IT technology seems to grow more complicated with each passing year, as technology increasingly becomes more sophisticated. While IT teams have always had to focus on keeping networks and equipment secure and functional, the task has expanded far outside the traditional scope. Thanks to the internet of things (IoT), the cloud, software-defined networking, and myriad other connected devices and systems, managing network functionality and configurations across connected devices has never been more complicated.
However, as the scope of the IT team’s oversight has increased, network management tools and software have also evolved, offering streamlined solutions for preventing downtime, troubleshooting problems, and ensuring the overall health and security of a network. Currently, the market for network management solutions is teeming with products — most making similar claims about providing the support and security most IT teams need in order to keep networks functioning.
With so many products to choose from, how can businesses be certain they’re getting the solutions they need? There are a few key ways to identify a network management solution that addresses a business’s biggest functionality challenges. Below, we discuss the factors that you should consider when thinking about network configuration management tools, as well as a few of the best tools available for businesses of all sizes.
If you’re just looking to get started with a network management software tool, consider SolarWinds® Network Performance Monitoring (free trial available) for in-depth visibility, or SolarWinds® Network Configuration Manager (free trial available) for automated config options. Both offer ease of use as you upgrade your network management process.
9 Best Network Management Software and Tools + Guide
What Is Network Management and Why Is It Important?
What Is Included in a Network?
Types of Networks
The Core Components of Network Management
Benefits of Network Management
Basics of Network Scanning and Mapping
Monitoring Fault, Availability, and Performance on a Network
Best Practices for Network Management
What Is a Network Configuration Tool?
Network management software recommended features
Benefits of an Automated Network Management Tool
- SolarWinds® Network Configuration Manager (Free Trial)
- SolarWinds® Network Performance Monitor (Free Trial)
- ManageEngine OpManager Plu
- Aruba AirWave and HPE Intelligent Management Center
- Kiwi CatTools
- Net LineDancer
- Site 24×7
- Progress WhatsUp Gold
What Is Network Management and Why Is It Important?
Network management is all about connection. Simply put, network management is a system by which a business is able to configure, monitor, and maintain a reliable network, which ensures that devices maintain connections to software applications and that the people who use them are able to use them seamlessly and securely. Effective network management includes the provisioning, configuration, security, and monitoring of each element of the network, creating a sustainable system that allows for growth and efficiency.
In the past, the term “network” mainly referred to connected computers accessing a shared database within a business. Now, however, most modern offices and businesses use an ever-evolving system of devices, applications, and databases with many different access points. All of these systems fall under the purview of network management, making network management software a critical component of making sure that connections are secure and consistent. Here are some of the most common parts of a network.
- Servers: A server manages all of the devices within a network. Servers may be local, meaning they are housed on the premises of a business, or they may be remote and function over the internet.
- Routers: A router connects the devices within a network.
- Switches: Switches are the tools that connect the network, allowing the devices within that network to communicate. Networks need both routers and switches in order to function properly.
- Access Points: These are the places where devices are connected to the network.
- Firewalls: Firewalls offer security by giving a network permission to serve data to devices. They can also block access to certain data from devices within a network.
- Client Applications: These applications allow users within a network to complete business-related tasks.
Businesses of different sizes require different networks. A large company might have thousands of devices connected to its network, while a smaller business may have just a few. Here are a few of the most common types of networks:
- LAN (Local Area Network): This type of network connects devices within a limited proximity and is generally used to connect employee computers in a smaller office.
- WLAN (Wireless Local Area Network): Much like a LAN, this network connects devices in a small area, but uses a wireless connection so that employees can also connect wireless devices.
- VPN (Virtual Private Network): This is a secure network, allowing those connected to send encrypted data. This security is often used to enable remote workers the same privacy they would get from a local or private network.
- WAN (Wide Area Network): Often used by enterprise networks, these networks connect devices over large distances.
