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What are network assurance tools and why are they important?

What are network assurance tools and why are they important?

How is your network really doing? A network assurance tool will let you know

Credit: Dreamstime

Network assurance tools, which use advanced analytics to optimise and automate network management, are becoming an essential component in every network team’s toolkit.

Network assurance was once viewed as a routine IT responsibility. "This attitude essentially reduced assurance to a checkbox," says SQL server consultant Mark Varnas. As enterprises became increasingly data-driven, this perfunctory approach no longer worked. IT leaders needed a better handle on their network in order to advance their data capabilities.

And these tools are more than just a simple technology investment. "They're a strategic decision that supports business growth and customer satisfaction," says Matt Aird, CTO at Custom Neon, which makes and sells LED neon lights and signs. "Regular monitoring, clear insights, and preventative measures are vital in competitive markets."

Vladislav Bilay, cloud solution architect at Aquiva Labs, a data analytics and software development services firm, adds that the ability to proactively manage network performance, security, and reliability is invaluable. "Organisations that seek to maintain a competitive edge, minimise operational disruptions, and secure their digital assets find these tools indispensable."

Network assurance is trending

Interest in network assurance tools is being driven by several factors, including escalating network complexity, a growing demand for consistent user experiences, and an ever-growing threat landscape.

Bilay says, "As networks evolve to accommodate IoT, cloud services, and remote work, the need for reliable and secure connectivity becomes paramount.” Network assurance tools bridge the gap between network visibility and operational excellence. "These tools encapsulate a suite of technologies and methodologies designed to ensure the reliability, performance, and security of complex network infrastructures.”

Without a network assurance tool at their disposal, many enterprises would be forced to limit their network reach and capacity.

"They would be unable to take advantage of the latest technological advancements and innovations because they didn’t have the manpower or tools to manage them," says Christian Gilby, senior product director, AI-driven enterprise, at Juniper Networks. "At the same time, enterprises would be left behind by their competitors because they would still be utilising manual, trial-and-error procedures to uncover and repair service issues."

The popularity of network assurance technology is also being driven by a growing enterprise demand for network teams to do more with less. "Efficiency is needed in order to manage the ever-expanding network landscape," adds Gilby.

New devices and equipment are constantly brought online and added to networks. Yet enterprises don’t have unlimited IT budgets, meaning that staffing levels often remain the same, even as workloads increase. "By improving visibility and providing the ability to measure network performance and, most importantly, discover and repair any issues, network assurance tools make it possible for enterprises to grow without sacrificing the end-user experience,” according to Gilby."

Key features of network assurance 

Network assurance tools provide these key features:

  • Preventive Maintenance: Network assurance tools are like inspectors, scrutinising every network aspect and fine tuning the infrastructure so that everything runs optimally, says Varnas. "This includes preventive maintenance, such as server health checks that help avoid bottlenecks and system overflows."
  • User experience: A network assurance tool should monitor user experience on the network while giving network teams real-time visibility and insights into the user experience across the entire network stack, including wireless, wired, and WAN, says Gilby.
  • Anomaly detection: "Network assurance tools simplify network operations, providing visibility into end-user experiences and fast surfacing of anomalies, shortening the mean time to repair," Bilay explains. "The goal is to make the entire network operations process—from setup to maintenance—deliver the best possible end user experience in the most efficient and effective for network operations teams."
  • Predictive maintenance: Network assurance tools are ever-vigilant, continuously monitoring network traffic, protocols, and components in real time. "They employ advanced analytics, machine learning, and AI-driven algorithms to detect anomalies, identify potential bottlenecks, and predict impending issues," Bilay "This proactive approach allows network administrators to preemptively address emerging problems before they can escalate into service disruptions or security breaches."
  • Cloud Coverage: Network assurance tools are crucial for giving operations teams a complete picture of the network, especially with the increased adoption of cloud-based applications, says Roopa Honnachari, a director with global technology research and advisory firm ISG.

