If you are looking for the absolute answer it is NO. Why? Because if your network is working without it, it will continue to work without it.
So, is that it? Absolutely not. Think about it, in life as well in IT, we do a lot of things not because it is necessary, but because it improves a condition, or it is better in a sense.
For example, when you buy a computer, I can almost guarantee that regardless of the reason you always get a better computer. In a concrete example, your laptop gets dropped in the floor and it is completely destroyed. The laptop itself was about a year old. Do you need a new laptop? Most likely not, but it will help you so much with a ton of work, browsing the web, etc. We actually depend on our electronic devices, but they are not a necessity. To add to it, you most likely will get a better laptop, since in a year, for the same price you can get something better. Here comes another point, you didn’t need the faster laptop, but you reason that you NEED it. Confusing, right? You could buy a used laptop way cheaper.
Network monitoring is a bit more abstract, but has the same reasoning. You don’t need it. Your network works without it, but if you have it it will help you do so many things better and faster, just like a new laptop
However, there is a common misconception that network monitoring can be expensive. And it can be, but it can also be really cheap, almost free.
The most expensive part of network monitoring is the Human Resource behind it. If you want a 3rd party company to set it up and manage it, that can be expensive. However if you limit the Human Resource from a 3rd party then the cost can be manageable even for a small company with no budget. Even a non profit organization should have network monitoring.
So maybe you are wondering why I say it is not necessary but that it should still be deployed. Well, lets not get confused. Lets take this scenario as an example. A Non profit organization with 15 people that don’t have a Network Monitoring System (NMS), but they are having problems with the computers. This non-profit organization does not have an IT, but they have an unofficial “IT” person, who when needed calls a real IT, that either donates time or needs to be paid. The in house “IT” is at a loss over what could be the problem, so he calls for support, but right away is asked a ton of technical questions that he cannot answer. In the end, the “paid” IT has to visit the site and troubleshoot from scratch. This troubleshooting can be time consuming, and it is essentially information gathering. Regardless of whether the time was “donated” or it is paid, for the organization it is an expense. Donated time wasted in troubleshooting could have been used in something else for example. With NMS setup right however, a quick look could have shown if the problem is in a specific time, if it is network, CPU or hard drive related, it can be historical data on the status of the network.
An added advantage of NMS is that it will show problems before they happen. For example a hard drive failing will be recorded. A server that has high CPU usage, or low memory will be recorded as well, and then it can be remediated before it becomes a real problem.
Cheap NMS setups
There are actually a lot of NMS that can be setup cheap, but I will list the ones I know and I use.
Xymon/Hobbit: This is my favorite quick NMS. I can setup this from scratch at my work in about 1 hour. It does require a little more understanding about the network, and what you want to monitor, but it excels in easy to setup once the configuration file is understood (and it is quite easy). The main advantage, is that it is fast. Check the demo site. My Xymon setup is running in a 1 GB RAM virtual machine that is hosting a ton of intranet services. It monitors 88 host, in 6 pages with 399 checks.
SpiceWorks: it tries to be an all in one IT service, and it does it pretty well. The NMS is pretty inclusive, with reports and dashboards. Very easy to setup, however it is a bit more demanding and requires a Windows PC joined to the domain. I use it when I want to see more information. It supports Linux, VmWare, OSX, and other types of clients. You can be up and running in 10 minutes, but it takes a little longer to configure the application to the network later (fix labels, complete information, etc). The community itself is the tool I use the most though.
Nagios: Very powerful and popular NMS. It can also be very complicated. There is a commercial and Free edition. The commercial is free also up to 7 devices.
Foglight NMS: Free up to 100 devices. I haven’t actually test this software yet, but it looks interesting. Footlight does have a lot of different services, the NMS will monitor only the network in general. There are Foglight applications for more in depth monitoring of Exchange, SQL, Oracle, AD, etc.
BigBrother: Just like Foglight, Big Brother is owned by Quest Software, however, there is no more development for the Free edition (last update in Dec 2005). This is still a great product however, and the Professional version has attractive dashboards. I have a feeling thought that Quest is moving towards the Foglight product instead. Xymon is a fork of Big Brother, and it is still being developed, so I recommend Xymon instead.
So here are 5 products that are Free. Only requirement is to have a PC to run them from and a little time.