The Core Components of Network Management
From security to device performance, there are many moving parts when it comes to network management. Here are a few of the most important components of network management:
- Configuration management: A key process by which IT teams monitor and maintain devices and their configurations. Since configurations change every time a network updates or adds new programs, configurations should be monitored constantly.
- Fault management: Fault management is the process by which network managers identify problems or errors within the network, fix those problems, and document the steps taken to address the issue as well as the problem itself.
- Performance management: Keeping track of all of the devices in a network, as well as the network itself, falls under performance management. Monitoring and documenting the speed of networks and devices so that performance issues can be addressed as they arise is critical for overall network health.
For all these areas, managers need a troubleshooting process in place. Troubleshooting starts with the ability to monitor your network and measure key metrics. The best network management tools include systems for monitoring network performance and security, dashboards for visibility, and alerts in case thresholds are exceeded. Each of these features enables admins to take action more quickly and troubleshoot effectively.
Though network management tools have been around nearly as long as there have been networks themselves, the ever-increasing of these networks requires network management solutions with equally complex capabilities. While network management began as a way to identify errors and other problems within networks, today’s systems go beyond troubleshooting and offer a variety of benefits. Here are some of the main benefits of adopting the correct network management software:
- Optimize functionality: Businesses spend a lot of money on both devices and the networks to connect those devices. However, when problems arise, troubleshooting is often a time-consuming and costly process. Network management systems can not only increase the speed and functionality of a network, but they can also help teams identify unnecessary or unused devices and connections, maintaining the overall health of a network and ultimately saving a company money.
- Maintain productivity: Having efficient systems and dashboards for tracking and monitoring networks will ultimately save a lot of the time teams would have otherwise spent on identifying and addressing problems within the network.
- Increase security: Network management systems allow for the easy collection and storage of data, meaning that preventing security breaches becomes a lot simpler. This increased security provides peace of mind at a time when protecting data is more important than ever before.
Be sure to note that network monitoring is not the same as network management, though both are critical for maintaining the functionality of a business’s overall network health. Network monitoring is an important IT process in which each of a company’s networking components, such as switches, firewalls, routers, servers, and VMs are continuously monitored for performance and faults in order to ensure they are properly maintained and continuously available. Network monitoring should be a proactive process, helping you to identify potential problems before they become bigger network issues. When done well, monitoring prevents performance issues and bottlenecks in the initial stages while also avoiding system failure and downtime.
The amount of data generated by a network can often be overwhelming, making it difficult to quickly identify critical health and performance issues. Network scanning (network discovery) can help locate these issues, while mapping creates a graphical representation of network nodes and the links between them. Network nodes may include routers, switches, firewalls, and other devices. Network mapping can be used to produce an overview of a network or just a portion, typically showing the current status and other key pieces of information for all devices connected to the network. Traditionally, network mapping includes both the physical and logical links between networks.
A good starting point for scanning and monitoring a network includes SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol). It’s one of many network monitoring protocols, but SNMP is an effective system because it is intended to transmit messages between a central alarm master (an SNMP manager) and SNMP remotes (devices) at each network site. This improved communication allows for a more seamless connection between the multiple devices on a network and the monitoring tool.
SNMP monitoring helps IT admins manage their servers and other network hardware, including modems, routers, access points, switches, and additional devices connected to the network. By getting a connected view of these disparate devices, IT admins glean clear insights into key metrics like network and bandwidth usage. These tools also allow admins to track uptime and traffic levels to optimize performance.
In network management, topology is a term used to describe the way a network is arranged. Topology serves as a map to a network and includes a list containing all devices connected to or associated with a network, along with detailed information about where those devices are located in conjunction with one another. In order to manage a network effectively, administrators need a clear map of topology in order to identify the structure, layout, and connection associated with that network. Here are some common network topologies.
- Star configuration: The most common network topology, every node in a star network is connected to one central hub via coaxial, twisted-pair, or fiber-optic cable. This hub acts as a server.
