In an ideal world, network management would be an exact science. Applications would consume standard rates of bandwidth, managers would be able to apply policies that suited every kind of user, a service level would be agreed for every eventuality and the exponential rise in network traffic caused by e-business would cause a mere blip in an otherwise serene, smooth-running activity.
But as even the most laid-back network manager will testify, there's nothing exact about it. Analysts like Forrester claim that network management is the single biggest operational problem for as much as 38% of businesses worldwide.
Multimedia data, the flood of traffic generated by increasingly complex e-business relationships, and user expectations of instant response and round-the-clock availability, regardless of location or access device, all contrive to make managing a network a reactive activity.
As if that wasn't enough, the lure of increased automation and outsourcing as possible solutions must leave many network managers wondering if they have a role beyond that of basic fire-fighting any more. So is the future a choice between no job at all (if the company is chucking enough resources at the network) and the constant war of attrition that managers fight in more financially hard-pressed IT environments? Not necessarily. There could be an opportunity for traditional network managers to reinvent themselves as strategists in an ideal position to promote the network as a vital business resource.
That can't happen quickly enough for one network professional in the health sector who speaks enviously of sites with entire teams dedicated to network monitoring. "For someone like me, network management depends on a lot of luck," he says. "You only need one rogue piece of kit that's difficult to track, and the effect on network performance means the network's reputation (and your own) suffers."
In such environments, committing to policy-based networks and quality of service as a business issue, rather than a purely technical one, would make a tremendous difference. It would certainly help alleviate some of the concerns raised by the rise of e-business and its impact on application performance.
"Dependency on the Internet introduces a level of performance uncertainty not experienced before," says Dave Inman, vice-president at e-business infrastructure specialist supplier System Management Arts. He adds that even over Virtual Private Networks, the flood of e-mail, customer enquiries and user exploitation of fast Internet connections can put unexpected pressures on the network infrastructure.
"In a Web environment, IT executives can't control the level of user demand, which can lead to major disruptions," says Tony Cooper, network marketing manager at systems integrator Computacenter. "A classic example was Cahoot.com, Abbey National's e-venture. It experienced technical difficulties on its first day, the site collapsing at 10am and not returning for 24 hours. The cold fact today is that organisations developing e-business are far more accountable."
The volume and variety of multimedia applications, suggests Inman, present an ever-increasing headache to the network planner and manager. Even with the widespread acceptance of IP as the standard network protocol, engineering challenges mount as each higher layer protocol demands its own quality of service.
"All of this presents a significant network management challenge," says Inman. "The biggest challenge is to determine what is the priority for managing the network. One view is that network management should be application-driven - that is, top-down, based on application needs. However, network problems often occur way below the application layer, but directly affect application performance and availability."
The traditional solution has been to throw bandwidth at the problem in the hope it will go away. It never does, lurking beneath the surface for a while before breaking out again, often worse than before. "With problem determination and historical reporting capabilities, network managers can discover whether problems are network- or application-related, and track down the source," says Inman.
Too many companies make the mistake of treating network management as a low-level engineering function. "This is a mistake," says John Livingstone, portfolio strategy manager at BT. "Those aiming to implement e-commerce and CRM systems must include the management function as a primary requirement - not a 'nice to have' afterthought."
According to Livingstone, five main management areas need to be considered at the specification stage: fault, configuration, accounting, performance and security. "A system penetrated by hackers or brought down by denial-of-service attacks will do little for customer confidence, so security must have a high profile. A system that responds slowly or suffers visible overload will likewise damage competitive advantage."
Policy-based network management has been hailed as the solution to everything from the basic plumbing of the network to quality of service and application availability. But while suppliers chirrup about its importance, their customers will have to invest in a new generation of Lan switches before they can appreciate the real benefits of simplified traffic prioritisation.
Automated software tools could offer a more instant solution. "As online audiences become more demanding, meeting service level agreements will be major differentiators for UK e-businesses," says Jeff Cottrell, enterprise business manager at testing solutions specialist Wavetek Wandel Goltermann.
Cottrell predicts a future of greater automation but says network managers should embrace this rather than fear it as a threat to their livelihood. "In the future, network management tools will be so automated and interactive they will be able to pinpoint errors and kick off analysis sessions automatically, essentially finding the network problem, diagnosing it and fixing it before anyone knows it has happened. Routers and switches will also become more intelligent and have that type of function built-in."
Happy days may soon be here again, then. "As network managers become more automated, network managers may feel as if their jobs are disappearing," Cottrell acknowledges. "This isn't the case. Automated products will give them more time to plan and be proactive, offer consultation to their businesses and develop better customer care and quality of performance. The IT network is no longer a separate beast from the rest of the company, it's integral to the survival of the whole business."
It isn't always hell to be a network manager. Property and casualty insurance company, ACE Group, has spent the last couple of years resolving the problem of exploding network traffic and its effect on application availability.
"Our problems were the high costs involved in managing the network and the growth in usage, which was proving almost impossible to control," says Julian Knott, network services manager at ACE's international data centre in Crawley. "We were advised to throw more bandwidth at the problem, but it was quickly swallowed up. We needed a solution to give us control of the network, allow us to visualise problems and enable us to analyse and come up with answers."
The solution was CompuWare's EcoScope network testing and management solution. "We saved over $200,000," says Knott. "Our customers benefit from a more efficient network, higher reliability and better response times and cost-cutting. We deliver a better quality of service and are more proactive in dealing with customer requirements."
The solution is now being rolled out globally to 2,500 users in 34 countries.