ABC: An introduction to network monitoring

Tools help you maintain health of network and plan for future growth

Network monitoring for a corporate network is a critical IT function that can save money in network performance, employee productivity and infrastructure cost overruns. A network monitoring system (NMS) monitors an internal network for problems. It can find and help resolve snail-paced Web page downloads, lost-in-space e-mail, questionable user activity and file delivery caused by overloaded, crashed servers, dicey network connections or other devices.

NMSs are much different from intrusion-detection systems (IDS) or intrusion prevention systems (IPS). These other systems detect break-ins and prevent scurrilous activity from unauthorized users. An NMS lets you know how well the network is running during the course of ordinary operations; its focus isn't on security per se.

Network monitoring can be achieved using various applications or a combination of plug-and-play hardware and software appliances. Virtually any kind of network can be monitored. It doesn't matter whether it's wireless or wired, a corporate LAN, virtual private network or service-provider WAN. You can monitor devices on different operating systems with a multitude of functions, including BlackBerries, cell phones, servers, routers and switches. These systems can help you identify specific activities and performance metrics, producing results that enable a business to address various and sundry needs, including meeting compliance requirements, stomping out internal security threats and providing more operational visibility.

Deciding specifically what to monitor on your network is as important as giving network monitoring a general thumbs-up. You must be sure that your corporate network topology map is up to date. That map should accurately lay out the different types of networks to be monitored, which servers are running which applications on which operating systems, how many desktops need to be counted into the mix, and what kind of remote devices have access for each network. A dose of clarity at the outset makes choosing which monitoring tools to purchase down the line somewhat simpler.

If it works, why fix it?

You might think that if the network is up and running, there is no reason to mess with it. Why should you care about adding another project for your network managers to scribble across their whiteboards, already crammed floor to ceiling? The reasons to insist on network monitoring can be summarized on a high level into maintaining the network's current health, ensuring availability and improving performance. An NMS also can help you build a database of critical information that you can use to plan for future growth.

The best argument for attempting to predict your network's growth is your existing infrastructure's history and the problems that resulted from decisions made with too little data. Chances are, significant changes have been made to the network since it was installed (was that the same year the Red Sox won the title?). Along with those configuration changes, added devices, servers and desktops, come traffic-load imbalances on Web and e-mail servers, overtaxed connections and links that go nowhere fast.

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