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Establishing a Network Management Infrastructure

When I first got involved in network design and implementation, network management infrastructure was unheard of—an organizational component awaiting definition. Getting a network functional was top priority, and while a manager oversaw us, she had a minimal grasp of the technology.

Constructing an online, interactive, computer-based network—one that provides access to business applications the same as terminals directly connected to the mainframe—was trial-and-error. Shifting bits to electrical impulses and back on telephone lines was unprecedented.

Online or online-enabling devices evolved rapidly, complexity blossomed, options increased and the number of things that could go wrong increased exponentially. The number of users dependent on online access skyrocketed, and job descriptions expanded to include new capabilities and expectations.

Customer expectations increased too, unwilling to wait for answers other emerging customer service operations provided, and organizations demanded their IT departments provide rapid and dependable online capabilities at high-availability service levels.

To further complicate matters, voice business applications began sharing communications facilities, competing for bandwidth and generating a plethora of new errors and administrative requirements. Telemarketing exploded—opening new opportunities and extending an organization’s reach along with it—creating copious new applications. Cellphones brought the advent of wireless communication and a wildly diverse and robust suite of applications, resulting in another explosion of network diversification. All these developments complicated price/performance challenges, technical and creative possibilities, and most of all, the infrastructure needed to support it.

A current-day network management department is composed of various specialized functions requiring specialized skills, based on existing hardware and software. In smaller organizations, multiple functions may be assigned to a single individual. In medium organizations, a few employees perform one or two functions each. In large companies, multiple staff members exist in each unit. A manager oversees the entire department, and in large organizations, managers for units may be implemented.

Here’s a list of key network management department functions or units:

  • Department management
  • Product setup, configuration, installation, and training
  • Inventory management
  • Software management and distribution
  • Fault management (problem determination and resolution)
  • Performance management (monitoring and tuning)
  • Network design, configuration, acquisition, and future development
  • External interfaces

Network Department Manager

The network department manager position is similar to other department manager positions. Responsibilities include personnel placement, performance evaluations, providing guidance, approving purchases and taking a leadership role in network technology, enhancements, reconfigurations, and changes to optimize network response time, usability, economy, flexibility, availability and reliability.

The department manager position isn’t technical, but a technical background in networks can be a great help, both in terms of dealing with business issues and with staff.

Product Setup, Configuration, Installation and Training

Perhaps the largest consumer of person-power in a network management department is the person or unit that distributes devices such as telephones, laptops/desktops, etc., to end-users. These products often need assembly or reconfiguration (add memory, change startup options, etc.), and usage training, which may require significant time.

The unit also is responsible for troubleshooting end-user devices, a task often requiring product and debugging skills. Because they work with end-users, some interpersonal proficiency is also desirable. This is a job for jacks-of-all-trades, who are willing to work odd hours (much installation work needs to be done off-hours). Tasks like pulling cables, electrical wiring, rearrangement of furniture, etc., are often part of the job.

This unit is often responsible for end-user device training, which is a logical extension of their duties in device configuration, installation and setup. The end-user is more often than not at their cubicle when a network technician arrives with the equipment.

Network technicians have extensive hardware knowledge, so they can often enlighten a user and answer questions as they perform the install. They can guide the user through startup, demonstrate some basic processes like startup and shutdown and educate a user on business functions they’ll be using (although this is normally an end-user department responsibility). They are often goodwill ambassadors because they have so much interaction with users.

Inventory Management

Inventory management isn’t normally associated with IT, but with a volatile end-user population where employees cycle through—especially seasonal businesses where staffs balloon and deflate—it’s necessary to stockpile end-user devices to handle the ebb and flow.

Even with stable-workforce businesses, when an employee is replaced, devices need to be refurbished. In addition, with technology’s rapid evolution, end-user devices need to be regularly replaced, so there’s often constant equipment turnover. This makes inventory management a necessity, vital to keeping a stock of functional, secure and available devices, and it must be staffed with well-trained and experienced individuals.

Software Management and Distribution

Whether it be a laptop, desktop, smartphone, departmental processor or other intelligent end-user device, it’s a given it uses software that’s constantly evolving. This means a network management department needs to have a software distribution strategy, which mandates individuals assigned to execute that strategy, keeping the end-user devices current and fully functional.

Since everything’s connected, this is usually performed remotely and usually has to be performed non-disruptively. Some upgrades can be applied while a device is in use, while other upgrades need to be applied when the device is inactive. Individuals need to be highly-trained in this function due to this being a very time-consuming process requiring substantial skills.

Fault Management

Problem determination and resolution also requires a high-level of skills and a significant time commitment. A network is a complex of diverse and abundant connections like links, concentrators, network controllers and various network forms (e.g., LAN, WAN, VPN, etc.); it’s an organization’s backbone. A lot of things can and will go wrong, and finding and fixing a problem can be a very difficult process. Substantial training and experience are musts for individuals in this unit; it’s a 24-7 process requiring commitment and tenacity. Individuals to staff this operation are at a premium and vital to an organization.

Performance Management (Monitoring and Tuning)

Just as with Fault Management, network performance and tuning requires individuals with a high caliber of skills and a dedication to knowing every aspect of a network, as well as the nature of its load. Someone in this position has to be very proactive in establishing an effective monitoring methodology, then anticipating problems by conscientiously scrutinizing monitor reports to identify trends and warnings, plus quickly reacting to problems that arise without warning.

Vendors often provide assistance, and sometimes it’s a matter of adding capacity. The network performance unit is the keeper of network responsiveness, which in turn makes them key players in end-user productivity, efficaciousness and company profitability.

Network Design, Configuration, Acquisition and Future Development

Network design plays a key role when an organization first establishes a network, and it works closely with network performance after the network, and related infrastructure, is established. Network design controls network topography, looking for the most cost effective solutions, designing network expansions and evaluating options to reduce cost and improve performance and responsiveness.

Network design also keeps an eye on product upgrades or new products that can enhance network throughput or bandwidth—or add function that increases network value. Members of this unit share many skills with the network performance and network problem resolution units, but they are oriented to network structure and upcoming product enhancements rather than current network operation.

External Interfaces

A network management department doesn’t operate in a vacuum; it is part of an enterprise, and as such, needs to interact with other organizational components. In particular, a network department needs to designate certain individuals as departmental representatives to other IT entities, such as a change management committee, problem review committee, end-user satisfaction meetings and so forth.

Individuals from relevant units should be designated to religiously attend these meetings, servicing as contact points to the rest of the institution.

Integrating Network With Enterprise

Establishing a network management infrastructure solidifies an organization’s stability by providing dependable communication channels, automating business functions, enhancing customer deliverables and improving employee productivity and effectiveness.

An effective network enables IT, optimizing it via interconnectivity, providing critical load balancing, moving processing to where it’s needed and providing online access and geographical interconnectedness. An effective telecommunications network is the backbone of successful organizations, and an effective, well-organized, sturdy network management infrastructure guarantees a high quality IT network.