ICYMI: Networking Survival Guide: 7 Essential Rules

(This article originally appeared on Federal Technology Insider)

For the unprepared, managing your agency’s modern IT infrastructure with all its complexity can be a little scary. Evolving mandates, the constant threat of a cyber-attack and a connected workforce that demands access to information when they want it, where they want it, places more pressure on the government’s 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 all your stakeholders isn’t just a nice-to-have, it’s a matter of survival. As such, at SolarWinds we know today’s government IT pro is less a bespectacled computer nerd and more a Bear Grylls-style survival expert. And in true Man vs. Wild fashion, the modern IT pro needs a network survival guide to be prepared for everything Mother Nature Technology might throw at them. To that end, here are seven important network survival guidelines to help you make it through the wilderness that is today’s 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 networks capabilities, needs and resources is the first step of network survival. This might be a little back-to-basics, but with the amount of devices connecting today, asset discovery and network mapping has never been more important. Moving ahead without a plan—without knowing the reality on the ground—is a sure way to make the wrong choices based on assumptions, guesswork, “gut,” and good ol’ FUD—fear, uncertainty and doubt.

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

  • How many sites 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 and contractors?

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

The use cases for wireless use in government is on the rise. The low cost to buy and manage wireless equipment makes it a no-brainer for an increasing number of environments, but things can also quickly get out of hand. Of course wireless enables BYOD, which opens another can of worms for our government customers.

What’s needed are tools like wireless heat maps to manage over-subscribed access points and user device tracking tools that allow agencies to track rogue devices and enforce their BYOD policies. The problem is that many of these tools have traditionally been cost-prohibitive, but newer options open doors to implementing these technologies you might not be aware of.

Prepare for the Internet of Things

The government can sometimes be slower to adopt new technology, but agencies are increasingly experimenting with the Internet of Things. When it comes to surviving these upcoming challenges, 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 all of those 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.

Understand that Scalability is Inevitable

Government networks are growing; it’s just that sometimes the infrastructure doesn’t read the plan we’ve so carefully laid out or it gets hung up in the procurement process. It is important to leverage capacity forecasting tools, configuration management, and web-based reporting to be able to predict and document scalability and growth needs so you can justify your budget requests and stay ahead of infrastructure demands.

There’s the oft-quoted statistic that 70 percent of network outages come from unexpected network configuration changes. Agency network admins have to avoid the Jurassic Park effect—unexpected, but what in hindsight were clearly predictable outages is the bane of any IT manager’s existence. “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 the Application

Many a network engineer, server administrator and application developer have 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 achieve your mission and support your stakeholders.

As a network admin, you not only thrive, but 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, compute, etc.—anymore. If you do, you’ll find that more and more you’re getting caught in the old adage of not seeing the forest for the trees.

A Man is Only as Good as His Tools

Emmert Wolf famously observed this over a century ago and it remains just as true today. Having sophisticated network monitoring and management tools is an important part of arming IT professionals for survival, but let’s not overlook the need for certifications and training, so the tools can be used to effectively manage the network. 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 your plans need to adapt to keep up. 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.

 

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