- Bus topology: This configuration connects all devices within the network along a central cable. Data travels in one direction along this central line.
- Ring topology: In this topology, nodes are connected in a circular formation. Data travels in either one or both directions.
Mapping networks provides visibility, but those maps require an understanding of how nodes are connected. A network management tool provides visual data around these connections and keeps network maps updated automatically.
Along with network mapping, SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol) is critical for maintaining the overall health of a network. Adopting a network monitoring tool to assist with SNMP can help IT admins collect information about how much bandwidth is being used by different devices on a network, as well as allowing them to more easily aggregate error reports and organize them into a log.
SNMP tools allow IT teams to collect a wide variety of metrics from network devices, such as uptime, throughput, temperature, interface errors, CPU utilization, and memory usage. An advanced SNMP-compatible monitoring tool better enables teams to analyze changes in metrics over time, while more easily visualizing those metrics in dashboards, and will also send alerts on metrics exceeding their specified threshold.
There are two major components to creating a successful network management strategy: The first requires a complete assessment and understanding of the network. The second is to adopt the correct suite of tools for maintaining the overall health of that network. These tools should allow quickly and easily identifying potential problems within a network before they arise, enabling IT professionals to work proactively to avoid issues and downtime. While the right tools can enable businesses to save time and money by automating network-wide tasks, tracking performance problems, bottlenecks, and security issues, it is difficult for an organization to adopt the correct tools without a working knowledge of their systems and a plan for addressing problems. Here are a few ways that businesses can prepare and plan for the overall health of a network.
- Understand your network: This step may seem simple, but in reality, understanding the intricacies of a network is a challenge. To address future problems as they arise, network managers should have full working knowledge of how a network functions when everything is running smoothly. Establishing baselines within network management software and then tailoring alerts for when there are irregularities within the network will help teams quickly address problems when they arise, or, ideally, before issues become problems.
- Establish protocols: Planning for network problems is one of the best ways to avoid network problems. Setting a place in place and designating team members to address those problems is a vital part of network management. Make sure all team members are not only aware of their areas of responsibility, in addition to that of their co-workers, but also that alerts are sent to the correct person via their preferred method of communication (for example, text, email, or both).
- Use detailed analysis: Network monitoring or network configuration management tools should provide detailed analysis and troubleshooting for each level of a network, from physical devices to issues with IP addresses, servers, etc. Detailed reporting and visualization of this information is critical for quickly resolving issues.
- Ensure failover protection: Network management and monitoring software is intended to protect a business from both security and technical problems. However, when these problems arise, network management systems and network monitoring tools can be affected as well. Make sure your tools are configured to enable quick recovery if a major failure occurs.
- Plan for growth: When you’re setting up a network and adopting network management software, always leave room for growth. If a network grows, which it will, and a business hasn’t built in the capacity to increase, it’s highly likely that systems will run into problems as businesses try to expand on the fly. Use network management tools to make sure networks are running within capacity.
Network configuration management (NCM) tools are a type of software that allows management professionals and IT departments to manage settings for devices across networks. These NCM tools can be used with computers, routers, switches, printers, and more, and managers can use network management tools to view, change, back up, and restore device settings. Adopting network management tools helps to streamline the processes by which computer networks are run, as well as improving security across the network and preventing errors.
Additionally, a good network configuration management tool can help automate repetitive tasks within the network configuration management process. Automated network management helps create and maintain the correct settings for all of the devices within a network, including all the firmware and software installed on each of the devices within a network.
In an age where network security is critical, an NCM tool can also help to ensure that all of the settings on devices within a network are completely secure. Network configuration management tools can help network administrators quickly identify vulnerabilities that exist within devices, so that teams can fix configurations before security issues arise. These NCM tools can also provide improved security when it comes to backing up config settings. With an automated network management tool, organizations can quickly identify devices that are potentially not secure, quickly replacing those failed devices by uploading configurations from an archive onto the replacement hardware.
