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Defining the value of real-time network traffic monitoring

(Image credit: Image Credit: Flex)

Customer experience today is often measured through the performance of the network. How fast and responsive are applications, how quickly can orders be routed to shipping, how responsive are support tools, and more. The digital foundation of a business can often be defined by the differences between a happy customer and a frustrated one. Unfortunately, performance issues like network outages, hardware failures, and misconfigurations can strike at any time. Having the right monitoring solutions in the right places to quickly assess and fix those problems (or identify them before they even happen) means having real-time visibility into network performance. To do that, teams need real-time network traffic monitoring. 

It’s no secret that networking teams routinely perform activities to plan, deploy, upgrade, maintain, troubleshoot, and monitor the network. These activities are extremely data-driven and are heavily dependent on the network team’s accurate understanding and interpretation of the data coming from applications, network devices, and the traffic moving over their network.

Real-time network monitoring tools give NetOps teams visibility, so they constantly have their fingers on the pulse of the network to track performance, activity, security, and identify any potential issues that may arise.

Why does this matter? At a high level, it’s simple: time is money. But here are four additional reasons why you need real-time network traffic monitoring:

First, it accelerates network troubleshooting. If your NetOps team is stuck on an issue or bringing in costly resources to assist in troubleshooting, it’s quickly burning through any cost-savings value that a Network Performance Management (NPM) solution is providing. Being able to see in real-time, and hopefully be alerted, to traffic irregularities, configuration errors, or bottlenecks is the secret weapon for troubleshooting. 

Important insight

For example, imagine an employee is working with a customer online, using Webex, Zoom, or other UCS service, and the audio and video keep freezing. The employee will likely submit a trouble ticket to IT. When IT has time, they’ll contact the employee, and probably try to reproduce the problem. This is hard and error-prone, as the conditions may have changed. It also pulls the employee from their primary job function. If on the other hand, IT is using an NPM solution, analyzing the UCS in real-time, and saving the packets, the team could have been pro-actively alerted to network latency or other KPI’s not meeting performance thresholds. They could easily drill down to the analysis, flows, and packets of the actual call, then troubleshoot the situation or collaborate with someone capable of resolving the issue.

Whether running a routine scan or actively monitoring the network, having an NPM solution that can also provide live network maps will enable NetOps to quickly identify the root cause of a problem. Performing real-time analysis on the network can also increase MTTR as it gives IT pros additional insight into the problem.

Second, real-time traffic monitoring allows teams to stay ahead of outages. The reasons for a network going down are almost endless these days. Regardless of who or what’s at fault (the network or an application), an outage is an extremely costly event. By actively monitoring network traffic and performance, teams can get ahead of problems before they arise. 

For example, if a switch or router goes down or gets misconfigured, network traffic may take another path, but that path may take longer, and ultimately affect the productivity of the entire office. Without visibility, no one knows there’s a problem, and often just accepts the slowness of the network. However, if using an NPM solution, the routers and switches along the way are reporting back in real-time, all the time, allowing the NetOps team to use features like Multi-Path Analysis to visually display the path and the hops along the way, in real-time and into the past. By comparing the current path with the past, NetOps can identify when the traffic, or even parts of the traffic, began taking a different path. A deeper analysis can display and allow for changes to the QOS settings to reconfigure the settings and resolve the issue.

Improving network performance

Third, by combining real-time network traffic monitoring with superior alerting, teams can reduce the burden of overall management. NetOps teams can’t sort through the overwhelming number of alerts, emails, and trouble tickets. For this reason, automating how the team is alerted to problems (especially as the network landscape gets more complex) is key. Using NPM solutions with advanced alerting such as latency and jitter, NetOps teams can reduce empty alerts and prioritize problems that matter most for the business. But finding the balance between scanning frequency and advanced alerting can be important when it comes to the efficiency and importance level of alerts.  

For example, the NetOps team might be getting swamped with alerts about high memory, CPU usage, unencrypted traffic, and performance issues. All of these are important, but often only one thing can be the priority. NPM solutions offer alerts with severity levels that can be adjusted. This enables the NetOps team to sort and report by severity and focus on the priority alerts. Alerts often also have threshold levels that can be adjusted for each type of application. This is important, since some applications may have performance requirements that are different from others. For critical business applications and network service providers, thresholds can be set according to agreed-upon service level agreement KPI’s.

Finally, and maybe the most important reason to do real-time network monitoring is that it improves overall network performance and allows NetOps teams to baseline performance. It can reveal actionable insights about performance inefficiencies (or deviations). There are common key network performance metrics that teams should be actively monitoring including latency, speeds, bandwidth usage, uptime, readiness, and more. This allows NetOps to gather data as it happens and easily check it against what has already been proven as “normal” or ideal network conditions. 

For example, when a new service provider or application is deployed, it should be run and baselined to ensure that it’s meeting or exceeding expectations. Once deployed, the performance should be automatically checked against the baseline on an ongoing basis. If the performance deviates outside of an agreed-upon amount, an alert should notify the NetOps team so they can pro-actively investigate and either resolve the issue or provide useful information to the vendor. 

There are other, more granular reasons to monitor network traffic in real-time such as compliance, productivity, and security. But simply put, it’s just a good business practice. As networks get more complex with cloud, SD-WAN, SASE, and more having visibility that allows teams to easily identify issues and plan for changes becomes increasingly critical for success. 

Chris Bloom, technical lead, LiveAction