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A holistic approach to network management
VK Ramani

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V. K. Ramani is Senior Vice-President, Information Technology, UTI Bank. He has been associated with the banking industry for over 25 years. He was instrumental in developing UTI Bank's communication network, core banking application software, ATM deployment and Internet banking strategies.

Network management is not just about using software to monitor performance. It's important to 'tune' applications, address issues like security and bandwidth optimization.

Managing a network is like conducting a hundred-piece symphony orchestra. The audience is not interested in the problems faced by the violinist and the cellist it just wants to hear melodious music produced by the orchestra.

Networks the world over have attained a certain level of maturity. Most large enterprises and SMEs have completed the task of looking for the right application software, fitting the correct hardware, and deploying other critical components like storage and security. This is supplemented with constant network upgrades and restructuring that has made IT infrastructure a stable and reliable business tool. Enterprises now run various 'mission-critical' solutions on the network, which are the lifelines of any business.

The reach of an enterprise and the number of its business outlets have become critical factors for survival. A successful business depends on the ability of a company to increase its customer strength through a number of outlets, and the ability to manage the growing network effectively. Simply purchasing expensive hardware and software solutions and deploying them all over does not necessarily solve your business needs. If resources lie independently 'scattered' all over the network, it will not deliver the expected results. You have to effectively manage the network so that it can in turn manage your business. If your network performs, your organization performs. Network management is thus a great way to ensure that you are a few steps ahead of the competition.

Centerstage
Network management has now moved centerstage. Earlier, IT teams comprised mainly systems administrators who took care of various aspects like hardware, databases, and backup. Their role has developed over the years and now, every company employs specialized personnel for areas like database management, backup & disaster recovery, and storage administration. In future a new breed of personnel called network managers will also play a very crucial role in delivering the business objective.

Components like SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol) and agents that record disk space, memory usage, and CPU usage are vital for network management. Other components are equipment like mail servers, Web servers, and middleware. The style of management has to change when you move out of a LAN environment to a WAN, since this presents additional layers for the network to address.

One can conceptualize each of the seven OSI layers in a network as a separate managed component. That will help build efficiency in the management process. It's important to study how each layer integrates and functions across multiple network devices and types of networks. The concept of a single device performing its own activity has changed. Now, a combination of network devices have to perform and deliver integrated solutions. Even if each device is excellent on its own, it needs additional software and management tools to make all the devices perform like a complete system. Ultimately the delivery will be judged by the rate of response in the system. If you use well designed software but remote Web users do see pages downloading fast, you may lose business.

Making applications work
Most users tend to blame the network if applications stop working or show slow response. The question is, if the network is good will your applications still slow down? The answer is yes, if the applications are not tuned to perform. Network designers tend to lose focus on applications during network design. Perhaps they are not clear whether fine-tuning the network will give better performance or fine-tuning the application will give better performance. Network administrators may even make a scapegoat out of the ISP/telecom service provider as a last resort. You need to take a holistic view and consider network management as a strategic requirement.

It's important to look at the amount of bandwidth used by an application. Bandwidth-hungry applications like multimedia, video, and large file transfers can cause bottlenecks. Applications will run better with correct bandwidth optimization.

Much more than tools
Most of the network management tools available in the marketplace allow reactive approaches. Meaning, the administrator is made aware of a problem only after there has been a mishap or outage. But there is still the problem of finding out if anything is likely to happen. You can address this problem by making a few predictions and projections that will help define performance yardsticks.

If you can project growth in number of transactions (which also depends on business growth), you'll get an idea of the increase in data activity. It also helps if you can predict growth in the number of users, and the type of applications that will be developed in future. The applications might require additional bandwidth to support its functions.

Allowing managed control to each user on the network is sometimes better than total empowerment. This can prevent situations where different teams of developers perform FTPs at different times without informing each other of their routines. In such a scenario the network manager discovers heavy traffic activity. Controlled access can provide a disciplined approach to tackle controllable events. This is a kind of SLA (Service Level Agreement) that you can have with your internal network team.

So, network management is much more complex than putting in certain routines and agents in place, and recording CPU and RAM utilization. Recording CPU and RAM utilization is definitely an integral part, but the entire picture is not visible. You also need to look at the nitty-gritties which include even distribution of applications, controlling how the applications are used, and scheduling of events.

Service providers
With the growing complexity of network management it may not be possible for an organization to continuously employ people to manage the growing events. The organization can outsource its management requirements. But when you outsource, you tend to lose control because once you define your problem areas, those areas may become the primary concern and the business aspect and focus may take a back seat. There must be a balance between what the service provider is going to provide and how you will justify the engagement of the service provider to your management. The service provider may be technologically strong but should also understand the business components. The service provider who understands this will be the survivor and add value to the organization.

Security in the Internet age
Now that we are in the Internet age, security is an additional area of concern. Bank account holders are very prudent about conducting transactions over the Internet. But interest in Internet banking is growing as more users are convinced about security of the environment.

There are four important elements of security: privacy, authentication, integrity of data, and non-repudiation of data. Privacy can be ensured through HTTPS (Hyper-Text Transfer Protocol Secure), authentication can be provided by user IDs and passwords at a certain level, and integrity can be insured by 128-bit SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) encryption. Non-repudiation or non-rejection of data can be assured in many ways. One way is to have a key at the client end for secure entry into the system. The other way is to have a smart card-based system. You can also employ a PKI (Public Key Infrastructure).

Now that you have laid down guidelines for security, network management becomes very important. The network manager has to ensure that the security policy is in tune with business requirements. You have to take a call on the type of transactions that may be allowed on the Internet. Will you allow unlimited transactions and unlimited access? Or do you want to restrict access within a closed group of users until you are comfortable with the idea?

Optimal configuration
Tuning applications to suit network performance is often an overlooked aspect. One has to look for the optimal configuration of hardware, applications, and network capacity. If network managers see that they have to manage areas that did not need looking into earlier, it's a sign of network management getting out of control. Down the line, you also have to evolve the performance yardstick since it's not always possible to visualize future limitations.

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