Network Monitoring — 10 December 2013

network monitoring

Bill Brown, Director of Channel Operations, North America, for Paessler AG, says:

Inefficiency, diseconomy, wasted time and effort – even just reading these words gives most IT administrators a bad feeling: ‘We really should review our tools and procedures…’ Many companies waste a lot of time on essential IT processes, for example network monitoring. There are many roads that lead to network monitoring – from open source products to commercial solutions, to isolated applications from individual hardware manufacturers. Focusing too much on saving money at acquisition is often not worthwhile. On the contrary, cheap solutions often cost the IT department more time during installation, administration and troubleshooting. That’s why taking a look at professional, all-in-one monitoring software is definitely worth your while.

Flawless operation of the entire IT infrastructure is imperative for seamless business processes, internal and external communication and usage of all IT systems. Outages in operative processes quickly manifest themselves in financial and temporal losses. A network monitoring solution counteracts this. It monitors the availability of systems, services, applications and bandwidth usage and informs the IT personnel promptly of serious issues. In short: the IT department’s daily business becomes more efficient and its workload is reduced significantly. The network administrators can focus their time and expertise on more important IT projects instead of worrying about the survival of a solution that should actually be contributing to the improvement of the infrastructure. The benefits of the valuable ‘resource’ – the IT administrator – increase. While the monitoring solution is continuously monitoring all IT functions, the IT personnel can tackle other tasks. As long as no alarm is triggered, normal functionality of all components is guaranteed.

That’s why responsible parties shouldn’t take decisions regarding the selection of a suitable tool lightly. Long-term profitableness is especially important here. Of course, the available budget plays a deciding role in the selection. When under pressure to keep costs low, most people choose the cheapest – or free – solutions. Even ‘homemade’ solutions, made up of various isolated applications, are not uncommon. At the moment of purchase, there must have been other reasons – besides the amount to be invested – for choosing product X. But could it maybe be time to rethink this decision? Let’s take a look at the options.

Open Source – First glances are deceiving

Open source software is widely used due to easy availability and installation. Users entertain the hope of being able to set up a suitable solution in a short time and at a low cost. These systems are usually customizable and can be used without license fees. However, implementation and configuration, as well as operation, of open source software can often require above-average effort. Setting up and operating an open source product usually requires some kind of background knowledge; alternatively, an external service provider can be hired to take care of maintenance.

Welcome to the self-help group Open Source Support

From a technical viewpoint the complex, time consuming implementation and configuration often associated with open source solutions are a significant drawback. In general, the software that’s actually available for free only contains basic functions that don’t suffice for detailed monitoring of IT infrastructure. For network monitoring solutions, that means that too many processes and parameters remain unmonitored and the network is still susceptible to unnoticed errors. An example of an open source solution is Nagios. This software offers various different modules for monitoring networks, hosts and special services. Data can be viewed via a web interface, although no modifications can be made here. Product support, however, is often not offered for open source solutions. IT administrators have to find the solutions to their problems on their own. This increases the risk of losing important know-how if the responsible staff leaves the company. True, there are online forums and communities that discuss network monitoring, but that doesn’t guarantee that helpful answers are available for specific problems. Consequently, users are not always able to monitor their networks efficiently or quickly integrate new devices into the monitoring solution. Another weak point might be the continued development of the solution – due to its construction, open source users have to depend on other members of the community, hoping they will feel called to continuously update the product. In addition, users are dependent on their own know-how or that of the community to make valuable further developments to the program.

Complete Solution Kit?

Some companies attempt to single-handedly put together a ‘complete solution’ as an alternative to open source products. This solution might include open source software, manufacturer-based isolated applications, special tools or freeware. This means that these ‘homemade’ solutions often end up containing various systems that might not work together seamlessly and that only suggest comprehensive protection and permanent monitoring. Because the areas that are usually monitored are extremely varied: applications, server statuses, business activity, online status (e.g.: for websites), networks, etc. This list alone shows how many individual solutions would be necessary in order to set up holistic monitoring – and accordingly, how long it would take to set up the connections. If open source products are integrated, the problems outlined above come into play as well: complex, labor-intensive implementation/startup and lacking manufacturer support. Does the possibility of saving a few dollars on license costs, etc. justify these drawbacks? Hardly. Instead, you will ultimately invest a lot more money, resources, time and nerves. All that, and you’re running the risk of inferior monitoring performance.

Targeted Use of Product Expertise

In the past few years, the trend in commercial network monitoring solutions has been turning to ‘all-in-one’ network monitoring software. And yet, these professional, comprehensive monitoring solutions don’t have to cost a fortune. The solution offers various general monitoring functions, as well as special features for individual subareas. For example, these solutions master conventional protocols like SNMP, WMI, ICMP, HTTP, SOAP, REST and xFlow. In addition, they usually also offer a wide selection of preconfigured monitoring options and functionalities (e.g.: for POP3, Exchange, HTTP, FTP, SQL, virtual servers, etc.). This complete solution construction guarantees fast reaction times for future requirements as well. If new devices or network segments are added later, the administrator does not have to painstakingly reprogram the system. Instead, s/he can integrate the updated list of components from various manufacturers in the monitoring with a few mouse clicks.

Installing and implementing this type of product is usually easy and fast. Thanks to commercial manufacturers with binding support contracts, professional and timely support is offered in most cases, as well as continuous updates. Some solutions even offer apps for smartphones and tablets in addition to clear, graphical user interfaces. This enables the administrator to keep tabs on the network status even when s/he isn’t on site. Another advantage is the sustainability – the solutions can be adjusted to growing networks because of their scalable license structures. Nevertheless, the price of tools currently available on the market ranges from ca. 300 Euros for smaller infrastructures to 24 000 Euros for large corporate infrastructures, to over 100 000 Euros, according to the solution and size of the IT infrastructure. A detailed analysis of the actual requirements of the company is highly recommended, in order to avoid investing more than is necessary. Of course, the price itself is only a rough indicator of the performance – more expensive is not necessarily better. Comprehensive solutions for holistic monitoring of large environments are available in the middle price segment.

Conclusion

Daily business can be stressful enough – why complicate matters more? When purchasing a network monitoring solution, the cheapest purchase price should not be the only deciding factor – important functions will fall by the wayside, the demand for internal programming effort will increase, and conscientious updates and professional support will be lacking. Comprehensive, high-quality products that come with manufacturer support are often not as expensive as one might think. Ideally, the provider even offers a test version for the user’s IT environment. In this way, the IT department can check the monitoring solution’s suitability on their own turf and try out available functions.

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