How do network assurance tools work?

Network assurance tools monitor key user experience metrics, such as time-to-connect, throughput, and application latency, as well as detect emerging network anomalies. "IT teams use these tools to gain immediate insights into how these metrics impact end-user experiences," Gilby says. "The information they provide helps teams proactively identify the root causes of service degradations."

Like a car's engine, a network can flash a warning light to the operator, signaling an important problem. Network assurance tools are constantly looking for anomalous issues, Varnas says. Notifications appear automatically and virtually instantly, significantly shortening service delay times.

Network assurance products continuously study and analyse network pathways, application connections, and device rules to ensure optimal performance. "The tools proactively monitor the network, and the real-time data collected helps network administrators compare actual performance against policies that have been set for network and security services," Honnachari says.

By serving as a complement to network discovery tools, network assurance deployments continuously monitor network configuration to identify every device, software tool, and connection. "From there, network assurance knows exactly where to look for the improvements it intends to make," Varnas says.

Information delivered by network assurance tools encompasses a spectrum of insights, ranging from granular details about network traffic patterns to broader performance metrics.

"This includes data about bandwidth consumption, latency, packet loss, device health, and user experience," Bilay says. By distilling complex network data into actionable insights, network assurance tools empower administrators to make informed decisions that optimise performance and maintain network integrity.

Network assurance tools often work best when they're closely tied to measuring the end-user experience. "It’s all about improving visibility into the user experience while reducing operational toil for the networking team," Gilby says.

Benefits of network assurance tools

Network assurance tools support proactive problem-solving while minimising downtime, enhancing the user experience and fortifying the network's security posture. "By addressing potential issues before they can impact operations, organisations can save resources and maintain a resilient and responsive network infrastructure," Bilay says.

Network assurance tools complement discovery tools, adding the context needed to take the next step after discovering an issue—repairing the problem. "In many cases, network assurance tools can proactively locate failures or issues before end-users even realise there’s a problem," Gilby says. "Advice can be supplied, and AI-guided tools can even make repairs directly and instantly.”

As networks grow more complex, troubleshooting becomes far more challenging. For instance, discovering that sub-par roaming performance is why a user is complaining about "poor Wi-Fi” could take days without a network assurance tool, and merely seconds with one. "Accurate, real-time, and actionable data enables IT teams to spend less time troubleshooting network issues and more time on digital transformation initiatives," Gilby says.

Without a network assurance tool, teams are often left to handle perplexing issues manually, taking time away from other tasks they need to address. In essence, network assurance technology allows IT staff to do more in less time.

What are the challenges posed by network assurance tools?

Despite network assurance technology's many benefits, new adopters can expect to face some challenges. "Implementing and configuring these tools can be complex due to the diversity of network environments," Bilay observes. "Over-reliance on automated decision-making might also lead to false positives or missed anomalies, requiring human intervention to interpret results accurately."

If you have an out-of-the-box network solution, then finding issues and fixing them is relatively easy, Varnas says. "The more you build customised infrastructure and add features, the less you can rely on simple solutions," he adds.

An important issue affecting many network assurance tools is a lack of advanced AIOps—artificial intelligence for IT and network operations. Providing accurate, real-time information capable of pinpointing an issue's root cause, as well as the users who were affected, requires a powerful AI engine, Gilby says. "The best network assurance tools are built from long-established AI engines that have had time to learn network patterns and anomalies.”

Who is offering network assurance?

Network assurance market players are numerous and diverse, ranging from established networking giants to emerging startups. Cisco Systems, Juniper Networks, Keysight Technologies, Netscout, Riverbed Technology, and SolarWinds are among the vendors offering some type of network assurance technology, each with its own unique approach and features.

Deciding which product will provide the best fit depends mostly on the purchaser's specific requirements and existing infrastructure. "In our case, customisation and scalability were the main factors to consider," says Aird.


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