7 Best Network Management Tools and Software + A Beginner’s Guide

By Staff Contributor on September 12, 2019

Network management is essentially the process of setting up, administering, and troubleshooting a network, whether for home or business purposes. The purpose of network management is to ensure that the IT side of a business is set up in a resilient, sensible way, which can minimize disruptions, ensure high performance, and help you avoid security issues.

However, business networks are often fairly large and complex, which means the set of tasks a network administrator will need to perform can quickly overwhelm manual efforts. So, how do you manage a network? Is there a difference between centralized and decentralized network management? In this guide, I define the broader term network management, discuss industry best practices, go over the importance of centralized network management, and how behind the best network management strategies you’ll find the best network monitoring software.

Understanding network management and choosing the right tools is vital for keeping your network—and the overall business—healthy and functioning, which is why I’m also providing in-depth feature reviews for two of the leading network tools currently on the market from SolarWinds—Network Configuration Manager and Network Performance Monitor—to help you understand what type of tool may be best suited for your business needs.

What is Network Management?

Why You Need Network Configuration Management

How to Optimize Network Performance

What to Look For in a Reliable Network Management Tool

Benefits of Automated Network Tools

Best Practices for Network Management

Centralized vs. Decentralized Network Management

The 7 Best Network Management Tools for Any Organization

1. SolarWinds Network Configuration Manager (Free Trial)

2. SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor (Free Trial)

3. SolarWinds Hybrid Cloud Observability (Free Trial)

4. ManageEngine OpManager

5. Paessler PRTG

6. Datadog

7. Auvik

Network Management Can Be Simple

What is Network Management?

If you’re new to this topic, you may have a number of questions about how to manage networks, as it’s a broad category that encompasses numerous, different tasks. Put simply, there are five main areas that should be part of any effective network management system. There can be some overlap between these categories, but the general breakdown is as follows:

  1. Network Administration – Administration of a network includes keeping an inventory of network resources and equipment, including cables, hubs, routers, servers, and computers. In addition, it can mean setting up networks, monitoring their performance, and updating and troubleshooting software. It also involves setting up network management tools, operating systems, and software used across the entire network.
  2. Network Operation – Operations is all about keeping the network running smoothly and without problems. It includes monitoring the network for performance problems and faults, as well as fixing problems before they affect end users, or at least in the timeliest manner possible.
  3. Network Maintenance – Maintenance includes the repair and upgrade of network equipment (including routers, transmission cables, servers, workstations, and switches). It also involves updating and patching software on an ongoing basis, along with implementing preventative policies, updating access control measures, and improving faulty configurations.
  4. Network Provisioning – The provisioning task is all about allocating and configuring network resources to best suit a particular service or need. For example, a project may have a lot of people coming in from offsite, which could increase the need for broadband. If a team needs extra storage space or file transfer capabilities, the responsibility falls on IT. The network administrator works to provide resources to meet the growing and changing needs of the business.
  5. Network Security – Keeping a network secure is important for the network to function in a healthy way to fulfill the needs of the business. This involves installing and maintaining network protection software, monitoring IP and network behavior, tracking endpoint devices, and quickly resolving security issues or breaches.

Why You Need Network Configuration Management

As you can see, there are a lot of moving parts that must function well together in order to provide a seamless network experience. The best way to keep your IT environment healthy is to partake in network configuration management, which focuses on the process of planning, documenting, and controlling changes made to routers, servers, switches, or firewalls. Any small change can affect the performance and safety of the entire network, so it’s important to pay attention to the details.

Effective network configuration management is crucial for several reasons. First, it establishes stability, reducing the chances of misconfigurations that can lead to downtime, performance issues, or vulnerabilities. By setting predefined configurations, organizations can ensure that all devices are set up correctly and adhere to best practices and security policies. Network configuration management also simplifies troubleshooting and maintenance. With extensive documentation and centralized management of network configurations, IT teams can quickly identify and resolve network issues with granularity before they escalate to bigger problems.

Change management and scalability are also benefits associated with network configuration management, as it enables organizations to easily replicate successful configurations, deploy new devices efficiently, and scale the network to accommodate growing business demands.

