Staying on top of client networks is no walk in the park for MSPs these days. With the growing reliance on cloud apps, distributed workforces, and constant technology changes, network environments have become exponentially more complex.
Without rock-solid network management practices, disruptions and plummeting productivity become inevitable for clients. This makes it more crucial than ever for MSPs to level up their network management game.
In this article, we cover everything you need to know to conquer IT network management in today’s digital landscape, from the nitty-gritty of network components to strategic future trends.
What is network management?
Network management for MSPs 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 used productively.
This process is overseen by 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.
At its core, network management keeps everyone productive by providing access to the applications and data they need, when they need it, with minimal disruption. This requires MSPs to juggle ongoing tasks like monitoring performance, troubleshooting problems, applying security measures, and handling maintenance.
But to really deliver on those goals, MSPs need to master several key elements:
You have to become a pro at planning, implementing, and managing the nuts and bolts of network infrastructure day-to-day. That means you install hardware, configure software and services, add/remove network nodes, and handle user accounts.
You need to have the daily running and oversight of network performance and availability down pat. You need to track usage, quickly diagnose issues, optimize traffic flow, generate reports, ensure compliance, and meet SLAs.
You have to keep infrastructure humming through preventative maintenance. That means regular hardware repair/replacement, software patches and upgrades, testing redundancies, and comprehensive documentation.
Troubleshooting network issues and outages quickly is also a key aspect of maintenance to minimize downtime. Having visibility into network performance data and logs is crucial for rapid diagnosis and resolution of problems. Maintaining robust documentation of issues encountered and how they were fixed accelerates troubleshooting recurring incidents in the future.
The goal is to restore normal network operations as quickly as possible through proactive maintenance and timely troubleshooting.
You need to become adept at the design and deployment of new infrastructure, services, and capacity as business needs evolve. Key skills are adding bandwidth, extending connectivity to new sites, and installing wireless access points.
You have to relentlessly protect infrastructure and traffic from intrusions, attacks, and unauthorized access. Crucial tasks include hardening devices, implementing cybersecurity controls, monitoring activity, managing access, and setting policies.
Why is network management important?
As technology advances, networks have grown significantly in size and scope. This makes 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
The role of MSPs in network management
As an MSP, your network management expertise is more valuable than ever thanks to two key factors.
One is that network complexity is skyrocketing. Between cloud integrations, remote access support, and new technologies, IT networks have unprecedented complexity today. This makes comprehensive management a huge challenge for in-house teams.
Two is that advanced network admin talent is scarce. Certifications and skills in cutting-edge areas like software-defined networking remain in incredibly high demand. The talent pool simply can’t keep pace. Even big enterprises struggle to recruit and retain these specialized experts internally.
You hold the keys to fill this widening expertise gap for clients by providing:
- Cost savings: You prevent expensive outages through proactive management.
- Improved efficiency: Your automation and centralized management streamline network processes.
- Enhanced security: You stay up-to-date on the latest network security landscapes and threats.
- Regulatory compliance: You ensure adherence to any industry-specific network regulations.
- Specialized expertise: Your team holds those in-demand advanced network certifications.
- 24/7 monitoring: You provide constant insight into network operations and performance.
- Increased agility: You rapidly scale client bandwidth and resources up or down as needed.
- Reduced complexity: You integrate disjointed systems and provide unified network visibility.
- Strategic guidance: You advise clients on how to leverage network innovations.
Your network management expertise helps clients cost-effectively bridge their skill gaps while staying competitively agile. That’s an invaluable service. And yes, it applies to every company, even those with in-house IT teams.
According to Auvik research in 2022, about 45% of IT professionals didn’t have a complete picture of how their networks are configured. What does that mean for you?
There are a lot more potential clients out there in need of IT support than you might have thought.
5 core components of network management for MSPs
Network management is a huge responsibility. To better understand what the job entails, it’s helpful to break things down into the five key areas encompassed by FCAPS.
What is FCAPS?
FCAPS stands for fault management, configuration management, administration, performance management, and security management. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) developed the model in the early 1980s to provide a framework for a more proactive approach to network management, which had primarily been reactive up until that point. The FCAPS model empowers administrators with greater visibility and control over their infrastructure to deliver more reliable and efficient network services.
1. 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:
- Detect the problem.
- Isolate the problem and determine the cause.
- Troubleshoot and resolve the problem.
- Document the process used to resolve the problem.
For MSPs, step four is extremely important. With multiple techs troubleshooting issues, documenting previous faults and how they were resolved, you can streamline resolutions in the future. This way, your team doesn’t waste time repeatedly solving the same faults with no reference point.
