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Network monitoring is the process of continuously observing a computer network for any failures or deficiencies to ensure the availability of network services. The primary goal of network monitoring is to detect and address issues as soon as they occur, minimizing downtime and maintaining optimal network performance.

The nature of enterprise IT networks has undoubtedly evolved over the years. The fundamental need to monitor and manage those networks has not – it’s crucial not only to effective IT management but to the overall success of an organization.

“CTOs should think about network monitoring as the blood vessels and arterial system for their entire organization,” says Shankar Somasundaram, CEO at Asimily, a risk management platform for IoT device security. “The productivity of knowledge workers and business processes depend on networks functioning properly for devices, employees, partners, and customers.”

Comparing an IT network to the human cardiovascular system might sound dramatic. But the modern network must connect the entire organization – its people, processes, applications, data, devices, infrastructure, and more. In that light, the comparison isn’t dramatic – it’s spot-on.

We can extend the metaphor for a bit: Just as we take measures to ensure our cardiovascular health, network administrators must proactively monitor their network’s health, from performance to security to costs and other requirements. Network performance monitoring tools help IT teams proactively root out potential bottlenecks, outages, and other issues before they impact the bottom line.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the importance and benefits of network monitoring, as well as the evolving best practices for CTOs and other IT leaders to keep top of mind in 2024. Let’s dive in.

What is Network Monitoring?

The discipline of network monitoring aims to achieve exactly what we just laid out: Discovering and observing the entirety of an organization’s network to maximize performance and minimize risks. To not monitor your network is like operating in the dark, unaware of a potential intrusion, a latency problem, or other network performance issues that cause a service to sag under heavy traffic – the list goes on.

Network monitoring is essentially the practice of keeping your network and everything on it in its desired state rather than its failed state: uptime (not downtime), secure (not breached), fast (not lagging), connected (not disjointed), cost-effective (not costly), and so forth.

There’s a considerable menu of network monitoring tools that can help network administrators map and monitor all of their assets. Network management software can help with a variety of common tasks, such as creating a network map and capturing the network data that is vital to ongoing performance monitoring and other needs.

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4 Reasons Why Network Monitoring is Important

Before we dig into some of the current best practices and tips, it’s essential to understand the key advantages of network monitoring.

1. It improves network security. The network has long been one of the primary threat surfaces for attackers and other bad actors who want to compromise an organization. That’s as true as ever. What has changed regarding network security is that the network – and IT infrastructure more broadly – is as complex and distributed as ever. 

Sea changes in IT operating models (think cloud computing and ubiquitous mobile devices, for example) and approaches to work (think remote and hybrid offices, for example) make network visibility and monitoring all the more crucial. Holistic network performance data allows IT teams to define what “normal behavior” looks like on their network – and then be alerted, often with automated responses already set up, when the network deviates from that baseline.

There’s a general truth in network security that you can’t protect what you don’t know or can’t see. Network visibility and monitoring is a foundation for minimizing vulnerabilities and keeping threats at bay.

“It’s knowing this part of the network is not beleaguered,” Somasundaram says. “It’s knowing that very wise attackers with automation don’t sniff something out about your organization as a weakness that directs their attention and resources to your network. 

2. It enables greater network automation. As network infrastructure has become more diverse, distributed, and complex, one of the most significant monitoring challenges is that most organizations can’t keep tabs on everything manually.

Modern network monitoring systems enable far more automation, both in terms of alerts and how those alerts are handled and remediated, as well as critical functions such as configuration management. When network issues occur – and they will – automation can reduce response times and get the network back to its desired state faster, minimizing negative impacts.

3. It enhances network performance. Monitoring is also a vital practice for ensuring effective network performance. Comprehensive network performance data helps identify opportunities to reduce latency, increase bandwidth, and ensure everything and everyone that connects to a network to perform its job – from devices to people – can do so in an optimal fashion.

4. It keeps costs in check. Revisiting #1 for a moment: network security breaches are costly, both in financial and reputational terms. Minimizing them is itself a cost-saving measure. But network monitoring offers other potential cost savings. For example, it can identify underutilized or overutilized IT infrastructure, such as CPU and other resources, so network administrators can reduce waste and boost productivity. In general, collecting performance data and performance metrics and analyzing them for untapped opportunities is just good business – and it’s made possible by a smart network monitoring strategy.