How to Optimize Network Performance

Everyone wants a high-speed, low-latency network, and for businesses, it’s not just a luxury but a necessity. A single second of downtime or delay could mean an operational backlog, causing a company-wide slowdown that could take a lot of time to resolve. How can you ensure that your network performance is not only speedy, but proactively secure? Consider these tips:

  • Thoroughly Troubleshoot – Regularly monitor network performance using tools such as network monitoring software to identify potential faults or anomalies. Take a look at the status of your network’s traffic, device health, bandwidth utilization, latency, and other key performance indicators to clue you in on emerging vulnerabilities. When an issue arises, perform systematic troubleshooting by isolating the problem, verifying configurations, and analyzing logs or error messages. This helps pinpoint the root cause so you can resolve issues with minimal impact.
  • Embed Alerts – In the midst of your operations, it’s easy to get sidetracked and leave security on the backburner. By implementing a robust alerting system, you can keep security a priority, with notifications that promptly notify IT teams of any network issues or abnormalities. You should configure alerts for critical events, such as device failures, high CPU or memory utilization, network congestion, or security breaches for quick resolution.
  • Address Bottlenecks – While networks are prone to bottlenecks, you can help reduce their prevalence with the help of network management solutions. Bottlenecks may occur due to inadequate bandwidth, network congestion, suboptimal routing, or outdated hardware. With network management software, you can analyze traffic patterns, identify congested links, and optimize network paths to make your job a lot easier.
  • Develop Internal Guidelines – A network is only as strong and successful as the team that runs it. Come up with a universal list of best practices to align your internal teams on the proper ways to use, monitor, and safeguard your network and overall IT infrastructure. This can help reduce human error and empower individual roles so that your teams can remain productive and keep your network healthy. With these guidelines in mind, regularly review and update device configurations, ensuring they align with industry best practices and organizational policies to avoid security gaps.

What to Look For in a Reliable Network Management Tool

For a bustling business with hundreds of employees and thousands of components, manual network management can quickly become impossible to keep up with. That’s where automated network management tools come in handy.

However, not all network management software provides the sweeping protection and coverage your organization needs, so you’ll need to do some research to vet your options. At the very least, a great network management solution is comprehensive, providing real-time visibility into network performance, including bandwidth utilization, latency, packet loss, device health, and application performance.

It should also be relatively easy to set up and support the interoperability of your network components so that no device or application is left unmonitored. For instance, check if the tool is compatible with popular protocols and APIs—this will allow for seamless integration with your existing network infrastructure, security systems, and IT management platforms, so you don’t have to worry about workaround solutions.

You also want to look for the extent of customization available. The more malleable configurations are, the easier it is to adapt a network management tool to your IT environment’s unique structure and functionality. For example, features like automated alerts and analytic reporting provide more useful insight when they’re filtered to notify you of the data that matters most to your organization. Having alerts deployed for every single update (even those that are mundane) can cause your team to ignore them, potentially missing emergency notifications. You’ll also want the choice of having these alerts deployed where your team is most active—whether that’s through email, SMS, or integrated applications like Slack or Microsoft Teams. Otherwise, your team may not see them until it’s too late.

Consider the user-friendliness of the network management software as well. The easier it is to navigate throughout the tool and teach other employees how to use it, the better. After all, what’s the point of having a network management solution with all the bells and whistles if no one knows how to properly use it? Along these lines, many tools have visual graphics to help users better understand the data they’re dealing with. Network mapping, topologies, paths, and other aesthetic features can help users better identify trends, patterns, and anomalies compared to traditional lists of concentrated data.

Last but certainly not least, you want to make sure the network management solution you choose is scalable, and can handle your organization’s data load and structural complexity. Features like distributed monitoring, load balancing, and support for large-scale deployments can help reduce latency and extend coverage to all nodes throughout your IT landscape. Don’t forget to consider the tool’s performance impact on the network itself to avoid adding potential bottlenecks and other performance blockers.

By evaluating network management tools based on these important features, you can confidently select a solution that aligns with your organization’s needs.

Benefits of Automated Network Tools

Automated network tools offer numerous benefits for managing and maintaining your network’s infrastructure. First and foremost, these tools greatly enhance efficiency by automating repetitive tasks and reducing manual intervention. They can automatically discover and map network devices, collect data, and generate reports, saving significant time and effort for your team.

