Let’s be honest: Network management is a big responsibility.

It includes monitoring and controlling a computer network to ensure all of its resources—both hardware and software—are in good shape and are being used productively. And if you’re not a network expert (or don’t have one on your payroll), that probably sounds pretty intimidating.

But there’s no time like the present to tackle the topic of network management head on. And if you’re looking for a crash course, then you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we’ll cover what network management is, network management components, fault management, configuration management, administration, performance management, security management, and helpful tips for managing a network.

What is network management?

Network management is the process of monitoring and controlling a computer network to ensure all of its resources—both hardware and software—are in good shape and are being used productively.

This process is overseen by a person—a network administrator, network manager, or MSP—who uses protocols, systems, devices, and applications to ensure the network can keep up with business demands and user expectations.

Network management is a huge responsibility. To better understand what the job entails, it’s helpful to break things down into five key areas encompassed by the FCAPS acronym: fault management, configuration management, administration, performance management, and security management.

What are the components of a network management system?

Network fault management

A fault—more commonly called an issue or an error—is an event that shows a problem in the network. Common faults are things like packet discards, packet errors, or high interface utilization, but the possibilities are essentially endless.

The goal of fault management is to minimize downtime. The faster a network manager knows about an error in the network, the better.

To fix a fault before it escalates and interferes with client uptime, there are four important steps a network manager needs to follow:

  1. Detect the problem.
  2. Isolate the problem and determine what’s causing it.
  3. Troubleshoot and resolve the problem.
  4. Document the process that was used to resolve the problem.

For MSPs, step 4 is extremely important. With multiple techs troubleshooting issues, documenting previous faults and how they were resolved can help streamline resolution in the future. This way, your team isn’t wasting time trying to solve the same faults repeatedly with no reference point.

Network configuration management

For a network and its devices to do what they’re supposed to, they need to be configured or told what to do.

The goal of configuration management is to monitor and document network and device configurations. This requires network managers to set, maintain, organize, and update configuration information for both the network and its devices.

Network configurations include:

  • Router and switch configuration, which specifies the network’s correct IP addresses, route settings, and more.
  • Host configuration, which connects a host device (like a computer or laptop) to the network by logging network settings like IP address, device routing tables, and DNS server configuration.
  • Software configuration, which gives appropriate credentials to network-based software—like Auvik, for example—so it can access the network and monitor network traffic.

Network device configurations include operating system version, firmware version, serial numbers, IP address, routing configuration, switch VLAN configuration, and more.

To keep track of all this information, it’s best practice for network managers to securely store this information. Then, as configuration parameters change, you want the documentation to immediately update so the information you have is always up to date.

This documentation is a critical part of configuration management. It’s referred to when a network or one of its devices needs to be modified, expanded, or repaired, which helps return the network or device to its pre-outage state quickly and minimize downtime.

Network administration

The “A” in FCAPS can mean administration or accounting.

As an MSP, you’re responsible for network administration. This means administering network users with passwords and permissions, backing up software, and more.

Accounting management refers to resource usage and billing—this is important if you’re an MSP who offers internet services, bills on the usage of a WAN link, or monitors public cloud usage.

Network performance management

Performance management is all about the efficiency of the network—both right now and in the future.

Network performance is measured using metrics like throughput, uptime and downtime, error rates, percentage utilization, response time, and latency. This data is primarily collected using SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol), without which we couldn’t identify devices, monitor network performance, or keep track of changes to the network.

To effectively monitor network performance, a network manager:

  1. Gathers performance data—manually or automatically.
  2. Analyzes the data to establish baseline levels.
  3. Establishes performance thresholds. This step feeds into fault management—when a threshold is exceeded, it means there’s a problem that needs to be taken care of.

Sometimes, data may seem abnormal. To get extra visibility and context into performance metrics, you can dive beyond the performance metadata SNMP provides to get closer to the traffic by leveraging protocols like NetFlow.

By collecting and analyzing NetFlow data on a client device, you’re able to get important information from incoming and outgoing traffic. This can include information like source and destination IP, source and destination port, and Layer 4 protocol. With this information, you can determine if network traffic is legitimate.

This data is important for forecasting the future of the network, otherwise called network capacity planning. If the client is seeing internal bottlenecks while only doing business-critical work, its likely they’ll have to upgrade their network infrastructure. If they’re using all of their external bandwidth, then they’ll need to increase the capacity provided by their ISP.

The data can also be used to help make the case for network upgrades on the fly. If you discover a network device (or devices) consistently causing performance issues, then it’s likely a sign it needs to be updated or replaced.

Network security management

Today, there’s no shortage of cybersecurity threats—from DDoS attacks and cryptojacking to mobile malware, it feels like we’re all one click away from taking down whatever network we’re on. What is network security? Well, it’s a critical part of network management.

The goal of security management—and the main responsibility of a network manager—is to prevent, detect, and quickly respond to prevent security threats. Since 100% prevention isn’t possible, a quick response to security threats is essential.