Network configuration management software also offers tools for tracking configuration changes and managing device lifecycle. For instance, it can notify teams regarding device configuration changes, in addition to offering built-in reports to enhance inventory visibility and support compliance, while making it easier to plan ahead.
Of course, it is possible to manage and monitor computer networks without network configuration tools. However, manually managing configurations for all the devices on your network is often an incredibly time-consuming process and also leaves open a great possibility for oversights or errors. Businesses of all sizes can benefit from good network configuration management tools because, as systems grow ever more complex and protecting those systems becomes best practice, no matter the size of a business, NCMs have become critical for ensuring configurations are accurate and backed up.
With a network management software and configuration tool, look for the following features for comprehensive functionality:
- Automation: Automating the network is an important of any good network management tool, as automation helps to reduce over network costs to the company while improving a businesses ability to quickly and effectively respond to known issues. Manually updating hundreds, or even thousands, of network device configurations is not only costly, but an inefficient use of time. Network automation tools can make changes and updates, check for potential security risks, and report on configuration status without the potential for human error.
- Bulk Changes: In addition to identifying security threats, system failures, or changes in operational flow, another important feature of a network management tool is the ability to make bulk changes across devices. Manually making changes opens a company up to the possibility of errors through a process that is also costly and time-consuming. However, network management tools should also easily allow for custom solutions as well.
- Network availability: There are many issues that can cause network downtime. Without the right network availability monitoring tools, finding the root cause of a problem can be like searching for a needle in a haystack. A good network performance monitor is an important feature for maintaining the overall health of a network. Network diagnostics tools are built to continuously monitor network device performance and availability and aid in network troubleshooting when problems arise. With intelligent network alerting, an NPM tool works in conjunction with an NCM tool to let IT teams know the moment key performance metrics pass critical thresholds, so that troubleshooting can begin as soon as issues occur.
- Troubleshooting: Network troubleshooting tools should easily integrate with your devices, applications, networks, and vendors in a single-page path analysis, which enables faster troubleshooting without the noise. These tools allow businesses to track every hop and to view latency historically or in real-time. From a central control, IT teams can view performance, traffic, and configuration details of devices and apps that are on-premises, in the cloud, or across hybrid environments.
- Alerts: IT managers are often barraged with an overwhelming number of continuous alerts, often at times when nothing can be done to address the issue. A reliable network management software will autonomously determine which alerts are most critical for network performance and make sure that these alerts come through at a time when IT teams are available to receive them. Make sure your network configuration manager offers an option for both default alerts and a custom alert setup option. By customizing alerts, businesses can specify how IT teams receive network performance alerts, by text, email, or other options, while directing alerts to the right team member at the right time.
- Bottleneck prevention: Most network professionals know that it is often a select few users and apps that are responsible for the heavy bandwidth consumption that creates bottlenecks. Look for tools that offer options for identifying bandwidth bottlenecks within networks, while also helping to identify which specific endpoints or applications are consuming the most network bandwidth. The best tools will allow IT professionals the option of reviewing historical data in order to identify habitual bandwidth bottlenecks and adjust policies for better management.
- Misconfiguration identification: While the concept of security misconfigurations can apply at any level of an application stack, network security misconfigurations refer to improper configurations for network devices, particularly devices affecting your network security, like routers. Protecting a network from security threats by using the correct configurations, protecting those configurations from unauthorized changes, and backing up configuration settings in case they’re needed for recovery is a vital part of network management.
Look for tools that provide real-time information about the configuration changes made within a network, especially tools that provide data around what the changes were and who made them. By adopting NCM tools with the ability to correlate configuration changes with network performance issues or security misconfigurations, you can both help reduce downtime and protect against security breaches.
- Fault identification: Faulty network devices can pose a real threat to continuous network availability, which can lead to decreased performance and unhappy end users. Some of the most likely causes of network faults include hardware issues, high CPU/memory utilization, high errors and discards, and QoS issues. However, finding these faulty devices — and the root causes of their issues — can often be challenging. Instead of manually performing network fault monitoring tasks, IT teams can invest in network fault management tools to locate devices with suspicious activity more easily.
