Comprehensive and efficient network monitoring is key to running a successful managed services provider (MSP) company. Effectively it can be the determining factor between keeping customers happy and productive at all times and finding out about performance issues too late. How can you make sure you’re choosing the best tools out there? Here’s what you need to know.
Types of network monitoring tools
- Open-source: This includes popular software like Nagios, Zabbix, and Icinga. Many IT professionals like open-source software because it’s free and customizable, but they’re generally not the right choice for MSPs. These tools have limited functionality, require constant configuration and management, and may not come with any vendor support.
- Specialized: These boutique tools only monitor specific types of data in a given environment. They can be good for providing data-driven insights in one particular area, but this value-add often comes at the expense of a more holistic view of your network. However, specialized tools can still be useful if they’re used in conjunction with a more broad-spectrum solution.
- Multi-featured: It’s equipped with a wide variety of user-friendly features, does more to help you ensure a secure network, and is compatible with a variety of vendors and protocols (like SNMP and SQL). Top IT services providers tend to select software from this category, seeking out the specific solution that meets their needs. Naturally, these are more expensive, but they’re worth the investment in the long run.
These are broad categories, and the solutions that fall into each individual category can vary widely based on functionality, scalability, cost, and other factors. So how can you make sure you’re choosing the best network monitoring system for your MSP?
What should you look for in network monitoring software?
Network monitoring tools can be divided into two broad categories—agentless platforms and agent-based systems.
An agentless platform is installed on a server or workstation that is physically attached to your network, which means it will require access to credentials for everything you want to monitor. Many MSPs prefer an agentless platform because you don’t have to install the network monitoring software on each individual device, and in many cases, the platform can automatically detect devices on your network. In fact, agentless platforms are designed to have little to no impact on current processes. Still, you need a dedicated system with a lot of power to run an agentless platform, which can get expensive if you have more than one office and have to purchase a high-powered machine for each.
An agent-based system, on the other hand, uses a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model to deliver a large part of the network monitoring solution. This means that you’ll access most of the software via the web, and the monitoring programs that live on the end-devices will run and report back. An agent-based system grants you access to more granular data than an agentless platform since they have more hardware access. However, it’s important to note that agent-based systems have to be installed on each individual device, which can be challenging even with the help of automation.
Once you’ve decided what kind of solution will work best for your business, you can start evaluating solutions according to their features. Over the years, we’ve found the best network monitoring systems—regardless of whether they’re agent-based or agentless—have these seven features in common:
- Broad monitoring capabilities
Any solution will be able to monitor the devices, routers, and servers on your network, but that’s not the only factor that matters. Consider your system’s environment or your customers’ environments. Are all the products from a single vendor? Chances are they aren’t. MSPs need network monitoring software with multi-vendor capabilities because they need insight into devices from a wide variety of vendors. Without broad monitoring capabilities that are compatible across multiple vendors, you can end up restricting your business to a select few “supported” solutions.
Look for network software that supports popular vendors like Cisco Nexus, Huawei NetStream, and F5 BIG-IP. Similarly, opt for a tool that has automatic discovery and can easily handle on-premises, cloud, and hybrid environments.
- Path visualization
Sometimes the key to optimizing network performance is monitoring the relationships between different elements, not just the elements themselves. You’d be surprised at how many performance issues are lurking just beyond your firewalls.
MSPs need software that supports hop-by-hop analysis of applications and services so they can keep an eye on any minute changes and identify service provider issues. Path visualization also aids in future troubleshooting—you can use historical views to identify potential problems on the path and resolve them before the problem affects end users.
- Customizable dashboards
Most solutions have dashboards that display performance metrics, but there’s no guarantee those metrics are relevant to your business. Also, if the dashboard displays too many metrics, it can be difficult to find the key metrics that matter in all the clutter. Look for a tool that allows you to customize your dashboards so you can get instant visibility into the metrics that are most important to your organization.
- Robust automation
Finding network monitoring software that enables the right amount of automation can be tricky. Too much automation without the appropriate level of control, and you could wind up with a solution that’s ill-suited to your network’s unique needs. Too little automation and you sink valuable energy and resources into completing small, repetitive tasks, instead of focusing on projects that add real value to your business. Look for software that allows you to automate repetitive processes using built-in performance checks, but also lets you customize scripts and workflows to craft a solution that works for you.
- Natural scalability
All MSPs must plan for future growth. Some solutions can support an unlimited number of devices at no additional cost, while others may have specific payment plans for networks with a certain number of nodes. MSPs should choose software that will support their business in the long run. Check with your prospective vendor to find out how many devices the network monitoring software can support out-of-the-box, and ask if the software is built to scale with your business.
- Advanced alerting
If half of a network monitor’s job is uncovering performance issues, the other half is alerting you to those issues. Your tool should be able to send you intelligent real-time alerts whenever an issue has been detected, including the location and severity of the issue. Be sure to choose a tool that can send notifications through several channels, including text and email.
Don’t get too carried away with notifications, though. Your network monitor should also let you customize your alerts so you aren’t bombarded with a deluge of unnecessary pings. Your network monitoring software should allow you to define network performance alerts based on custom trigger conditions, parent/child dependencies, and network topologies.
- The ability to support integrations
Even the best solution is not enough to completely manage your environment—and you don’t want to end up with a suite of disparate tools that don’t work seamlessly with one another. It doesn’t necessarily have to come from the same vendor as your other tools, but it must support integrations with your systems. This improves ease of use all around and helps your technicians work more efficiently.
Integrations can also help you offer more services to customers. While you’re asking your potential vendor about their network monitoring software, see if the tool can also integrate with their other offerings for password management, risk intelligence, email protection, and backup. Utilizing several offerings from the same vendor can make technician onboarding much easier, and odds are you’ll get a discount on licensing as well.
- A community of users to provide feedback
Finally, the best software should come from vendors that have an active team of developers and listen to their customers. An active community of users often provides a forum for vendors to peek into customers’ concerns and questions—and good software should continue to change based on this feedback. Look for prospective vendors that discuss how new features are added and rolled out, and pay attention to how they interact with their users and their community of customers.
The best network monitoring system for MSPs
RMM is a cloud-based IT solution that’s designed to get you up and running in hours, as opposed to weeks or months. This solution is good for MSPs that want to hit the ground running and need to maximize their resources. On the other hand, N-central is more focused on helping MSPs scale up, manage larger networks without using a lot of manpower, and support complex environments. If you run a network operations center (NOC), for example, N-central is for you.
Both network monitoring systems include the essential features mentioned above—plus more once you add in other integrations. Need help keeping your passwords straight? Integrate with N-able Passportal™. Need to streamline ticketing and billing? Integrate with N-able MSP Manager. N-able also keeps an open channel of communication with its active community of users to pass on feedback to their team of developers. The team aims to create new features based on user suggestions and requests, ensuring that the software always reflects your needs.
Both RMM and N-central also come integrated with N-able Take Control, a powerful remote support software that allows you to support more customers via rapid remote support. You can also buy Take Control as a standalone product if you want to familiarize yourself with a single tool before buying into the entire N-able ecosystem.
Get more on network monitoring and MSP software
Also read these articles to get a better understanding of this topic:
- Network Visibility: A Complete Guide
- Network Map Creation: 5 Simple Steps
- 4 Great Reasons to Use All-in-One Software for MSPs