Types of Network Monitoring Tools

Written by Richard Thomas

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    And how to pick the right one as a service provider in 2021

    Network monitoring is a staple of IT services. As a service provider, it’s critical to understand how you stack up against SLAs and maintain high standards for your customers — fixing problems as they arise or undertaking preventative maintenance. Monitoring tools are your front line for gaining network visibility — and using the right tool is critical to delivering quality outcomes.

    However, monitoring tools have always held the potential to do more. By understanding your customers, you can analyse data and use the resulting insights to upsell, cross-sell and add value to customer relationships. Service providers facing squeezed margins and IT commoditisation need more sophisticated options to differentiate themselves within the market and grow. The challenge is extracting the right data and enabling commercial teams to access those insights — something that most monitoring tool types fail to do effectively.

    At Highlight, we’ve set about redefining network monitoring and built an insights platform that’s able to pull data from across a range of network monitoring types to surface that information within non-technical and intuitive displays. Realistically, this creates a category unto itself. However, it’s also valid to consider this a type of network monitoring solution.

    To help you better understand the market and how an insights-driven approach to monitoring can improve commercial outcomes, we sorted the different software types available into four categories. Each has a place within your service offering — but they don’t all deliver the same ROI or the same capabilities. Let’s get started!

    Type 1: SNMP network monitoring tools

    The origins of network and device monitoring go back to SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol). SNMPv1 was first defined in 1988 — it’s an Internet standard developed to monitor network devices. Network management stations use it to request information from a network device.

    Use cases

    SNMP monitoring tools provide bedrock, always-on monitoring capabilities. They alert teams to problems and allow for rapid response to issues. 

    General capabilities

    Most tools use SNMP to interact with network hardware and poll for status and usage. Standard metrics are memory consumption, processor utilisation, and data transmitted and received. When a network node can’t be reached or is overloaded or not available, the tool can generate an alert to notify the administrator of the problem.

    Who should be using this tool and why

    SNMP is a good foundation for basic network up/down monitoring. The simplicity of SNMP makes it easy for vendors to develop SNMP agents for application in various network-based products/applications.

    Pros

    • Relatively easy to set up.
    • Can monitor system resources and hardware failures.
    • Is a simple basis for always-on monitoring (24×7).

    Cons

    • Typically does not provide detailed network information.
    • Difficult to analyse the root cause of problems for application performance.
    • Does not provide insights into user experience of quality of service (QoS). 
    • No real end-to-end visibility.
    • Not suitable for troubleshooting network performance issues.
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    Typical examples

    There are many options available, from open source solutions like Nagios and commercial offerings such as HP Network Node Manager (OpenView), SolarWinds, and IBM Tivoli.

    Type 2: Network performance monitoring tools

    Network performance monitoring captures network traffic that flows through a network and analyses it afterwards. This passive monitoring compiles historic network traffic to paint a bigger picture of network performance through collection methods such as log management or network taps.

    Network performance monitoring is about understanding and pinpointing performance issues. However, the best solution for passive monitoring depends on the use case and the information that you want to extract.

    Use cases

    Network performance monitoring tools can show which applications, networks and websites users are accessing. They can also identify your most used applications and top talkers — top talkers are the network users that are consuming the most bandwidth.

    General capabilities

    Flow-based tools capture and process user data (traffic flow). Traffic is usually captured by a network tap, a software agent, or a network element. Finally, the flow data can be sent to a central point for further storage and processing.

    You can also configure a mirror port on a switch to copy traffic flows. Routers can also use SFlow, NetFlow, and other protocols to generate statistics about user traffic.

    Who should be using this tool and why

    Network performance monitoring is a valuable method for analysing a network event after it occurs, especially one that has happened suddenly. Without investigating the root cause of a performance issue after it happens, through passive monitoring, you won’t be able to ensure the problem won’t happen again.

    Pros

    • Statistics about traffic flows.
    • Identifies top talkers.
    • Deep packet inspection analysis is possible.

    Cons

    • Limited to reactive troubleshooting.
    • Requires expertise.
    • High use of disk resources.
    • Taps can introduce a point of failure.
    • Limited amount of historical data.

    Typical examples

    You can find open-source tools like ntop and WireShark, and commercial solutions like Riverbed and NetScout.

    Type 3: Active network monitoring

    Active network monitoring is the proactive method of detecting networking and application issues and performance. It works by carrying out continuous verification and testing of networks and applications. This approach is also known as synthetic monitoring.

    Use cases

    Active monitoring tests the performance of applications from a user’s point of view. It executes actual transactions and then measures performance such as execution and response times.

    General capabilities

    Active network monitoring measures end-to-end reach, round-trip-time, packet loss, bandwidth, link utilisation and other network properties. The technique enables you to test networks and applications without having to monitor individual components. Feedback and detection of outages and performance degradation issues are also much faster and more reliable within this context.

    Who should be using this tool and why

    This is the next step above the “monitoring and fixing” of the previous techniques and touches on real-world user experience and performance. You can now be proactive in detecting outages and identifying performance issues. The system will alert you when something is causing a problem or performs below a given threshold. You can also effectively troubleshoot network and application issues by comparing real-time with historical data.

