Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Blueprint: The Rise of the Network Monitoring Engineer

by Patrick Hubbard, Head Geek, SolarWinds

Today’s network engineers experience tremendous complexity, in part due to increasing demand, but also given the diversity of protocols and the high number of multi-tier applications that are often outside of their control. Combined with improved automated failover it’s become impossible (except in the largest of organizations) for network administrators to be highly specialized, meaning the days of being a router jockey are gone.

Network administrators today are stuck between everyday tasks of change management, hardware refreshes and strategic changes required to support new business initiatives, and the on-demand troubleshooting work they are asked to do. On top of this, automation encourages IT managers to streamline their teams, so as network complexity increases, paradoxically the number of people available to help address these tasks is actually decreasing.

But this doesn’t mean the future of network administration is bleak. There are a number of ways network engineers can improve their skills and remain relevant to their organizations, especially at a time when hybrid IT is taking center stage. According to the most recent SolarWinds IT Trends Report, just nine percent of North American organizations have not migrated at least some infrastructure to the cloud and nearly all IT professionals say adopting cloud technologies is important to their organizations’ long-term business success.

Networking in a Hybrid Environment

In such complex environments, network administrators need the ability to view performance, traffic and configuration details of devices both within and outside their traditional networks. However, hybrid IT means network administrators have much more opacity or outright lack of control over the resources in the cloud that they need to manage and monitor.

Because the end user expectation that IT be able to assure delivery of services is the same for on-premises and cloud, this can be frustrating. It’s exacerbated by cloud service providers who include proprietary monitoring and management tools, but are not vendor-agnostic.  They actually create extra work for administrators who must flip between multiple dashboards without the benefit of holistic views that would allow them to troubleshoot quickly.

Often, such tools also spew alerts without indicating what might be causing the issue. For example, for an application running in the data center, network administrators have visibility into every network layer required to host the hypervisor. However, when that application is moved into the cloud, network administrators lose the administrative authority to be able to easily monitor.  They require a new way to monitor in order to keep the same rich visibility if it were on-premises.

Administrators still need to monitor interface performance, as well as identify service delivery issues as part of the path connecting the service to the end user. New technologies have become available that reveal the physical connectivity of the service components and end uses who might be experiencing poor performance.

So while using disparate vendor-provided tools may be cost-effective in the short term, having a large number of disparate solutions is its own kind of trouble—it doesn’t lend itself to a coherent, integrated alerting and notification strategy that allows administrators to stay on top of performance, ultimately costing time and money in the long term.

The Rise of the Dedicated Monitoring Engineer

Hybrid IT is drawing attention to the need for a new approach to monitoring and management essentials. Enter monitoring as a discipline, which varies from simple monitoring in that it is the defined role of one or more individuals within an organization. A designated monitoring engineer is able to work across systems and environments, thereby removing network and data center silos and gaining the able to turn data points generated by monitoring tools into actionable insights for the business.

Hiring a monitoring engineer or better yet, a team of monitoring engineers, should be considered a critical investment in services and business success. It’s one thing to say that companies need a certain headcount in order to maintain a business and keep the lights on, but another thing entirely when it comes to IT, which is largely viewed as a cost center, and every year most departments are exceeding budgets. However, enlightened companies are beginning to view monitoring as a cost-effective way to achieve greater IT ROI. Instead of purchasing ad hoc tools to keep an eye on their technology, progressive companies have figured out a way to bring discipline and structure to their monitoring practices via staffing and resources. For the right organization, this would be a team of monitoring engineers each with their own specialization—network monitoring, systems monitoring, etc.—but who work in lockstep from a “single point of truth” when it comes to overall infrastructure performance.

How to Make the Business Case for a Monitoring Engineer

With accelerating IT complexity in mind, it’s important that IT management begin to instill monitoring as a discipline principles within the business. IT professionals are already strapped for time and resources, and management needs to step in to help evangelize internally, offer examples and best practices and put budget for new tools and technologies behind these efforts in order to achieve the full benefit of monitoring as a discipline. Management must make a strong business case that the monitoring engineer or engineers will achieve ROI for not only the IT department, but the organization as a whole.

Critical Monitoring Engineer Skills

Although monitoring engineers must possess basic network engineering skills, there are a few particular skillsets in addition that are necessary to be truly successful in the role. These include:
  • A programmer’s eye towards customization and a willingness to improve – Often, we buy technology that’s custom-made and use it right out of the box. But the most successful monitoring engineer will turn their eye towards improving it all the time.
  • An analyst’s eye for data – Instead of simply poring over endless numbers in a spreadsheet, a monitoring engineer should be able to take a step back, look at the bigger picture and ask themselves what their “customers” will be using their monitoring reports for and how they should be visualized. And they must remember, less is more. 
  • On top of cultivating their skills with experience, studying is key – The best way to hone skills is to learn on the fly, as well as spend more than a few lunch breaks and evenings testing new technologies and processes in a lab environment. 
Our networks are growing in complexity as they become further tied to all elements of the IT environment, extending all the way to cloud. IT management should seize this opportunity to return as much value as possible out of existing technology by hiring a monitoring engineer or a monitoring team with at least one individual focused on the network that works in tandem with existing teams to holistically monitor the performance of the entire IT infrastructure.  Whether on-premises or in the cloud, these resources maintain an eye towards improving existing systems, delivering promised ROI and driving repeatable progress for the business.

About the Author

Patrick Hubbard is a head geek and senior technical product marketing manager at SolarWinds. With 20 years of technical expertise and IT customer perspective, his networking management experience includes work with campus, data center, storage networks, VoIP and virtualization, with a focus on application and service delivery in both Fortune 500 companies and startups in high tech, transportation, financial services and telecom industries.

About SolarWinds

SolarWinds (NYSE: SWI) provides powerful and affordable hybrid IT infrastructure management software to customers worldwide from Fortune 500® enterprises to small businesses, government agencies and educational institutions. We are committed to focusing exclusively on IT Pros, and strive to eliminate the complexity that they have been forced to accept from traditional enterprise software vendors. Regardless of where the IT asset or user sits, SolarWinds delivers products that are easy to find, buy, use, maintain and scale while providing the power to address all key areas of the infrastructure from on premises to the cloud. Our solutions are rooted in our deep connection to our user base, which interacts in our thwack online community to solve problems, share technology and best practices, and directly participate in our product development process. Learn more today at www.solarwinds.com.



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