A tough nut to crack

A tough nut to crack

Networks are the backbone of many organisations, and their successful management is vital. Tony Lock explains

Networking has always been complicated ­ – its management even more so. It is no exaggeration to say networking has never been more important than it is today, since it is used in almost every facet of IT service delivery.

But many organisations take their infrastructure for granted. As a result, network management is treading water.

It is clear that network managers will need to perform a fine balancing act. They will need to support new applications and new methods of working, as well as enable effective security within stringent budgets.

An additional level of complexity for network management is being created by demands for a new culture of openness that is encouraging collaboration within the organisation and with other parties beyond the firewall. Only when such demands are acknowledged can an effective 21st century network infrastructure be built, along with the deployment of the processes and tools necessary for dynamic management.

Challenging times

When it comes to network management, the biggest challenge organisations face is complexity. Network administration has never been simple and, in many respects, is probably the most technically demanding of all IT management tasks.

One just has to consider the variety of devices now deployed on the network ­ – core routers, edge routers, network switches, load balancers, WAN optimisation appliances, WiFi access points, firewalls, content filters ­ – to get a feel for the challenge.

In most organisations, such systems will have been procured from a variety of suppliers, which usually means different management tools are needed to install and manage service delivery to users.

Even in organisations of modest scale, such factors conspire to ensure network management gets more difficult by the day. Also, the trend towards IT infrastructure consolidation has frequently resulted in organisations becoming more dependent on the capabilities, responsiveness and availability of their networks.

It is now often the case that the network needs to extend beyond the four walls of the organisation to encompass employees operating outside of managed locations, such as hotels or homes.

Such employees use a variety of connectivity options and create extended security challenges. And the notion of extending can also include the growing need to include the systems of partners and

Pressing issues

While many IT professionals and network administrators are now charged with keeping networks up and running, few face service level agreements that require them to meet quality factors based on user response time metrics.

Instead, most network managers are still centred on availability, possibly with added requirements relating to security and connectivity specifics. Such criteria are ripe for overhaul, especially as datacentre consolidation can cause latency to become a limiting factor for certain business-critical applications.

Then there is the “big picture”: all IT services need to align with the defined needs of the business. Today, this pressure is pushing all areas of IT, including network management, to be able to accurately monitor and then manage the delivery of IT services in ways that mean something tangible to the business.

What the future holds

Organisations of all sizes already have to deal with a host of new applications, such as voice over IP (VoIP) and streaming media. Such demand-driven network use can stress even a well-designed infrastructure, unless systems and robust processes are in place to cater for real-time stresses.

There seems no end to the number of new devices that can attach to the corporate network. Moreover, it is clear that the borders ­ – technical and operational ­ – between existing front- and back-end storage networks will blur.

There are also escalating, and often conflicting, demands of regulation, gove rnance and compliance reporting, which are rarely well understood but which consume resources and can easily sidetrack attention from value creation.

All such elements conspire against the network manager’s primary role, which is to support service delivery. Indeed, the requirement to deliver acceptable service quality to all users will differentiate organisations able to thrive and reap value from technology, from firms that are doomed to regress.

Apart from exceptional circumstances, network management can become more straightforward, although the path will rarely be pain-free and the details will, naturally, differ in each organisation.

For some firms, the solution could be the networking equivalent of the projects already undertaken in the name of server and storage consolidation: rationalisation of network infrastructure can help simplify management and reduce risk. At the same time, some movement is being made by the industry to introduce standards but, as ever, there are many obstacles to overcome.

On the plus side, some interesting management tools are being created by the likes of EMC/Smarts, Cisco, Juniper, Nortel and PacketTrap. But while each management tool has its plus points, none provides a magic pill. Perhaps key to the future of network management is another wave of consolidation. We are in a growth phase at the moment, one in which diversity, not uniformity, is celebrated.

As the current wave of technologies stabilises, we expect suppliers to deliver new management tools that take into account diversity, but which also deliver end-to-end service control.

Tools alone will not solve the problem. Organisations should step back and consider the management processes they have in place. For many organisations, the processes are likely to reflect business and performance requirements as they were, not as they are or will need to become. An easy example could be to compare existing management capabilities against a hypothetical set of requirements needed to support the management of an increasingly diverse range of network devices.

Chances are it is happening already. Such a review should consider the requirements and skills available across the entire IT organisation. In doing so, not only will your network be in better shape now, it will also be in good stead for the future.

Tony Lock is programme director at analyst Freeform Dynamics.