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Network Management: How to Develop a Clear-Cut Roadmap

Networks are evolving from manual monitoring to automated monitoring to observability. What’s the best way to orchestrate this evolution, and what are the critical issues that IT needs to address?

Not long ago, a company asked me to review its IT documentation as it prepared for an audit.

Systems, hardware, and software documentation were in order, but the network was a hodgepodge of documents that failed to connect the dots. Instead, the story that network documents revealed about the network was that many changes had been made quickly to accommodate another organization that had been acquired and to add a multitude of new users in different locales.

Often, companies find themselves in this situation. They undergo change rapidly, and it’s difficult to keep network documentation up to date. More troubling is the inability to develop a clear-cut network roadmap that addresses future network needs, expansion, and security.

How do you develop an effective network roadmap while keeping pace with workloads? Proceed step by step. Building a network roadmap is an exciting strategic exercise, but first the current baseline network should be assessed and understood.

There are numerous steps in this process. Undertaking these steps while concurrently managing daily network health and operations can be daunting.

Because of this, it’s useful to break down network roadmap building into a series of systematic steps, and to tackle each step individually.

Step 1: Revisit performance and workload goals

What network performance goals must be met each day for the business? Where are they being met, and where are they failing? Are your network goals variegated? For instance, an organization might have an internal network for employees and an external telemedicine network for doctors and patients. Each is likely to have different performance, throughput, and quality of service (QoS) goals.

By reviewing performance metrics and trends, you can see where the network’s strengths and weaknesses are as you build the roadmap.

Step 2: Automate documentation

The future of the network is automation.

This should start with what the Achilles’ heel of most networks is likely to be: documentation.

Most network documentation is still largely manually maintained and out of date. Network administrators often find themselves working like CAD engineers, developing network schematics from scratch -- if their daily work allows them time to do this.

One solution is automated network documentation. There are tools on the market that will scan your network and produce their own network schematics, which you can tweak or add notes to as needed.

Step 3: Chart your network monitoring direction

Everyone wants to go to 5G, boost Wi-Fi, support on-demand video, audio, data payloads and a plethora of devices and platforms, but how do you monitor networks at this level of sophistication?

The path suggested is network automation, which moves from manual network monitoring to automated monitoring to network observability.

Today, companies use a mix of manual and automated monitoring. Network professionals check dashboards and drill down into trouble areas. There is also software monitoring and automation software that scans network entry points for vulnerabilities and security breaches, provides traceability, and performs automated functions like updating software to the latest versions across all devices on the network. Some of this software monitors IoT (Internet of Things) edge technologies, issuing alerts when network anomalies or abnormalities are detected.

Unfortunately, when network issues are found, network professionals must drill down into them, determining root causes so they can be solved. This is where the next generation of network monitoring -- observability -- comes in.

Step 4: Define your network automation path

If automation is the path of network evolution, what most companies want to do is to automate more elements of monitoring and progress into the stage of network observability, where artificial intelligence (AI) can tell you not only that something is wrong, but why it is wrong. Using observability software, which employs machine learning (ML) to learn the dynamics of your network infrastructure so it has a context for issue troubleshooting, can speed times to problem resolution because the observability software not only issues alerts -- but it also tells you why the alerts might be occurring based on what it knows and what it has observed. This cuts down manual root cause analysis time.

Observability uses network logs to determine when specific events connected to an issue occurred, who or what generated the issue, etc. It tracks metrics such as how much memory or bandwidth was used by a certain network request -- and it traces events as they move from one network node to the next.

AI-based observability can winnow through a slew of network alerts, isolating only the ones that matter, because it understands the network’s operational infrastructure. It can suggest root causes for what is wrong. This is what speeds time to resolution for network professionals and is the future of network automation.

Step 5: Decide what’s next

If most companies recognize that observability and full automation of the network is their network monitoring future, the key to building the network roadmap will be filling in all the points between where the network is now and the endpoint of what could be total network observability.

It also means that the most likely steps to be taken are gradual progressions in automation and phase-ins of what will likely be substantial funding needed for network automation tools.

In all cases, it is likely that observability and total automation will be tested incrementally to build trust in the technology, and to define the intervention points for IT staff in newly automated network processes.

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