Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Blueprint: Network Capacity Planning and Bandwidth Management in the IoT Era

by Leon Adato, Head Geek, SolarWinds

Enterprise network architecture has certainly evolved; from flat networks where everything was interconnected, to hierarchical models with enhanced security and now to a borderless world. But the one network metric that has remained a priority despite these changes is bandwidth, and by extension the individual traffic flows that comprise it.

Many enterprises have treated bandwidth as the elephant in the room—they have awareness of it and the tools to monitor it, but don’t have nearly enough insight into its usage. They don’t have visibility into usage history. They can’t correlate past performance to future trends. They lack any way to get a breakdown from the “big number” (bandwidth usage) to the root of the problem.

This has to change because, quite frankly, bandwidth is running out, and has been for some time now. What’s more is that there are additional bandwidth-hogging trends starting to crest the horizon.

Where We’re At

Already, BYOD and cloud have added extra layers of complexity when it comes to managing the network. With users connecting externally obtained devices such as cell phones, tablets, smart watches and even personal personal computers to corporate environments on top of corporate-provided devices, we’ve seen an exponential increase in bandwidth consumption. Furthermore, as more infrastructure is moved to the cloud, the network connections needed on that offsite infrastructure have also grown in both number and criticality. As a result, we network administrators have been tasked with redesigning networking schemes to adapt to these changes.

For those of us who have been through this and lived to tell the tale, we know that the key to success in the era of network complexity is preparedness in the form of network capacity planning and bandwidth management. Having a plan to manage current bandwidth issues and regularly analyze utilization information will best set us up to stay ahead of future issues that may arise.

Where We’re Going

Speaking of, what might be considered the second—yet much more challenging—installment of the bandwidth-hogging BYOD trend is fast approaching. Enter another now (in)famous acronym—IoT, or the Internet of Things.

Yes, it’s true that soon, even your company’s toaster oven may be connected to the network, along with a host of other devices and appliances—it won’t just be a swarm of HVAC, lighting and security controls or intelligent shop-floor tools that will expect Internet access; delivery trucks, trailers, shipping containers, smart pallets with onboard GPS, inventory management routing, sort and delivery elements, scanners and sensors of every variety will become Internet “things” using network protocols and bandwidth in unexpected ways. With more network devices in play than ever before, there will be an explosion of network traffic to accommodate the massive data volume, resulting in a harder time regulating the network. While some of the bandwidth being used will of course remain strictly internal, at the end of the day it’s all competing traffic, and competing traffic at a volume we haven’t had to account for in the past.

On top of that, because IoT will fundamentally change the way we humans interact with our environments, the ensuing complexities won’t just be about device and bandwidth entitlement added to the fully burdened cost of each employee. Environments will respond to the presence of humans, and user context—person, authentication, location, traffic, application—will all need to flow seamlessly as people move across traditional IT boundaries. So, as another consequence of IoT, IT departments will need to work closer than ever with the CIO, as well as legal, HR and other business departments.

And of course, it will be left up to us network engineers to sort all of this out.

Getting a Grip on IoT Network Capacity Planning and Bandwidth Management

If you’re like me, it probably seems like you’ve just barely gotten BYOD under control. The good news is that we learned some valuable lessons during that (long) process that are very applicable to getting a grip on IoT network capacity planning and bandwidth issues, too.

First and foremost is the need to closely monitor traffic—and not just the raw volume of network traffic, but application traffic, too. When it comes to IoT, traditional approaches like NetFlow will still be valuable, but IoT traffic will be more about application awareness than simple traffic monitoring and management. Quality of service monitoring is also very important, keeping in mind that IoT device responsiveness will be more important than traditional bandwidth-consuming things like email. Paradoxically, latency and reachability will be top priorities over limiting traffic.

And it won’t be enough to simply be a data collection platform or even a metrics dashboard solution. This monitoring will need to analyze more data than ever before, and transform it into concise, useful information to help us troubleshoot bandwidth-related network performance problems. Providing the breadth and depth of information needed to support devices, applications and networks in the era of IoT can only be done with an end-to-end, comprehensive monitoring solution.

As part of capacity planning for IoT, it will also be important to get IP address management under control and get gear ready for IPv6, which is what most IoT devices will prefer. Traditionally, many of us have managed IP address infrastructure with manual processes, which is labor-intensive, time-consuming and error prone. In addition, it leads to decentralized, fragmented, and outdated data. A simple request for a single new IP assignment can result in many hours of work, complex coordination and the likelihood for errors and conflicts, which in turn, can lead to a plethora of network problems. Just imagine what this will all look like when innumerable IoT devices start requiring their own addresses.

Finally, automate, automate, automate. In the IoT era, automating as much network management as possible will be more important than ever. At a time when there will be more devices accessing the network than you can shake a stick at, automation solutions will help to more quickly correct issues as they arise and will provide immediate remediation to reduce response times, significantly reducing potential network downtime due to any number of IoT-related capacity and bandwidth issues.

While it may seem crazy to say so, network capacity planning and bandwidth management in the IoT era really does not need to be a daunting task—we’ve been down this road before with BYOD. It’s simply a matter of remembering what worked then, being aware of the subtle differences we’ll experience with IoT and planning for them.

About the Author 
Leon Adato is a Head Geek and technical evangelist at SolarWinds, and is a Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), MCSE and SolarWinds Certified Professional (he was once a customer, after all). Before he was a SolarWinds Head Geek, Adato was a SolarWinds® user for over a decade. His expertise in IT began in 1989 and has led him through roles as a classroom instructor, courseware designer, desktop support tech, server support engineer, and software distribution expert. His career includes key roles at Rockwell Automation®, Nestle, PNC, and CardinalHealth providing server standardization, support, and network management and monitoring.

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.

Got an idea for a Blueprint column?  We welcome your ideas on next gen network architecture.
See our guidelines.