In the modern digital age, companies are relying on larger networks than ever before. But these networks aren’t just bigger; they’re also more dynamic. With an influx of BYOD policies, SaaS applications, and a myriad of other digital transformation initiatives, it has become more difficult for managed services providers (MSPs) to gain visibility into their customers’ network topology: what devices are connecting to the network, what those devices have access to, and how those devices interact with each other. Network discovery—a common IT practice—helps solve this issue.
What is network discovery?
Network discovery is the process that allows computers and devices to find one another when they are on the same network. It is the initial step system administrators take when they want to map and monitor their network infrastructure. This process is sometimes also referred to as topology discovery.
When connected over a local network, network discovery enables network devices to connect and communicate between the other devices connected to the same network. This allows system administrators to locate devices with ease. With this ability to quickly locate devices on a large network, system admins can then gain better control over their infrastructure, create device inventories, and enforce better device access policies.
What’s more, network discovery allows system administrators to create network maps, which offer a visual representation of network connections. This allows IT teams to potentially identify bottlenecks or points of failure before issues occur, thus limiting costly network downtime.
What is the purpose of network discovery?
The purpose of network discovery is to create network maps that help improve visibility into the hardware connected to an enterprise network. Because so many enterprise IT teams have to manage an influx of employee devices, network discovery software can help provide them better control over their network.
But it’s not just large enterprises with BYOD policies that stand to gain from good network discovery software. Small and medium-sized businesses need tons of IT support when they are growing at rapid rates. After all, it can be hard to manage and keep track of new printers, routers, access points, and switches when they are brought into a new office space in a short period of time. MSPs can help these businesses keep track of it all with network discovery tools and support.
Why is network discovery important?
At its most basic level, network discovery is important because every single MSP or IT team—no matter the vertical or size of the company—needs to have network visibility in order to fulfill its duties. Without a thorough knowledge of what devices are connected to the network, an understanding of the relationships between them, and a sense of how they communicate with each other, IT teams are unable to understand the ins and outs of the network. As a result, if a network experiences downtime or an interruption, it can be nearly impossible to figure out what went wrong to fix the issue before too much time passes.
Additionally, any business that relies on a combination of virtual networks, wired and wireless networks, and cloud servers will find themselves in need of network discovery software. These hybrid networks can quickly complicate network topology and make it difficult to identify the root cause of an issue when it occurs. Network discovery helps solve this issue by illuminating network connections so MSPs can more quickly troubleshoot bottlenecks that affect a business’s day-to-day operations.
Network discovery is becoming increasingly important given that current networks are beginning to look very different from how they used to. With digital operations scaling rapidly and personal devices serving new functions in the workplace, IT teams can no longer rely on monitoring basic performance metrics to keep network health at an acceptable baseline. Instead, MSPs and IT admins must turn to network discovery tools to investigate internal activity and ensure that all devices can access the network as needed. Network discovery acts as a crucial first step to look more closely at activity on a large, dynamic network.
Network discovery can also be a crucial cybersecurity asset. For example, an invalid IP address is often a sign of malicious or rogue devices that might be carrying malware. IT teams need to be aware of these devices as soon as possible or otherwise risk getting hit with a costly data breach. Since network discovery’s primary objective is to locate and map allocated IP addresses, IT teams can more easily identify which device IP addresses are valid and which aren’t. With a network discovery tool, MSPs can run regular scans to make sure there aren’t any threat actors sitting quietly on the ends of a network.
Finally, network discovery can improve digital security by helping MSPs and IT admins discover which ports are open on their connected devices. Any open ports on a device that aren’t critical to operations have the potential to be a security risk. By locating and mapping the ports on a network, network discovery can help administrators ensure ports aren’t unnecessarily exposed to threats.
How does network discovery work?
On the user end, actually executing network discovery with the appropriate tools is not that complicated. An effective network discovery or network inventory tool can do most of the heavy lifting for you. But to understand how these tools work, it’s first important to understand the role of discovery protocols in the network discovery process.
In order to perform network discovery, IT teams utilize common discovery protocols that help them discover and track the devices on a network. There are three primary discovery protocols: Simple Network Management Protocol, Link Layer Discovery Protocol, and ping.
Simple Network Management Protocol, sometimes referred to as SNMP, is an Internet Standard protocol that allows IT teams to aggregate and organize data about the devices on a network. Link Layer Discovery Protocol, or LLDP for short, is a vendor-neutral protocol. If a device is LLDP-enabled, it will transmit device information to its directly connected neighbor during regularly scheduled intervals. The neighboring devices store this data on management information databases (MIBs) that MSPs and IT teams can access at will.
Ping is very different from the other mentioned protocols. It’s a software utility that IT teams leverage to test the reachability of devices on an IP network. It does this by sending Internet Control Message Protocol (ICMP) queries and measuring the round-trip time of messages sent from the originating host to a destination computer and back.
How does network discovery software work?
Network discovery software leverages different processes to help teams better understand their network topology. For example, they can help you locate the devices that are connected to a network by applying the above different discovery protocols. These protocols will discover and collect information about:
- Virtual computers and networks
- Hardware on a network, like switches, servers, firewalls, printers, and servers
- Software on a network, like applications and operating systems
- The logical and physical relationships between network assets
A network device discovery tool gathers this data by running IP scans, using ping sweep, and polling devices with SNMP monitoring. While it’s possible for MSPs to perform these tasks manually for their customers, network discovery software can automate the process to complete discovery much more rapidly than a manual worker. However, not all network discovery services are built the same, so it’s important for MSPs to find a solution that fits their needs.
SolarWinds® RMM is a full-stack, cloud-based remote IT management suite that enables MSPs to locate and manage devices as they appear on customers’ networks. RMM helps MSPs keep their customers safe from data breaches, improves their service offerings in a device-driven era, and enables them to deliver dependable IT services within a matter of hours.
RMM can act as an autodiscovery tool that helps MSPs locate devices, view their details, check their connection logs, and proactively monitor their health and performance. By utilizing RMM, MSPs can take up a more proactive IT strategy to help their customers avoid network downtime and improve network visibility. What’s more, RMM is highly scalable, which means it can be deployed on rapidly expanding networks that grow with your customers.
Interested in learning more about network discovery? Explore our product suite to see how you can properly manage your IT infrastructure.