixed locally anyway.

In this scenario, a centralized help desk management system with the capability to take over and remotely control users’ desktops would likely provide greater value than a complex network management system.

Steps to implementation

Implementing a network management system — no matter what type — requires several key steps on the part of the manager.

No. 1: Know thy network. Managing a network without good documentation of network topology is like driving through a foreign country without a map. Anyone trying to make sense of the data from a network management system needs a comprehensive map of the network topology, IP and IPX network addresses, server and gateway locations, router ports, and Internet gateways.

Even if a set of reasonably current network diagrams exists, it’s worth investing in a tool that can discover the network periodically, particularly if there are remote segments that aren’t controlled centrally.

For example, Optimal Networks’ Surveyor is one of a number of programs that query router tables and Address Resolution Protocol caches to determine the IP addresses and identities of networks, servers, routers and even workstations.

It’s a good idea to run the network discovery probe every 90 days, just to maintain a current picture of the network.

No. 2: Set the baseline. It’s important to determine the performance or capabilities of the network today, and then establish the performance thresholds against which to measure that performance

The baseline should consist of a network map and a set of performance measures, such as the amount of traffic carried by each network, users or desktops per network, peak and average percentage of bandwidth used, protocols in use, and applications supported.

Once the network’s current performance levels are understood, the network manager can set targets for maximum network usage levels, network performance and applications traffic. For example, the baseline study may show the network manager that the most widely used Internet application is HTTP, but that the heaviest use of HTTP is for PointCast Inc.’s PointCast Network, which accounts for 10 percent of the HTTP traffic.

To prevent PointCast traffic from overrunning the network, the network manager may set a PointCast threshold of 20 percent of the network’s HTTP traffic.

No. 3: Consider the WAN pipeline. Collecting network monitoring and management data at a central site can throw a lot more data onto what might already be an overloaded WAN.

Thus, part of establishing a network baseline is determining the current load on the network. Be sure to ask the vendors of any network management system under consideration how much additional load the network management system will place on the WAN.

No. 4: Implement in phases. Because it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of data a network management system can provide, the best way to implement network management is to phase in the system’s capabilities.

Network administrators should focus on understanding and using the capabilities that meet their core objectives, ignoring the system’s other capabilities until they fully understand how to make use of each component to accomplish a specific goal for performance, system reliability or user support.

No. 5: Integrate components. It can be difficult to integrate network management systems created from different vendors’ systems, as some components may be “point solutions” that aren’t intended to be part of a higher-level system. For example, a product that monitors an e-mail system may not be intended to be part of a coordinated, higher-level network management system.

However, products such as RMON probes or systems that monitor routers, hubs or switches are designed to integrate with more comprehensive, higher-level network management systems. Although there are few well-established standards for network management systems today, it’s important to look for systems that adhere to current standards, such as SNMP or RMON 2, rather than holding out hope for future integration that may not happen.

No. 6: Keep management informed. Properly implemented and used, a network management system can improve system control, reliability and performance, helping to justify the often substantial investment in hardware, software and people necessary to create the system.

Implementing management systems

Frequent network discovery

Comprehensive baseline setup

WAN testing

Gradual implementation

Integration planning

Periodic management updates

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