Managing configurations through a manual process can be difficult and prone to error. Those in charge of configuration management must endlessly engage in repetitive tasks across many devices, constantly making sure everything is up-to-date and secure. At the same time, compliance violations, configuration conflicts, and faulty configuration changes can leave networks vulnerable to security breaches or downtime, which can also impact business productivity and overall security.
With a network management tool, businesses can reduce much of the effort involved in managing numerous device configurations across a heterogeneous network. Finding the right network management software is important because it can help reduce network downtime, maintain auditable security, and help businesses of all sizes manage a variety of device configurations within a dynamic network. Using a network management tool is critical for any organization, as it helps maintain security and supports optimal operation for devices across the network. Additionally, businesses that automate network configuration management with an NCM tool are also taking an important step toward simplifying many processes like scheduling backups, quickly highlighting configuration errors, and executing scripts for batch changes. Automated NCM software can also let you compare configurations to easily view changes and roll back improper changes, with the ability to maintain an archive of configurations to more easily restore a backup file if needed. Automating these updates, backups, error highlighting, and script execution are also adopting technology that saves time and breaks down bottlenecks within computer systems that are often time-consuming and decrease workplace productivity.
The Best Network Management Software
1. SolarWinds® Network Configuration Manager (Free Trial)
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SolarWinds Network Configuration Manager offers industry-leading technology. Straight out of the box, NCM offers easy-to-use configurations, so that the tools can be installed quickly and used almost immediately. SolarWinds NCM also offers fully automated configuration and restore points, along with automated alert systems and multi-vendor capabilities. The NCM also allows for customizable alerts, so that the right alerts reach the right team members automatically.
A long-trusted enterprise network management tool, NCM is ideal for mid-sized and large businesses looking for bulk configurations. Additionally, its interface combines configuration management with network reporting, so IT teams always have a complete picture of the network and can easily troubleshoot problems and avoid downtime for locally hosted devices and off-site and cloud devices. No matter the size of the network, SolarWinds NCM has been long-trusted for providing detailed insights, easy visualization, and rapid, customized alerts.
2. SolarWinds® Network Performance Monitor (Free Trial)
Another industry-leading enterprise network tool is SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor. NPM offers detailed breakdowns and troubleshooting of network performance problems, helping businesses to quickly and easily identify problems and quickly address any issues that arise.
While SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor is ideal for monitoring LANs, the tool is also dedicated to monitor larger networks and hybrid or wireless networks as well. In addition to monitoring switches, routers, NPM also offers detailed reports for endpoint devices, including terminals, desktop PCs, and mobile devices, and even office equipment, such as printers.
NPM offers multi-vendor network monitoring along with intelligence maps and network insights for a clear picture of network health. Plus, its advanced alerting feature allows teams to access all events and alerts within a network in one view and troubleshoot advanced devices across the platform.
ManageEngine OpManager Plus offers an integrated monitoring tool that provides complete visibility into networks, applications, and infrastructure. The OpManager Applications Manager plug-in conveniently supports many common commercial applications such as databases from IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle, along with many other open-source products, making it simple to integrate with existing platforms.
If you’re looking for enterprise network management and monitoring, Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s network monitoring suite consists of tools like Aruba AirWave and HPE Intelligent Management Center. In addition to detecting traditional sensors, AirWave is designed to detect mobile devices and applications, making it ideal for both wired and wireless networks. AirWave provides detailed health and analytics dashboards that monitor network health and traffic analysis (such as web categories, client destinations, and relative trust levels) along with UCC analytics. Additionally, AirWave provides a topology view, allowing for real-time views of actual floorplan maps. This comprehensive view makes it easier to spot problems.