2. Network configuration management
Well, 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 you always have the latest information.
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 minimizes downtime.
3. 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.
4. Network performance management
Performance management is all about the efficiency of the network—both right now and in the future.
Network performance measures 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:
- Gathers performance data—manually or automatically.
- Analyzes the data to establish baseline levels.
- 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 can 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 helps forecast the future of the network, otherwise called network capacity planning. If the client sees internal bottlenecks while only doing business-critical work, they’ll likely have to upgrade their network infrastructure. If they use all of their external bandwidth, 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 causes performance issues, then it’s likely a sign it needs to be updated or replaced.
5. 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, 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.
Top 7 network management challenges for MSPs
As if IT network management wasn’t challenging enough on its own, when you provide network management services to clients, you have a whole host of additional challenges to deal with, such as:
Some clients simply refuse to move into the modern age, so you might find yourself stuck dealing with older platforms and protocols and all their inherent flaws and risks. However, replacing legacy systems has costs, too, so you get stuck trying to integrate the old with the new.
There’s also the issue of clients who have sourced their solutions from different vendors, resulting in something that’s more akin to a patchwork quilt than a proper network. And that can lead to additional overheads as you tackle issues across devices and platforms.
With multiple monitoring tools in play, gaining unified visibility into the full network is a task and a half. As a result, major blind spots could lurk undetected until it’s too late. You might end up flying half-blind, with your clients suffering the consequences.
At first, relying on manual processes might seem like a good idea to save money on tools. But it won’t be long before you realize that it’s the exact opposite. Trying to do everything manually, especially when you have multiple clients, leads to increased overheads, a higher risk of mistakes, and slower response times. And that will harm your reputation.
Frequent network changes
If there’s one thing you can be certain of, it’s that technology changes at lightning speed. Regular upgrades and topology changes make network management a constantly moving target, like the last mile network borne of the move to remote work. And since you’re dealing with multiple clients, if you don’t have a strategy in place, it can quickly turn into a disaster.
In the good old days, IT and operational technology each stayed in their own lane, and life was simple. Nowadays, those lanes are merging, and if you don’t have people with the right skills onboard, you might find yourself up the proverbial creek scrambling to find a paddle.
Remember the statistic above about tech skill shortages? You’re just as much at risk as every other business. However, it’s even worse for you as an MSP because your entire business model relies on acquiring and retaining tech talent. Plus, if your admins up and leave, you lose vital institutional knowledge.
Top 6 strategies that can help
Of course, it’s one thing to identify challenges and another to actually overcome them. Here are some key strategies you can employ to tackle these issues:
When clients use solutions from different vendors, you’re left managing a complex patchwork. But by deploying unified tools that consolidate management across heterogeneous devices and platforms, you can simplify things tremendously. Look especially for solutions with shared APIs that unify visibility across vendors.
Gaining a unified view into clients’ disparate environments can seem impossible. The key is monitoring tools that integrate data sources into a single pane of glass. With all the information in one dashboard, you gain the contextual insight needed to be proactive.
Leaning on manual efforts seems like an easy way to save money, but it’s a false economy. The risk of errors and slowed response times harm client satisfaction. Instead, judiciously automate common repetitive tasks. This removes the human error factor and boosts efficiency for game-changing improvements.
With networks constantly evolving, you need tools that can automatically adapt to changes as they occur. Prioritize solutions with customizable dashboards and policies that can adjust on the fly as client networks grow and transform. This makes managing ongoing change seamless.
Expanded skill sets
With operational technology now under your purview, new skill gaps can leave you exposed. While cross-training helps, it’s essential to choose tools that bridge IT and OT environments so you can confidently manage converged networks. Build up expertise through training programs, certifications, and tech investments.
Proactive network management
Playing reactive with network issues invites disaster: unexpected outages, slow fixes, client dissatisfaction, and compromised security. Staying proactive prevents problems before they occur through early monitoring, automated resolutions, detailed logging, hardware lifecycle notifications, bandwidth forecasting, and regular audits. Proactivity stops lag and breaches before they start.
Network management tools
Having solid network management strategies is important, but you also need the right tools to effectively execute on those strategies. At the top of that list of tools is a comprehensive network management system (NMS).
An NMS is a specialized software platform that acts as a central control center for overseeing your clients’ networks. It consolidates the array of capabilities needed for network fault, config, accounting, performance, and security management into a single solution.
How a network management system can help
Just consider how an effective NMS like Auvik can alleviate some of the key pain points we covered earlier.
