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Networking Survival Guide: 8 Essential Rules

  • For the unprepared, managing modern IT infrastructure with all its complexity can be a little scary. The proliferation of devices, the constant threat of a cyber attack, and a connected workforce that demands access to information when they want it and where they want it places more pressure on IT professionals than ever. And at the heart of it all is still the network.

    These days, however, maintaining a network that can handle the needs of your business isn't optional -- it's a matter of survival. And we know that today's IT pro is less a bespectacled computer nerd and more a Bear Grylls-style survival expert. In true Man vs. Wild fashion, practitioners can benefit from a network survival guide to be prepared for everything Mother Nature Technology might throw at them. To that end, we present eight important guidelines to help you brave the wilderness of modern IT.

  • Assess the network

    Every explorer needs a map. IT pros are no different, and the map you need is of your network. Understanding your network's capabilities, demands and resources is the first step to network survival. This might seem like a basic recommendation, but with the amount of devices connecting today, understanding the network has never been more important. Moving ahead without a plan --or knowing the reality on the ground -- is a sure way to make the wrong choices based on assumptions, guesswork, "gut," and good old FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt).

    When assessing network monitoring needs, you should ask yourself the following questions:

    • How many sites do I have that need to communicate?
    • Are they located on the intranet or externally and accessed via a datacenter?
    • Is the bulk of my traffic internal, or is it all bound for the Internet? How about any key partners?

    The point is that the shape of a network, as well as bandwidth patterns, will affect which monitoring tools are most critical. Once this is determined, ask yourself the following additional questions:

    • Which are the key interfaces to monitor?
    • Where should deep packet inspection (DPI) agents go?
    • What is the scope and scale of what needs to be monitored?
    • Will automatic dependencies be necessary, and where should automated monitoring and automatic corrective actions be utilized?

  • Acknowledge that wireless is the way

    Nobody wants to pay good money to wire up a cubicle farm anymore. The low cost to buy and manage wireless equipment makes it a no-brainer for almost any environment, but it can also quickly get out of hand. Keep in mind that wireless enables BYOD, which creates pressure to manage bandwidth hogs. In addition, wireless campuses create their own new challenges. One SolarWinds customer who runs IT for a large university described his experience with wireless like this:

    Suddenly you're tracking 187,000 devices. Unlike an office where most users roam between their desks and a conference room or two in a fairly reliable pattern, I have herds of thousands of students sweeping majestically across campus like technology-laden wildebeests crossing the Serengeti.

    Many organizations could face similar situations. What's needed are tools like wireless heat maps, user device tracking and over-subscribed access points. The problem is that many of these tools have traditionally been cost-prohibitive. Newer options, however, may make implementing these technologies more accessible for all organizations.

  • BYO-everything isn't coming. It's here

    No longer considered an optional perk, employees in organizations of every size now expect that they will be able to connect their personal devices of choice to an organization's network in some capacity. Whether that's full-blown server access or simply the ability to send and receive email through their company's domain, you need to be prepared to support a wide range of devices. Not only that, you must protect against the slew of security concerns additional access points introduces. Like the original wave of PCs entering in the enterprise back in the mainframe days, BYOE is a juggernaut that cannot be ignored. We must addressed it now.

    To do so, you need to monitor the resources these devices are accessing to ensure applications are performing quickly and efficiently. You also must track and manage device IP addresses and keep on the lookout for anomalies that could be signs of a breach. A holistic view of all these resources -- also known as the application stack -- is ideal.

  • Prepare for the Internet of Things

    When it comes to surviving the Internet of Things, you first must understand that all of the "things" connect to the cloud. Because they're not coordinating with a controller on the LAN, each device incurs a full conversation load, burdening the WAN and every element in a network. And worse, many of these devices prefer IPv6, meaning you'll have more pressure to dual-stack your components.

    How do you overcome this? True application firewalls can untangle the most sneaky device conversation, get IP address management under control, and get gear ready for IPv6. They can also classify and segment your device traffic; implement effective quality of service to ensure that critical business traffic has headroom; and of course, monitor flow.

  • Plan for scalability

    No matter how carefully IT organizations plan ahead, sometimes infrastructure doesn't cooperate with the plan that's laid out. You need to integrate capacity for forecasting tools, configuration management and web-based reporting to be able to predict scale and growth. There's an oft-quoted statistic that 70% of network outages come from unexpected network configuration changes. Admins may take pains to avoid the Jurassic Park effect, but unexpected outages that in hindsight were clearly predictable is the bane of IT. "How did we not know and respond to this?" is a question nobody wants to have to answer.

  • Just admit it already -- it's all about applications

    Many a network engineer, server administrator or application developer has bemoaned that their "baby" would be stable if it weren't for the end users. While it's an amusing thought, it ignores the universal truth of IT: Everything we do is because of and for the end users. The whole point of having a network is to run business applications.

    As a network admin, you can thrive and flourish by seeking a holistic view of the entire infrastructure, including the impact of the network on application issues. Don't silo network management or other infrastructure elements such as storage, Web and compute. If you do, you'll find that more and more you're getting caught in the trap of not seeing the forest for the trees.

  • Leverage the right tools

    Emmert Wolf observed more than a century ago that "a man is only as good as his tools," and it remains just as true today. However, having sophisticated network monitoring and management tools without understanding how to use them is a common problem among network admins. Upper management has the impression that problems are solved, because they provided appropriate tools, but nothing can improve unless those tools are put to good use. That's why it's important that the right tools are paired with the right task and the right skill set.

  • Revisit, review, revise

    Remember, your network is a living breathing entity. What's needed to keep it running at its peak will change. So, how do you survive the cycle of "lather, rinse and repeat" when it comes to your data infrastructure? Constantly reexamine your network to be sure that you're addressing changes as they arise. Successful network management is a cyclical process, not a one-way journey.