QandA with Solarwinds Head Geek Patrick Hubbard: The evolving relationship between network administrators and cloud service providers

By Patrick Hubbard, Head Geek and Sr. Technical Marketing Manager, SolarWinds.

Q: How has the adoption of cloud computing and hybrid IT created new challenges for network managers?
A: Hybrid IT is the new normal for most organizations. According to SolarWinds IT Trends Report 2016, nearly all (92 percent) of the IT professionals surveyed said adopting cloud technologies is important to their organizations’ long-term business success, yet 60 percent say it is unlikely that all of their infrastructure will ever be migrated to the cloud. At the same time, the number of networks that modern businesses rely on is not only growing rapidly, but expanding beyond the walls of the organization as more infrastructure is moved to the cloud and business units continue to implement SaaS applications.

As IT leaders look for ways to strategically work alongside cloud service providers, network engineers specifically are finding that they are now responsible for monitoring and managing the performance of networks they own as well as those in the cloud, where they have traditionally had little to no visibility or authority. While every network administrator has traditionally assumed the responsibility and accountability for a network’s performance, their overall authority, but not their responsibility, is now lessened thanks to hybrid IT. And, without authority, it’s a challenge to ensure network maintenance and performance. This is all related to a problem we’re calling network sprawl.

Q: Can you talk more about the concept of network sprawl, and what it mean for network administrators?
A: As I hinted at, network sprawl is a phenomenon resulting from the growing adoption of the cloud and subsequently hybrid IT. As organizations rely more and more on cloud services, the number of networks our organizations rely on—those we own that are on-premises combined with those owned by cloud and SaaS providers—is growing rapidly, and we’re still in the early days.

At the end of the day, network engineers are still responsible to ensure the performance of all the network connections their organizations rely on, whether they own the networks or not. In essence, they have become responsible for not only their networks, but the networks of cloud and SaaS providers and the networks of their ISP and the ISPs their cloud service providers rely on.

Thus, the worst possible effect of network sprawl is having cloud-based applications dependent on multiple networks over which network administrators have no visibility into and thus no authority over. These applications may range from simple things such as a website or remote web service, all the way up to a complex mission critical cloud-based applications.

Network sprawl also has an effect on on-premises environments. Many organizations (rightly) choose to keep critical IT components on-site rather than trusting them to the cloud outside the boundaries of the workplace; a core production database is a good example of a fundamental IT function that’s kept on-premises. But developers increasingly create micro services or even full-blown applications that reside in the cloud, but also connect data from said core database. So, the inability to see or manage the capacity, performance and availability of the provider’s network, or understand why there might be downtime, will naturally affect these types of implementations, even though the users and the data are all local. And even the onsite components can suffer because they must endure longer than expected wait times and open threads as remote connections first receive and then process the data they request from inside the firewall.

Q: How will ITOA and IT management solutions need to evolve to address these new network management challenges?
A: As the industry delves deeper into the world of cloud, SaaS and hybrid IT, network management strategies as basic as traceroute are becoming obsolete. At the same time, cloud monitoring tools don’t have visibility into on-premises infrastructure performance. As a result, the environment is simultaneously becoming more opaque and complex. Network monitoring tools that include visual path monitoring can help recover much of the authority lost in the move to hybrid IT. It adds the ability to simplify root cause detection of issues in internal networks from malfunction or misconfiguration, as well as extending troubleshooting through the internet and into service providers’ networks. The data from these tools can also be crucial for capacity planning—historical data can be used to anticipate when the organization will need more on-premises resources to alleviate bottlenecks. An example is SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor.

In addition, ITOA will become all the more important as a valuable supplement to modern monitoring tools, as IT professionals—and network engineers specifically—will need to analyze more data than ever before, and transform it into concise, useful information to help troubleshoot performance problems. ITOA managers won’t suddenly stop requesting metrics to drive analytics for hybrid IT, quite the opposite, in fact. As more and more critical functions transition to SLA-based services, ensuring that they’re getting what they expect is more important than ever before. They must be able to assure their management that user experience is good, even when management interfaces have become opaque.

Q: What are best practices that IT professionals should follow to get a handle on these new network management challenges brought on by the cloud?
A: Since network sprawl is a natural byproduct of hybrid IT, it can’t be curbed altogether. However, there are a couple things IT professionals and network managers can do to mitigate the impact of network sprawl while simultaneously ensuring their relationship cloud services providers evolves in positive ways.

First, it’s OK to admit they may have a network sprawl problem. The first step is coming to terms with reality. They should research what cloud vendors and SaaS applications their organizations use, the performance requirements needed from these vendors and if they’re living up to those needs. They should also recognize that as the network engineers, they ultimately have responsibility to ensure not only the networks they own, but those of the cloud and SaaS vendors their organizations rely on are performing well.

Second, network engineers need to regain visibility with modern network monitoring tools. WAN providers, cloud vendors and SaaS application vendors will never hand over authority in the sense of giving control over their networks for a variety of reasons. However, visibility is almost as good as authority. Having visibility into their networks from the outside also provides network administrators with the authority (i.e., credibility rather than control) they need to ensure their organizations aren’t negatively impacted by a provider’s poor network performance.

Next, they should remember that Quality of Service (QoS) and end user experience have to be key metrics. To ensure quality of experience, they need to be able to trace how end users are actually using any one application, and see the service quality firsthand. Relevant metrics should be quickly identified and monitored to generate better visibility. And monitoring must include actionable insight, such as details on utilization, saturation and errors, which are all critical for speed, collaboration and QoS.

Lastly, remember that cloud providers are not the enemy. Network administrators and other IT professionals often find it difficult to trust cloud providers with their data because it travels across networks they don’t own. To combat cloud migration jitters, network administrators should have a fundamental understanding of each provider and its services. Many even provide information and reporting that can be integrated into an IT department’s own applications to create a more comprehensive approach to monitoring and managing on-premises networks and the cloud.

About Patrick Hubbard
Patrick Hubbard is the Head Geek and Sr. Technical Marketing Manager at SolarWinds.

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