Thursday, March 3, 2016

Blueprint: Monitoring as a Discipline and the Network Administrator

by Leon Adato, Head Geek, SolarWinds

As IT professionals, we know our way around data centers like the backs of our hands. But what consistently surprises me when I speak with other admins is the general lack of knowledge about and resources put towards what we at SolarWinds call monitoring as a discipline, especially as it pertains to monitoring networks.

Evolution of the network

The network is a complex thing, and it has evolved considerably over the past decade.

For example, the network used to be defined by a mostly wired, physical entity controlled by routers and switches. Business connections were based on T1 and ISDN, and Internet connectivity was always backhauled through the data center. Each network device was a piece of company-owned hardware, and applications operated on well-defined ports and protocols. VoIP was used infrequently, and anywhere connectivity—if even a thing—was provided by the low-quality bandwidth of cell-based Internet access.

Today, however, wireless is becoming ubiquitous—it’s even overtaking wired networks in many instances—and the number of devices wirelessly connecting to the network is exploding (think Internet of Things). It doesn’t end there, though—networks are growing in all directions. Some network devices are even virtualized, resulting in a complex amalgam of the physical, the virtual and the Internet. Business connections are DSL/cable and Ethernet services. BYOD, BYOA, tablets and smartphones are prevalent and are creating bandwidth capacity and security issues. Application visibility based on port and protocol is largely impossible due to applications tunneling via HTTP/HTTPS. VOIP is common, also imposing higher demands on network bandwidth, and LTE provides high-quality anywhere connectivity.  

And the future isn’t looking any simpler. The Internet of Things (IoT); software defined networking (SDN); and hybrid IT, with its accompanying challenge of ensuring acceptable quality of service to meet the business performance needs for any given service delivered via a cloud provider, are all cresting the horizon.

What’s my point? These trends, challenges and complexities underscore a new set of monitoring and management essentials.

Enter monitoring as a discipline

What is monitoring as a discipline?

Monitoring as a discipline varies from simply monitoring in that it is an actual role, the defined job of one or more individuals within an organization, not just something “everyone kind of does when it’s needed.” The most important benefit of such a dedicated role is the ability to turn data points from various monitoring tools and utilities into more actionable insights for the business by looking at all of them from a holistic vantage point, rather than each disparately.

Although such a monitoring-dedicated individual or team is in reality probably only likely at larger organizations at this point in time, small- and medium-sized businesses may want to take note, as their infrastructures, all of which rely on the backbone known as the network, are only going to get more complex, bringing the need for even them to create such a role into sharp focus. Don’t believe me? Think about how common hiring a dedicated information security professional was ten years ago—nearly unheard of. But today, many organizations of almost every size consider this to be a necessity given the constant specter of security breaches.

Now reflect on how IT environments, not just the network, have grown, both in size and complexity, being distributed across geographies more than ever. In turn, monitoring them has equally grown in complexity. In fact, due to hybrid IT, it has become extremely difficult to pinpoint the root cause of issues—whether they lie with the cloud services provider or the organization’s internal network itself.

Thus, the “old way” of monitoring, where network admins, server admins and storage admins, etc. each operate in silos, monitoring only within their specific realm without much if any cross-silo oversight, is no longer really a viable option. By employing an expert who monitors as a specific discipline across all of the traditional silos can provide a cohesive view across an organization’s IT spectrum, making root cause analysis much more efficient and accurate, reducing costs in the process.

Expanding monitoring skillsets

All that said, given budget constraints, the reality for IT departments at many small- and medium-sized businesses will be one without such a dedicated monitoring expert for at least the near future. If having a dedicated monitoring expert is not in the cards for now, the next step is to expand your current IT team’s monitoring skillset. At minimum, your team should at least be able to effectively monitor:
  • Hardware
  • Networks (i.e. NetFlow and syslog)
  • Applications
  • Virtualization
  • Configurations
Configuration monitoring is especially important because when it comes to configs—what changed as well as the exact moment the change was made is critical to both the security and stability of entire environments. In fact, 80 percent of all corporate outages are caused by unexpected or uncontrolled config changes. And, in all honesty, in the absence of a dedicated monitoring expert, we generalist network admins are perhaps best positioned to step in and corral all this monitoring data into one cohesive set of actionable insights.

In conclusion

As the network becomes more complex and expands in nearly every direction, monitoring as a discipline will become more critical to business success. In summary, companies of all sizes should consider:
  • Adding a dedicated monitoring expert or experts who can provide a holistic view of the organization’s infrastructure performance, turning seemingly disparate data points gathered by monitoring tools into valuable, actionable insights.
  • If a dedicated expert is not possible, ensure the current IT team understands the nuances of monitoring hardware, networks, applications, virtualization and configurations and has a comprehensive, but not necessarily expensive, suite of monitoring tools available.
  • Putting network admins in charge of corralling all this monitoring data.
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 

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