Observations about NMS
You can run the NMS system in different PC types, however have in consideration that they are network applications. To this extend have in mind these recommendations:
Spiceworks only runs in Windows and if scanning a domain, the PC needs to be a domain member (this requirement might have been removed in version 5). This means that you will need a Windows License for the machine running it. Also, it is not recommended to use the PC for something else. Spiceworks will make the PC slower, or the dashboard will be slow when using the PC.
In my case, we use Spiceworks in a PC that is used occasionally, by someone that is usually out of the office. This person however only does web browsing.
Windows and Linux have different ways to work in the network. Linux being much more efficient, mainly in the ping part.
BigBrother and Xymon run better in Linux.
Xymon has packages that are easy to install in rpm and deb format, making an Ubuntu or Mint server an easy choice (and my usual choice). Install in Ubuntu takes 10 minutes (including dependencies) and it is as easy as running “sudo apt-get install xymon hobbit-plugins”
fping is a must is building the NMS, mainly in Windows. The Windows ping utility can easily freeze a NetJet network card from HP for example. Fping will ping faster and reduce the latency
BigBrother and Xymon require a small client to check local status of remote devices, like CPU, RAM and event log, but can check other services without a client, for example SMPT, AD, DNS, etc
Spiceworks does not require a client, but requires access to the machines using credentials. For a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) network is not recommended. BYOD is when the computer (usually laptop) is owned by the user, so there is no centralized login.
a run of Xymon in a virtual Linux server runs faster than in a Windows XP machine (and it is tons easier to setup)
This is not a NMS specific, but Linux has advanced a lot in the last couple of years in installation and maintenance, making it very easy, so it should not be avoided.
What about the big names and expensive solutions?
They are certainly not bad, and it is not a bad investment either, but if you are considering paying for those solutions then there is no reason to be wondering if NMS is for you after all.
When NMS becomes a necessity
As the network increases NMS advantages become easier to see. A network bigger than 50 devices should have NMS, regardless of budget. The reason is that you have at least 50 different point of impact in the network and troubleshooting time alone will justify the spending time, money or both to get a good NSM in place, but as I already listed, NMS does not necessarily need to be expensive.
A local IT provider usually has hosted (remote) and monitored NMS. These can be expensive, but if there is no time, or willingness to check the NMS then it is certainly a option to consider.
Monitoring a Network Monitoring System
Although it sounds redundant, the NMS needs to be monitored as well. After all, at heart the NMS is a data gathering system. Sure, it can have rules, alerts and actions, but no system, no matter how expensive it is, is completely automated. Here is where the cost I described initially comes into play. The best scenario would be to have someone in house looking at it (over coffee for example) every morning. An offsite NMS would usually include something like that. If looking to have it externally managed I would recommend to have it monitored at least once a week, with an option to check onsite on demand. The value of the monitoring is in the value of losing service in the network and how valuable is the data (another article on Backup and Data value in the horizon).
- Network Monitoring Systems (NMS) are not a necessity but you should still use one.
- NMS can be free if you dedicate a little of time and love to it.
- NMS is good even for small companies
- NMS can even be used at home.
- There are bigger NMS packages available for free. For example Nagios XI up to seven devices, and Foglight for up to 100 devices.
- An old Linux box with Xymon can be a great NMS monitoring a lot of devices.
- If more services and support are needed later on, there are packages available, but at minimum even a not fully configured NMS will save valuable time troubleshooting
So, with no excuse. In the time that it took to read this article (even if you only read the intro and summary) you could have installed a NMS.
Draw your expectations of the NMS (don’t go too crazy if no budget is allocated, but don’t short it either), and list what is important to monitor.
Now, I am throwing a shameless marketing plug. If help is required, or you need advice to put a NMS in place, please contact us.
By now you probably already know that I am a fan of no-nonsense deployments, so rest assured that your NMS deployment will be in the expected range.. This reminds me of a personal story…..
The first time I looked into NMS, I contacted a 3rd Party vendor. At the time I was serving a mid size network, with requirements of big company. However this was more of a personal project (a project that I though was good for the company, but the company did not shared my thoughts). The proposal was about $30K for a year, with an $50K optional. Sure, all the bells and whistles were good, but I needed something lower at that time. I did not let scary proposals scare me, and I kept looking. A week later I had Big Brother running (it took me 4 hours to setup at the time), but 2 months later it saved me over 16 hours in helpdesk tickets, because a lot of problems were noticed before they happened, or I was able to quickly diagnose. Would the 30K saved more time? Yes. Would I have been able to get it budgeted? No!. In this case, even a little NMS is better than no NMS.