The Growing number of NPMD Tools Are a Problem for SMEs

Joe O’Connor, SVP of Channels and Alliances at LiveAction, the expert in network management and monitoring.

Business networks are getting more complex with the rise of technologies like software-defined networking (SDN), network functions virtualizations (NFV), and public and private clouds. In response to this the network performance monitoring and diagnostics (NPMD) industry has developed more and more specialized tools for specific network functions. The job of today’s average IT worker is much more difficult job than five years ago, as they have to deal with all of these complexities. Regrettably, all these tools for monitoring are becoming more of a burden than a help. It is particularly difficult for small to mid-market businesses to manage the tool sprawl because they don’t have the internal time, expertise or resources to manage multiple complex tools.

Tools sprawl has significant drawbacks for organizations of any size. The more specialized tools a company uses to monitor and manage its networks, the more employee hours it needs to manage all of them. Too many licenses and maintenance agreements create confusion and complexity. And all that employee training and setup has a cost in terms of time and lost opportunity to work on other projects. Of course, there’s a financial cost as well!

At first, tool sprawl might seem like an enterprise issue. After all, only enterprises can afford all those specialized tools, right? But this issue hits small to mid-sized businesses (SMBs) just as hard because their resources are so limited. For an IT shop of 1-5 people, staying up-to-date on even just a handful of network performance tools is a significant burden. If all those employees need to be generalists, they will most likely not understand or use each tool to its full potential. In terms of money, bloated and outdated tools can cost far more than the amount of value they are delivering to a company. Enterprises might be able to take the cost hit, but smaller company can’t afford to buy a separate tool for each task – there simply isn’t enough budget for that. Yet, they’re often guided down that path with the idea that new technology requires new tools.

In case you’re still not convinced that this is not only an enterprise issue, here are some specific examples of how tool sprawl affects SMBs and mid-market companies.

First, tool specialization creates burdensome workflows even if the company doesn’t own many tools. Many NPMD tools allow users to capture packets for troubleshooting, but don’t offer any analytical capacities. Most SMBs end up using Wireshark to analyze the packets, but without any integration with their NPMD tool the analysis is a clunky, time-consuming process. Wireshark might be free, but it costs precious time for IT employees to learn an additional product and keep switching back and forth between an NPMD tool and a packet analysis tool for one troubleshooting task.

Reporting is another task that often requires multiple tools at mid-market companies. Since network tools have become so specialized for specific tasks, very few offer reporting capabilities. As a result, IT must spend time recreating reports in ServiceNow or a similar ticketing software, or even manually in Excel. That’s a lot of time wasted on a mundane task (service providers may also face this issue if they manage networks on behalf of their customers and need to send them regular reports).

In addition, many specialized network monitoring tools don’t present visualizations of a network, or if they do, they only create pie graphs and bar charts. This makes it much more difficult for the IT generalists at SMBs to understand their networks. Some highly specialized tools can’t even process important types of network data. I have seen tools that cannot monitor IPv6 traffic or Quality of Service metrics for VoIP and voice traffic, even though those make up a solid percentage of the traffic on a network today!

The good news is that I believe the NPMD industry is starting to move into a phase of tool consolidation. The main benefits of more consolidated tools are ease of use, less complexity in licenses and maintenance contracts, less training and time requirements for employees, and a lower operating cost. In addition, consolidated tools often take in data from multiple network sources (flow data, packet data, SNMP, etc.) so they can offer a more holistic view of the network without requiring IT to correlate the data manually.

What does this all mean for the Value Added Resellers (VARs) and Managed Service Providers (MSPs) serving this market? First, make sure you offer consolidated tools with fewer licenses and more services per license. As customer demand for consolidated networking and NPMD tools grow, you want to be sure you can meet that demand. Second, if you’re a service provider who offers network management and monitoring services to your customers, this advice about tool sprawl applies to you as well. Ensure you’re choosing tools that offer multiple services with minimal management and expertise required, otherwise you’ll run into the same issue of too many tools and not enough internal expertise or staff to manage them all.

NPMD tools must become more consolidated.  This must happen as networks are getting more complex and the lack of internal resources and expertise makes tool sprawl especially frustrating for SMEs and mid-market customers. It just will not be possible to monitor and manage a hybrid network with heavy cloud use and virtualized elements with single-use tools. More consolidated tools will not only let mid-market companies accomplish more with limited budgets and IT teams, but it may also give them access to new networking features like integrated packet analysis and network visualization that they weren’t able to afford before. VARs and MSPs in this market should see how they can take advantage of consolidated tools to give their customers what they want, improve their own service offerings, and create multiple revenue streams using one tools for multiple purposes on multiple client networks.