“Every insight to optimize maintenance, defer retirement, or improve performance based on network monitoring data benefits the bottom line,” Somasundaram says. He adds that effective network monitoring is beneficial for cloud infrastructure, where every CPU cycle, byte, and bandwidth usage is on the monthly bill.

“Most importantly, though, secure and efficient network monitoring just ensures that all the great work coming out of any organization—and the knowledge work and automated processes—are not hampered by something as relatively simple as the network,” Somasundaram says.

Network Monitoring Best Practices for 2024

Now that we’ve established the why behind network monitoring, it’s time to talk about the how.

Network monitoring can essentially be boiled down to three phases: planning, implementation, and response. It all starts with developing an informed, sensible strategy

Once you’ve done that, it’s also important to recognize that network management – like network devices, users, and IT infrastructure more broadly – is a continuously evolving discipline. With that in mind, we asked Somasundaram to share best practices to keep top of mind in 2024 and beyond. Here’s what he had to say:

Ensure Enforcement of Identity

Identity is the new perimeter. Expect identity management and enforcement to get renewed attention in 2024, according to Somasundaram: “[Ensure] that there’s more specific enforcement of identity before anything can get onto the network.” As network devices have become more diverse and distributed, traditional approaches to network security – things like firewalls and endpoint protection – are no longer enough on their own.

Embrace Zero-Trust Architectures

Zero trust principles and architectures aren’t new, but they’ll continue to evolve and mature in 2024, according to Somasundaram. For example, “UEBA (User and Entity Behavior Analytics) will become more functionally useful for allowing short-term authentication and authorization before granting access to resources.”

Solidify Your SaaS Security Posture

SaaS security posture management is getting ready for primetime. There are “a thousand flowers blooming right now” in the SaaS security posture management field, Somasundaram says, adding that 2024 appears likely to be an important year in determining which approaches and tools become the dominant ones. Regardless, the continued proliferation of SaaS in the enterprise has added another layer to network monitoring.

Businesses will understand that they must use more SaaS applications and push some authorization to people lower in their organization while maintaining top-level control.

 

That means understanding what user accounts exist, which users are going to be able to create and access new SaaS, what the risks of that particular SaaS are, how to deprovision all accounts at once, and being able to detect when a new SaaS is being used somewhere in the organization.

SHANKAR SOMASUNDARAM
  1. IoT and other devices will continue to proliferate – and drive network traffic: It’s early days yet for IoT in the enterprise, and Somasundaram anticipates massive growth of both high-end smart devices and low-end “dumb” devices to hit networks in the years ahead. No matter what that mix looks like in your organization, it has one common implication for network monitoring: These devices will increase network traffic, period.

The one thing that any IoT device will give you, high-end or low-end, is network traffic. Monitoring network traffic will then become even more valuable, both for cybersecurity and operational purposes.

  1. Yes, AI is coming for network monitoring, too: We know, we know – you’ve got some AI hype fatigue. But given the existing relationship between network management and automation – they go hand in hand these days, and practitioners generally advise automating as much of your network monitoring overhead as possible – it follows that AI will eventually have an impact both on network monitoring tools and best practices. We’re not quite there yet, but it’s worth keeping tabs on because the momentum behind AI tools in the enterprise doesn’t seem to have any limits.

There’ll be a whole set of developments to watch in AI. I think we’ll go from a flurry of activity to a smaller set that’s more useful and mainstream over time.

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By Kevin Casey

Kevin Casey is an award-winning technology and business writer with deep expertise in digital media. He covers all things IT, with a particular interest in cloud computing, software development, security, careers, leadership, and culture. Kevin's stories have been mentioned in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CIO Journal, and other publications. His InformationWeek.com on ageism in the tech industry, "Are You Too Old For IT?," won an Azbee Award from the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), and he's a former Community Choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards. In the corporate world, he's worked for startups and Fortune 500 firms – as well as with their partners and customers – to develop content driven by business goals and customer needs. He can turn almost any subject matter into stories that connect with their intended audience, and has done so for companies like Red Hat, Verizon, New Relic, Puppet Labs, Intuit, American Express, HPE, Dell, and others. Kevin teaches writing at Duke University, where he is a Lecturing Fellow in the nationally recognized Thompson Writing Program.