The Intelligent Management Center provides clearly defined network data for IT teams while managing data centers and core networks. Its modular platform also offers tools for traffic analysis, remote network management, and intelligent reporting. The HPE Intelligent Management Center Enterprise Software Platform also allows IT teams to monitor device performance as well as the health of individual devices through device details pages containing the summary, connectivity testing, and real-time data from all devices within the network.
For small businesses, Kiwi CatTools offers cost-effective network configuration management tools. Kiwi CatTools offer preventative features such as a built-in Trivial File Transfer Protocol (TFTP) server, which schedules backups, as well as generates alerts and reports for configuration change management and analysis.
Easy to install on a Windows server, CatTools are designed to back up configuration information about the various devices on a network. When problems arise with switches, routers, or firewalls, CatTools provides instant alerts, and offers the ability to compare past and present configurations, which makes troubleshooting much easier for IT admins. Kiwi CatTools also allows small businesses to easily perform and reverse bulk configuration changes, which come with automated settings to save time and money.
One of the best features of Netline Dancer’s network configuration management tools is its simple interface. Ideal for smaller networks, Netline is able to offer most of the standard tools of NCM systems designed for larger networks on up to 200,000 devices. NetLD also archives all compatible devices, taking a convenient snapshot of each configuration setting. These archives simplify the process of conducting full hardware inventory audits, and also make it easier to implement bulk network configuration changes.
Designed to help network engineers quickly and easily manage and modify the configurations of network devices, including routers, switches, and firewalls, NetID provides hardware inventory reports, a history of configuration changes, comparisons line-by-line, automatic changes, detection of changes in real time, and reports, all in an easy-to-use package.
Spiceworks is an ad-supported source of IT management tools, which include inventory management, help desk workflow, and cloud monitoring in addition to its network solutions. This free tool provides valuable insights into many network performance issues and allows users the option of setting up customized alerts and restarting devices from within its app. As a free tool, Spiceworks may not be right for use by bigger businesses. The no-frills system does lack the capabilities for customized dashboards and does not provide social media links or chat support. But while Spiceworks lacks many of the reporting, monitoring, and alert capabilities of enterprise solutions, it does offer a free alternative for smaller or beginner networks.
3. Site 24×7
Ideal for businesses looking for free or budget network management solutions, Site 24×7 is a cost-effective solution for monitoring servers and applications. Site 24×7 is a network monitoring tool that offers network mapping, SNMP Trap Processing, and a health dashboard based on traffic, bandwidth utilization, errors, and discards, among other useful features. In addition to a paid service, Site 24×7 also offers a freemium version of its network monitoring software.
Its alert system means that IT admins are notified via SMS messages, emails, voice calls, push notifications, and RSS feeds. IT teams also get another notification when the app or site is back up online. Site 24×7 also integrates with most of the third-party applications used by modern offices, from Slack to Microsoft.
Suitable for businesses of all sizes, Progress WhatsUp Gold specializes in network performance monitoring by focusing on SNMP services. Installed on a Windows server, the network management system allows for autodiscovery, network mapping, dashboard graphics, and performance alerts. WhatsUp Gold’s system alerts are triggered by SNMP Trap messages. And since Traps are only generated when devices have a problem, network managers only need to take action when a Trap message arises, which cuts down on the alert fatigue many IT teams face.
WhatsUp Gold also includes features for easy network mapping. The network management system not only draws up network topology maps but also updates a map if different information comes in with the responses to a subsequent request by IT admins. The system automatically spots with devices are added or removed and also quickly identifies changes in connections between existing devices.
With so many tools available, deciding which network management system is the best fit for a company’s particular network management needs can be a bit daunting. In order to select the best tool for your business, be sure to take advantage of free trials. In addition to scheduling those trials, make sure there is a robust support team available to address your specific concerns. To get started today, consider SolarWinds Network Configuration Manager for your configuration needs, with a 30-day free trial, or SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor for more general monitoring needs, with a 30-day free trial as well.