By now, most IT professionals should be familiar with the concept of service management. In many enterprise IT shops, service management is an initiative with roots in the help desk. Still, as networking professionals pick up their heads and look around at the changes going on in IT, combined with the fact that the organizations they support are becoming more and more reliant upon a rock solid, high-performing network, most realize they can’t just keep doing things the way they’ve always been doing them. With the rate of change increasing, due to faster and faster application rollouts and more and more dynamic infrastructure configuration changes due to server virtualization, the fires are starting faster than the firefighters can put them out. And so, there is no time better than now to fall back, regroup, and reassess the way in which networks are managed – it’s time to look at service management for networks.

Central to getting ahead of the game is shifting the focus from availability to performance. And further, beyond simply monitoring and historical trending of performance data to real-time views and proactive interpretation of performance metrics, to recognize and understand what that information is telling you in terms of existing as well as potential disruptions to the high-performing network. Making this operational shift, from reactive to proactive, and bringing performance data together with availability data are the building blocks of a performance assurance strategy. By assuring performance, what is meant is that management tools, technologies, and practices are aligned around the concepts of recognizing and prioritizing steps for proactively making sure that the network is playing its essential role with as little disruption or degradation as possible.

Making the shift from reactive to proactive and from basic management to assurance is not a simple one. It requires a combination of changes that span people, tools, and processes. And the tools must be ready to facilitate the transition. Management tools need to provide the capability to bring together performance viewpoints leveraging infrastructure-specific as well as application/service-specific sources of data.  This means including direct data from network devices, such as device health/performance metrics as well as flow records (i.e. NetFlow, sFlow, IPFIX) as well as packet-based instrumentation.  Flow records and packet inspection are the secret sauce here because they reveal precisely who is using the network, what applications and services they are using, and (in some cases) what was their quality of experience.  Such deep and broad visibility is essential – without it there is no means of effectively linking network performance to the served community.

But we’re not done yet. Gaining visibility is essential, but as important is the ability to present and share that visibility outside of the networking group. A core requirement of any service-oriented IT management strategy is collaboration and communications. Only when performance assurance insights are shared across IT constituent groups, as well as with key IT consumer constituents or end-users, can the full value of the performance assurance management approach be realized. This means integrating performance management tools with service management and operational consoles, and sharing data through graphical reports, portals, and dashboards.

The majority of networking professionals I speak with recognize that they are facing challenges they can’t handle alone. You can’t continue to be asked to do more with less, while the managed infrastructure grows and increases its frequency of change beneath your feet. If the networking team hopes to continue to play the essential role that it should, the path to excellence lies through establishing and utilizing a service-aware, performance assurance approach.

When organizations are ready to embrace this challenge, there are many management solutions providers out there ready to help. One example is InfoVista, with whom I recently collaborated to develop a whitepaper on this specific topic.   One of InfoVista’s unique attributes is their deep expertise with service-oriented management solutions, built upon years of delivery operational support systems to the IP communications service provider industry.  That expertise is directly relevant to the challenges faced by enterprise networking professionals seeking to adopt more service-oriented practices.  Other vendors also offer help– you can see a good list of them within my recently published Application-Aware Network Performance Management (ANPM) Radar Report.

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