Automation also boosts network security. Automated tools can continuously scan the network for vulnerabilities, detect unauthorized devices, and monitor traffic for suspicious activity—all while your organization focuses on its day-to-day operations. Automation can also help you enforce security policies, such as firewall configurations and access controls, ensuring consistent compliance across your network at all times.

Best Practices for Network Management

Admins must approach network management with an effective strategy and a suite of tools to allow you to do everything in one place. In this way, you have a better overall picture of your network, which makes it easier to track performance issues, spot security issues as soon as they arise, and perform more network-wide tasks automatically, rather than addressing each device individually. This reduces the downtime or potential downtime for your network, which maximizes the use of your time. There are a number of best practices you can follow to ensure your network is always in good shape.

  1. Know Your Network – Understanding how your network normally behaves can help you to quickly spot any abnormalities or issues, which will help you to resolve them faster. Having clear baselines in your network management software can also help you to set appropriate alerts for when something goes beyond the normal range of expected behavior.
  2. Appropriate Escalation Protocols – The next step when a problem arises is to make sure the right person is notified of and aware of the issue. Having one person responsible for security, another for firewalls and another for systems or virtualization can help to speed up the resolution in each of these areas.
  3. Layered Breakdowns – Make sure whatever network monitoring or management software you’re using can provide information and troubleshooting at each layer of the network (e.g., physical cables, IP address issues, transport protocol issues, etc.). This allows issues to be resolved quickly.
  4. Failover Protection – When you use network management and monitoring software, it’s normally installed on the network you are managing. This means when a problem with the network arises, the network management system can go down, too. The network should be structured in such a way the server or point at which the monitoring system is installed is accessible even in the event of a major network failure in another part of the network.
  5. Appropriate Growth Planning – When you set up a network for your organization, always plan for it to grow. If you haven’t planned for the network capacity to increase, you’ll run into problems later when you try to expand the network. Use monitoring systems to ensure your network is running well within capacity and look at components that may need to be extended in the near-term future.

Centralized vs. Decentralized Network Management

Centralized and decentralized networks refer to two differing philosophies for how to best create manageable, effective networks. Most businesses will, in fact, lie somewhere in between these two models, with elements of both.

Centralized network management refers to managing a network built around a single server. This central server handles major processing, while workstations with lower compute capabilities can run applications, data storage, and utility requests through that server. This approach is generally efficient and affordable—with only one central server, it’s easier to keep machines patched and track data as needed. This can be necessary for industry-specific compliance purposes, like HIPAA. On the other hand, if the server goes down, so does the entire network. And while using a single server is cost-effective, trying to scale by adding more storage, processing power, or bandwidth can increase costs.

Decentralized network management, on the other hand, refers to the management of an increasingly common form of the network—the decentralized network. This configuration is generally used for more efficiency and flexibility, as it allows departments to select the equipment they really need, with less baked-in redundancy. With a decentralized network, there’s no one single point of failure, because individual workstations don’t rely on one central server. And because data does not pass through a single centralized point, it’s harder to track—therefore potentially allowing for greater privacy (which may not be appropriate for compliance-related purposes). It’s also easier to add overall network compute power to a decentralized network—admins can simply add more workstations. On the other hand, it can cost more to add and maintain these machines, compared with relying on one server.

The 7 Best Network Management Tools for Any Organization

While there are numerous free tools available that can provide some network management capabilities, they’re often limited in reach. For example, you may only be able to monitor a certain amount of assets on your network or customize your logs with basic features, giving you just a glimpse of your network. That’s why I recommend investing in a network management tool with an impressive feature set that gives you complete coverage over every corner of your network. Here are seven of the best network management solutions you can find in the market:

1.   SolarWinds Network Configuration Manager (Free Trial)

©2023 SolarWinds Worldwide, LLC. All rights reserved.

Network Configuration Manager (NCM) is a powerful network management solution that offers a comprehensive set of capabilities to efficiently manage network configurations. NCM enables organizations to automate and simplify the process of configuring and maintaining network devices, ensuring network stability. For example, users can easily back up and restore device configurations, track changes, and enforce compliance with regulatory standards and best practices. NCM also provides real-time monitoring and alerting features, allowing administrators to quickly identify and resolve configuration issues.