    Pros

    • Detect performance degradation and trends.
    • Hold a large amount of historical data.
    • Test network infrastructure in the pre-deployment phase.
    • Validate configuration changes.

    Cons

    • By performing actual transactions, these tools consume network resources.
    • To be successfully implemented, several hardware or software agents must be deployed in the network.
    • Primarily technical tools with little connection to business performance.

    Typical examples

    You can use simple open-source tools like SmokePing and Iperf, right up to commercial solutions like Thousand Eyes or Solarwinds.

    Type 4: Network insights platforms

    Insights platforms deploy and combine multiple types of network monitoring capabilities, and then surface that information in condensed and contextualized format — improving your ability to put those insights to use. Critically, this placed network monitoring data in the hands of commercial teams and customers, in addition to simplifying the workflows of technical monitoring teams. These platforms might integrate with third-party monitoring tools, and/or use in-built monitoring capabilities. 

    Use cases

    A network insights platform reaches beyond technical network IT managers to place network insights in the hands of actual business users. It also provides customer-facing capabilities — delivering interfaces that your customers can use to better understand your services and their networks.

    General capabilities

    Network insight platforms use in-built monitoring capabilities, and pull data from other network monitoring tools to present a holistic picture of network performance. With intuitive displays, that information is then made accessible and available to business-level staff who can directly use those insights to drive commercial outcomes. To augment all of this, insights platforms delivering performance visualisations that can help with analysis and data presentations. 

    Who should be using this tool and why

    Insights platforms cover the basics of monitoring, they can: 

    • Identify performance failures and network outages.
    • Test infrastructure. 
    • Perform deep-dive analysis and testing.
    • Passively and actively monitor networks.

    However, insights platforms go beyond standard monitoring and deliver contextualised network analysis in a format that commercial teams can directly access and use. This creates opportunities to use network data in order to: 

    By delivering a customer-facing tool, you directly embed yourself within customer workflows. This closes the gap between your service provision and in-house IT — a critical MSP industry trend to consider. 

    Beyond monitoring

    Fundamentally, what differentiates an insights platform is a focus on “insights” — as compared to either data or analysis. Traditional tools trap invaluable information within IT network departments and bury insights in lengthy and contextless spreadsheets. To understand why this is, it helps to look at three levels of information that are needed from monitoring,

    • Data: This is unprocessed information in all of its component pieces. For example, this is where SNMP starts but doesn’t move much beyond.
    • Analytics: Categorised information, helping you start to make sense of data. Traditional monitoring tools generally have analytics capabilities, but they aren’t always the most straightforward.
    • Insights: This is contextualised information that uses analytics to derive actual strategy — placing analytics within the specifics of your business. 

    It’s important for service providers to go beyond monitoring and reporting in order to identify where exactly it’s possible to add value to your customers. This is a goal that traditional tools don’t reach, and it’s what an insights platform has been designed to do from the ground up. 

    Typical examples

    For the time being, this is a category of one. We built Highlight in order to disrupt network monitoring and create a shift that witnesses the use of network data to drive better outcomes for customer and service providers. In time, we expect to see more providers develop network-insight platforms. Critical features you will find in Highlight’s include: 

    • Heat tile interface: With the option of different logins for each user.
    • Segmented data: Ensures each team member accesses only what they need — including accommodation for multi-tenancy access. 
    • Different preconfigured views: Each interface is designed to be used without a technical background.
    • Unparalleled reporting: From real-time monitoring to SLAs and performance tests.
    • Comprehensive visibility: Of Ethernet, MPLS, Cellular, SD-WAN and Broadband, WiFi, applications, switches, and users.
    • Customer-facing views: Each of which enable access to visualisation and keep both service providers and customers on the same page, literally. 

    Suggested reading: To learn more about Highlight, check out our blog — Everything You Need to Know About Highlight Compatibility and Integration

    Traditional monitoring tools aren’t enough

    Each type of tool addresses the pain points in network monitoring, and service providers are no strangers in getting the most out of them. However, traditional monitoring software is too complicated — relying on technical dashboards that need to be configured and interpreted using skills that customer-facing commercial teams generally do not have. If you want to put your monitoring data to its best possible use, (for example, to help reinvent MSP sales strategies or become a strategic leader) it needs to be distilled into insights — that means going beyond monitoring and harnessing the power of an insights platform. 

    But service providers have been using these traditional monitoring tools and struggling with the resulting technical and hard-to-share information they produce. These tools capture and present volumes of data rather than specific insights on which action can be taken. This can overwhelm even the most technically-minded users.

    Networks are paramount to the success of your business to be simply monitored. And, there is a need for a new approach — the Network Insight Platform. We decided to build this new platform at Highlight to complement the way service providers work. The future of network monitoring goes beyond monitoring in order to focus on outcomes and what network data will actually let you achieve. 
    A Network Insights Platform is a frictionless way of sharing information with enterprise and reseller customers alike. Although most network monitoring tools have a place in your technology stack, an insights platform allows you to sell more holistic and outcome-oriented services, which helps fight commoditization, limits customer churn and improves outcomes. If you want to learn more, check out our eBook Transforming the Value of Networksor get in touch and book a demo of Highlight today.

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