- Multi-vendor environments
Auvik provides unified visibility and control across network devices from different vendors through its vendor-agnostic platform. With Auvik, you can manage a heterogeneous environment comprised of Cisco, Juniper, Aruba and more from a single pane of glass.
- Limited visibility
Auvik consolidates data from devices and monitoring tools into comprehensive dashboards and network topology maps. This unified visibility enables proactive management by eliminating blind spots across complex multi-vendor networks.
- Manual processes
Auvik automates many repetitive tasks like network discovery, inventory, configuration backups and documentation. This removes the overhead of manual work and reduces errors.
- Network changes
Auvik auto-detects network changes and updates topology maps and dashboards in real time. Customizable dashboards also enable adaptation as client networks evolve. This ensures you always have accurate visibility as networks transform.
- IT/OT convergence
Auvik offers monitoring, documentation and troubleshooting capabilities tailored for both IT and OT infrastructure. The unified platform bridges silos and knowledge gaps to manage converged IT/OT environments.
- Staffing challenges
Auvik’s centralized platform amplifies the productivity of existing staff and minimizes dependence on individuals. Features like thorough logging and documentation also reduce the impact of employee turnover.
Other tools to consider
Beyond a centralized NMS, you may want specialized tools for needs like:
- Password management: Managing device and application access.
- Network access control: Controlling user and device network access.
- Vulnerability scanning: Detecting network security flaws.
- IT service management: Ticketing and managing IT service delivery.
- SaaS management: Governing cloud application usage and spend.
The key is integrating these tools where possible through APIs and ensuring they augment capabilities rather than create more silos and fragmentation.
Top factors for selecting tools
As you evaluate options, keep requirements like these in mind:
- Unified platform: Consolidates management into one solution.
- Adaptability: Adjusts dynamically to network changes.
- Customization: Tailors views and settings to your needs.
- Automation: Reduces manual efforts for efficiency.
- Scalability: Supports large and complex environments.
- Remote access: Allows centralized management of distributed networks.
- IT/OT support: Handles monitoring for converged environments.
- Ease of use: Simplifies oversight for time savings.
- Reporting: Provides actionable data insights through analytics.
The right tools, especially a robust NMS like Auvik, will give you the capabilities needed to transform complex network management into a strategic advantage. They increase your team’s productivity so you can deliver best-in-class network management services to clients.
Key trends shaping the future of network management
Change is the only constant when it comes to technology. Here are pivotal emerging trends and networking innovations that will shape the years ahead:
AI and machine learning (ML)
AI and ML will move beyond buzzwords to deliver tangible value through use cases like self-diagnosing networks, spotting anomalies early, forecasting bandwidth needs, and more. The upshot? Smarter and more predictive network management is on the horizon.
As-a-Service and the cloud
The days of on-premises network management are definitely numbered. Instead, consuming tools via the cloud will become the norm. This provides the flexibility to scale rapidly while shifting infrastructure overhead off your plate.
With data processing and devices increasingly residing at the network edge, your management purview will extend beyond the core. To see and control the edges of client networks, distributed capabilities are a must-have.
The Internet of Things
Connecting devices like manufacturing equipment, sensors, and cameras to networks creates massive scale. But this vast expansion of visibility and connectivity also requires managing security across endless endpoints.
5G and WiFi 6
Blazing fast fifth-generation wireless and the latest WiFi standard promise mind-boggling speed and capacity. However, it also means ramping up monitoring of bandwidth, coverage, performance, and user experience.
NetDevOps and GitOps
Network ops and dev teams collaborating more closely will become a reality thanks to approaches like NetDevOps and GitOps. The result? Network configurations and changes will be managed through automation rather than manually.
Seize the future with best-in-class network management
The future belongs to those who prepare for it today. And make no mistake: the future of business is digital.
As technology evolves at warp speed, network complexity and user expectations will continue to skyrocket. Internal IT teams are already struggling to keep up. And fragile legacy networks straining under the weight of digital demands are beginning to crack.
This unprecedented shift presents an incredible opportunity for you as an MSP. With expertise in managing modern converged networks, you hold the keys to empowering businesses to compete in the digital-first future unfolding before us.
You can rise above the chaos by mastering the core pillars of robust network management and leveraging advanced systems. Instead of being buried under multi-vendor complexity, gain the clarity to see the road ahead. Rather than manual drudgery, harness automation to amplify your team’s productivity. With the power of data and analytics, transform reactive firefighting into predictive prevention.
That’s how you deliver truly best-in-class network management services to clients. This allows them to maintain nonstop network uptime, airtight security, and peak performance. And that will ensure your clients have the digital backbone in place to succeed now and in the future.