As modern work has evolved, so too has the network end users rely on to do their jobs. Today’s network is vastly different from the networks of just a few years ago, with the new last mile of the office network evolving to cover anywhere end users are. This has had a significant impact on the visibility IT professionals have in the office network, and it means we need to revisit what network visibility really means as modern work continues to evolve.

The challenge we’ll continue to explore then is how visibility needs to evolve as modern work, and the network required to support modern work evolves.

“We need to revisit what network visibility really means as modern work continues to evolve.”

Refresher: What is Network Visibility?

In the IT ecosystem, we see a lot of buzzwords floating around, and I’m often asked what exactly is network visibility. Is it the same as observability? As Andrew Lerner points out in this blog post for Gartner, “Network observability is largely a buzzword, with no concrete definition beyond network visibility. It’s not meaningfully different from what has long been available in NPMD products.”

I agree: “observability” is often used by writers trying to grab the reader’s attention, but as you break down the true meaning of observability, there are advantages the term observability provides beyond what we traditionally think of as “monitoring & visibility.”

In practice, many IT professionals use these terms interchangeably, and for the most part, that’s A-OK with me. At the end of the day, Network Visibility to me means having complete awareness of all relevant data points to properly monitor, manage, and maintain the network.

What does this “New network to support modern work” look like?

As we’ve previously discussed, the future of the network is centered around the end-user experience. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to most. After all, the purpose behind building IT networks has always been to connect people, along with their ideas, thoughts, and knowledge.

In today’s networks, in every organization, there are always some users who are not in the office all of the time. In our most recent Field Report for IT Management, we found 86% of IT staff are now supporting a hybrid workforce. The modern office network is now anywhere end-users are. These end users are no longer on networks that the IT team controls – they’re on home networks, coffee shops, 4G & 5G hotspots, campsites, beaches, and so on.

This network is characterized by increased complexity, increased security risks, and a lack of control over many of the “last mile” connections for users. It is more distributed, with more endpoints ( that you often don’t manage!), more connected devices, and more data being generated and transmitted than ever before. Not to mention it’s more dynamic, as users, and the applications they’re using to do their jobs, are continually changing.

“Network visibility, to me means, having complete awareness of all relevant data points to properly monitor, manage, and maintain the network.”

What stays the same with network visibility?

Before we dive into what must change, we should first reflect on what stays the same.

Of course, the definition of network visibility doesn’t change—it still means having complete awareness of all relevant data points to properly monitor, manage, and maintain the network.

And the importance of visibility hasn’t changed, either. Regardless of the technical components in the underlying network, visibility will always be crucial in isolating issues, troubleshooting problems, and maintaining the health and security of the network.

This means there are a number of things IT teams are doing today that they’ll continue to do, like leveraging network monitoring and management systems to keep a keen eye on the systems we manage.

What has to change with network visibility?

As our monitoring systems evolve to provide complete visibility over the new network, I see three key areas where our systems either have evolved or need to evolve to have a positive impact on network visibility.

Data collection protocols

One of the most significant changes that have already started to occur in the network is the shift away from traditional data collection protocols such as Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) to Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) and other newer protocols. This shift changes the way data is collected and analyzed, making it easier to gather information from a variety of different protocols.

While this shift is largely underway (and for some industries, may already be complete), it has a significant impact on overall network visibility—in part, because legacy protocols such as SNMP were built primarily for “agent to manager” data flow, where an agent is most often a device.

Data collection sources

Traditionally, IT teams leverage legacy protocols to extract visibility data from a device. But now, we see a shift away from data collection sources that rely solely on devices to methods that gather data from applications, vendor management portals, or even other devices.

Let’s illustrate this with a simple example. In traditional visibility methods, the source for all data associated with the configuration and performance of a specific application would be the application itself—leveraging application performance monitoring solutions to collect data about that application. In the world of modern work, our lack of control over these applications means we look to the devices and users accessing that application for insights into its performance. In this case, the source for performance data for an application is no longer the application itself, but rather an end user’s device.

Visibility of external networks

If you’re reading closely, I alluded to the last big change in this previous example: your ability, as an IT administrator, to get visibility into the networks you manage, is changing around you. In the past, network visibility was largely within the control of the network administrator, because the devices you set up were on a physical network that you managed. Now with your end users relying on networks that may not be fully in your control, blind spots are cropping up everywhere.

The impact of this reduced visibility is that many external systems become a bit of a black box. To help troubleshoot end-user issues in the new network, the function of network monitoring and visibility into external systems has to enable IT teams to quickly identify which systems are performing well, and which aren’t. This enables IT teams to quickly narrow down the fault and fix it, if it’s within their control, or assist their user in resolving the issue in a way that IT teams can control.

What can I do to gain visibility in the new network?

In the new network, visibility means the ability to identify all the “independent systems” that enable your users. Some of these systems will be fully within your control – where modern network visibility tools can still enable you to efficiently monitor, manage, and maintain these networks. But others will be a black box, where network visibility tools will enable you to identify all that you can about those systems.

Comprehensive network visibility will enable you to see these systems working together, and provide you the ability to isolate issues to at minimum a single system. Modern network visibility tools need to give you the ability to gather data from a variety of sources, including devices, applications, and vendors, and to analyze that data in real time. And they’ll need to give you the ability to quickly identify and isolate issues so that you can keep your network running smoothly and securely.

In today’s new network, visibility is more important than ever. With the increased complexity, security risks, and a change in network control, it’s crucial that network administrators have the ability to gain full visibility into their network in order to maintain its health and security. With the right tools and the right approach, network visibility is achievable, and it will continue to be an essential component of the modern network for years to come.

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