A centralized repository for storing and managing configurations, NCM provides a single point of access, promoting collaboration among network admins. Perform bulk firmware upgrades and display visual data on the same dashboard for transparency.

Learn More                                                                             Download Free Trial

2.   SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor (Free Trial)

©2023 SolarWinds Worldwide, LLC. All rights reserved.

Similar to NCM, SolarWinds® Network Performance Monitor (NPM) offers a wide range of capabilities that enable network administrators to effectively monitor and manage their network, but this platform emphasizes performance. NPM utilizes SNMP monitoring, flow-based analysis, and packet capture to gather data and generate intuitive visualizations, allowing administrators to quickly identify and troubleshoot network issues. The solution offers customizable dashboards, alerts, and reports, enabling users to proactively detect and resolve performance bottlenecks, optimize network resources, and ensure service availability.

Learn More                                                                             Download Free Trial

3.   SolarWinds Hybrid Cloud Observability (Free Trial)

©2023 SolarWinds Worldwide, LLC. All rights reserved.

With SolarWinds® Hybrid Cloud Observability, users can gain real-time visibility into cloud infrastructure, containers, microservices, and applications, enabling them to proactively identify and troubleshoot issues before they impact the end-user experience. Offering advanced analytics and correlation capabilities, administrators can correlate metrics, logs, and traces to pinpoint the root cause of performance problems.

Additionally, Hybrid Cloud Observability provides intelligent alerts, customizable dashboards, and detailed reports to help organizations optimize resource allocation, ensure compliance, and deliver high-quality services. With SolarWinds Hybrid Cloud Observability, you can achieve greater control and agility over your organization’s hybrid cloud environments, leading to improved application performance and enhanced operational efficiency.

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4.   ManageEngine OpManager

© 2023 Zoho Corporation Pvt. Ltd. All rights reserved.

ManageEngine OpManager is another option to consider when searching for a network management solution that covers all your bases, including fault identification, network provisioning, performance management, and Quality of Service (QoS) maintenance. It begins by automatically discovering network devices and mapping their interconnections to give you accurate, real-time network topologies. OpManager also comes with more than 150 pre-built reports covering everything from bandwidth usage to available CPU space, so you can ensure your network has the capacity to perform the operations you need it to.

OpManager also lets users proactively detect and resolve network issues with responsive threshold-configured alerts. Harness inbuilt tools like ping, MIB browser, and remote control, to handle issues before they escalate.

5.   Paessler PRTG

©2023 Paessler AG

For alternative all-in-one network management software options, Paessler PRTG offers several tiers of products to suit your business needs. At its core, PRTG offers a unified and centralized view of your entire network, supporting a wide range of monitoring methods, including SNMP, WMI, and packet sniffing. Customizable dashboards, maps, and reports, give users a visual point of reference for analyzing network performance metrics and trends.

PRTG also includes powerful sensor-based monitoring, providing granular insights into various aspects of the network, such as bandwidth usage, server health, and application performance.

6.   Datadog

©2023 Datadog

Datadog is a centralized monitoring and analytics platform that offers a wide range of capabilities to help organizations gain deep visibility into their IT infrastructure. With Datadog, users can monitor and collect metrics, logs, and traces across the full devops stack. With end-to-end visibility into today’s applications, you can track requests from systems, monitor app performance, and record error rates with ease.

7.   Auvik

© Copyright 2013-2023 Auvik Networks Inc. All rights reserved.

Providing all that you need in a simple, central interface, Auvik is a choice for organizations who want straightforward analytics that focus on general network information. It comes with over 50 industry-compliant preconfigured alerts, or customizable templates to align with your organization’s priorities. Review current or historical data regarding device performance, setting history, and more for a full-picture analysis of your network’s functionality.

Network Management Can Be Simple

While managing a complex, large network might sound difficult, you’ll be well on your way to running everything smoothly by understanding the basics of how a network functions. Automating parts of your network by making use of network configuration and performance managers can free up time for more urgent matters. They’ll also help ensure you keep your network in top shape and free from issues that could affect your business quality of service.

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