The Shortcut Guide to Network Management for the Mid-Market

by Greg Shields


Successfully managing a computer network means keeping straight dozens or hundreds of network devices. And, unfortunately, too many network administrators don’t have the time or the experience to implement processes to monitor and automate network management. The Shortcut Guide to Network Management for the Mid-Market, specifically written for SMB and mid-market businesses, outlines real-world technologies, processes, and guiding steps necessary to transform your network operations from reactive to proactive.

Using the OSI FCAPS network model as a framework, this guide will lead the network engineer and the IT manager through the critical components of fault, performance, configuration and security management, and will provide a detailed discussion on network troubleshooting and diagnostics. The Shortcut Guide to Network Management for the Mid-Market discusses technologies to implement for centralized management and monitoring as well as proactive steps you can take in your network to plan and prepare for problems before they happen.


Chapter 1: FCAPS, Network Management Fundamentals, and Fault Management

Building an exceptional network involves the proper mix of skilled individuals, an intelligent design, the correct hardware, and the knowledge and experience to put it together correctly. In the largest of networks, that mix regularly produces some of the best networks in the world. However, there are hundreds of ways to design and run a network.

Money is often considered the differentiator between the best-run and the worst-run networks in the world. When businesses have plenty of cash to throw at their network infrastructure, they end up with industry experts who create best-in-class designs that leverage the market’s greatest tools, don’t they? Maybe, but having all the money in the world doesn’t necessarily mean you’re spending it well. Plenty of companies throw millions at their network and don’t achieve the great things they had hoped. That suggests that wisdom, not just piles of money, plays a big role in making things great.

Businesses that operate in the small to midsize business (SMB) space and within the mid-market don’t usually have the luxury to afford industry experts and the most expensive tools. In the mid-market, the people we label as “network engineers” wear multiple hats, doing server administration in the morning, acting as the Help desk in the afternoon, and working throughout the night on network administration. Thus, SMB and mid-market businesses must think wisely when making network infrastructure decisions. This guide is written specifically for you, the harried network administrator, in an attempt to show you some of the wisest tools and techniques to administer, troubleshoot, and automate your network infrastructure.

Chapter 2: Performance Management

The real productivity killer in most networks is a performance level that doesn’t meet the needs of users. When network performance is consistently below acceptable levels, business cannot operate at full efficiency, workers can’t accomplish tasks on time, and the regular movement of business suffers. To exacerbate this situation, smoking out performance issues on a network is virtually impossible without the proper toolset. If you’ve ever gotten the dreaded “the network is slow” phone call, you know how difficult it can be to track down the problem. This chapter will discuss the tools that can prepare you for when that call comes, enabling you to respond with “I’m on it. I know what the problem is.”

The previous chapter outlined the FCAPS model of network management and how that model will be used to guide the conversation on network management fundamentals. It then zeroed in on the F in FCAPS to talk about fault management. That discussion broke down the steps in fault management and talked about the best ways to implement formal and informal tactics in detecting and correcting faults. It also illustrated how implementing an effective network management system (NMS) that provides for monitoring and alerting is the first step in moving from a reactive administration model to one of proactive administration. Chapter 1 dove into four key technologies—SNMP, SNMP traps, MIBs, and Syslog—and how these four technologies are critical for the operation of a successful NMS.

This chapter will build on this foundation discuss how these technologies can be used for the P in FCAPS: performance management. Starting with an analysis of the four key steps in managing performance, this chapter will enlighten you about the items to document, the metrics to monitor, and the actions to take to ensure your network is operating at peak efficiency.

Chapter 3: Configuration Management and Security

The average mid-size company of 250 employees typically serves the same number of workstations with about 25 servers. Those nodes on the network are interconnected by about nine network devices, through firewalls, switches, and routers. For a network of that size, the average network device configuration contains about 300 lines per device. Multiplying those two numbers, you get the potential for more than 2700 individual configurations, just to connect a relatively small number of devices.

The big question is this: In a critical situation, could you rebuild those 2700 lines purely from memory? It’s the implementation of configuration management into your network environment that helps you answer that question in the affirmative.

Chapter 2 discussed performance management in relation to the FCAPS model of network management. The chapter discussed how managing performance in a network can be virtually impossible without a baseline to measure it by, and talked about how to use your NMS to measure the changes in performance from your baseline and how those changes in performance can trace back to configuration inconsistencies or other underlying problems. The chapter also brought forward some good technical and business metrics that illustrate network performance and validate it to your business leaders.

This chapter will move away from the P in FCAPS and focus on the C and the S—configuration management and security. This chapter will discuss how you can use a good NMS to consistently manage, store, and audit the configuration of devices on your network. We’ll explore the four steps in establishing and maintaining an environment configuration and relate those to the underlying financial reasons why configuration management has business relevance. The chapter will go over a set of features that an effective NMS should incorporate to assist with this task, and will finish up with a short discussion about how good device configuration dovetails into good device security.

Chapter 4: Network Troubleshooting & Diagnostics

The most difficult part of any troubleshooting process is often just learning that there is a problem. Throughout, this guide has discussed how an effective NMS can keep you informed about the status and health of your network. We’ve discussed how an NMS can inform you when a network fault occurs or when performance suffers. We talked about how that same NMS can assist with maintaining a stable and consistent configuration for the devices on the network. Utilization of an effective NMS with administrator notification goes far toward resolving this difficult part of troubleshooting—knowing if there even is a problem.

Next up in difficulty is finding out what that problem really is. It isn’t a stretch to say that the same NMS that alerts you when a problem occurs can assist with problem identification. But sometimes the event or condition that triggers the alarm isn’t always the root cause of the problem. If you receive an alert that a network link isn’t meeting its performance SLA, you don’t always immediately know what is causing performance to drop. Once you know the root cause of the problem, the resolution is usually a Google search away. But finding that root cause can consume the vast majority of the time involved with fixing the problem. It is this process of network troubleshooting where network administrators truly earn our keep. The ability to quickly and efficiently perform troubleshooting when a problem occurs separates the veteran administrators from the green ones. No matter what your experience level with troubleshooting, maintaining a good tool suite along with a good technique is critically important. This last chapter will dig into both to help you become a better troubleshooter.