This is achieved through using different security tools and systems, including:

  • Firewalls: A firewall is a device that monitors network traffic and uses a set of security rules to permit or block data packets coming and going from the network.
  • Reverse proxy servers: A reverse proxy server masquerades as a web server on the edge of a network, while the real server sits somewhere inside the network. It forwards data to and from the real server, which is only needed if you have a server accessible from the internet.
  • Web application firewalls: A web application firewall is a device that sits between the internet and a web application to protect applications from cross-site forgery, cross-site-scripting, SQL injection, and more.
  • Intrusion detection systems: An intrusion detection system monitors packets and sessions for malicious activity. If activity is discovered, it’s reported.
  • Intrusion prevention systems: An intrusion prevention system detects and prevents malicious incidents. It reports any threats to a system admin or a network manager and takes preventative action, like closing access to the network.
  • Email scanners: An email scanner protects endpoints from spam and malware attacks by scanning emails for viruses.
  • Antivirus software: Antivirus software prevents, detects, and removes software viruses from network devices.

These tools and systems help to authenticate, encrypt, and authorize traffic flowing through the network and ensure it’s supposed to be there.

If traffic is unauthorized, policies can be applied to prevent users from gaining access to sensitive information. And if unauthorized traffic makes its way through, a network manager has a much bigger issue on their hands.

As an MSP, security management can also extend to physical security, as electronic access and surveillance systems are connected to the network.

Why is network management important?

As technology advances, networks have grown significantly in size and scope, making network management systems increasingly important to ensure networks run efficiently and securely. Networks now carry data, voice, and video as a part of their service, and this requires network management that has visibility into all the more robust network’s infrastructure. In addition, there are more BYOD users on a network that must also be connected and managed.

Network management benefits organizations in a multitude of ways, including:

  • Reduced network disruptions
  • Improved network security
  • Increased IT productivity
  • Better view of network performance

What are the challenges in maintaining effective network management and infrastructure?

One challenge in maintaining effective network management is that networks now have greater complexities, and the number of devices on a network seems to constantly increase. Networks change and grow regularly, and each additional device results in a new element to manage. Additionally, no two devices on a network are always the same, with different vendors manufacturing similar devices.

Another challenge is that network users have dramatically increased their expectations for faster network speed and accessibility. Advances in technology among the different types of networks continue to propel this notion.

Additionally, these advances in technology also apply to security threats as they become more numerous and complex in nature.

Although there are many challenges in maintaining effective network management and infrastructure, there are also solutions such as Auvik that automate network management functions, streamline operations, and better manage business risk. Auvik system security follows industry best practices and has security protocols at every layer.

What can I use to help me manage a network?

It’s impossible to effectively carry out all the network management functions without systems, tools, applications, and processes to help.

A network management system includes tools and applications that support a network manager in monitoring and controlling the network. A network management system can detect, configure, monitor, and troubleshoot network devices, mitigating the need for a lot of manual work.

While there are specialized applications that can help you carry out each function, you’ll ideally have one that helps you cover all five. Yet not all network management systems are created equal.

So, with so many tools on the market, how do you know which one is right for you? Here are five things you should ask yourself before investing in a new network management system.

Can it automate manual processes?

To keep pace with your constantly evolving client networks, it’s important to leverage automation wherever you can. Luckily, there are a lot of manual network management tasks that can be automated, including:

  1. Network inventory and assessments
  2. Network mapping and device discovery
  3. Configuration backups
  4. Wire tracing
  5. Remote network infrastructure access

If a network management system can automate these traditionally time-consuming tasks—and ideally more—then you’ll be able to focus on other things, like winning new clients and keeping them connected.

Does it give real-time visibility into the network?

For many network management systems today, real-time visibility is no longer a negotiable feature—it’s a must-have.

You need visibility to identify issues before they escalate and cause downtime, and to quickly troubleshoot issues when they do interrupt productivity. With real-time visibility, network managers can immediately see the operational health and status of the network and its devices, and be alerted when an issue arises.

Does it offer multi-vendor support?

It’s your job to keep all your clients’ network devices and workstations connected. For someone unfamiliar with network management and managed services, it might not seem like that tall of a task.

But consider this: For network devices alone, there are hundreds of different vendors, and any given client likely has a mishmash of devices in their network. In fact, a majority of MSPs are managing 4 or more different network device vendors across their clients.

Throw in a lack of industry standardization across devices and things get pretty complicated.

In order to manage mixed-bag environments, a network management system needs to be vendor-agnostic, or offer multi-vendor support.

Can it integrate with other tools?

After identifying which automated, vendor-agnostic tools will best help you achieve your network management goals, the next step is to look at how—or if—they’ll work together.

There are tons of tools that fit each FCAPS component (quick refresher: fault management, configuration management, administration, performance management, and security management) category.

If you can’t find one that covers all five, then you’ll want to integrate the ones you use into the rest of your software stack as much as possible.

Pro tip: Look for products and vendors that have opened up their tools with APIs (application programming interfaces). APIs give you the flexibility you need to integrate other products into your software stack.

With an integrated software stack, you’re able to make your workflow more productive and efficient—and make network management a heck of a lot easier. Auvik’s cloud-based network management software gives you true network visibility and control and is easy to implement in under an hour.

With Auvik, you can automate network visibility and IT asset management, simplify network performance monitoring and troubleshooting, intelligently analyze network traffic, and more. Start your free trial today and see how Auvik can support and improve your team’s network management system.

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