Network Visibility: A Complete Guide

As the world relies on digital communications and solutions more than ever, network security is critically important. Cybercrime is on the rise and the damage related to cybercrime is estimated to hit $6 trillion annually by 2021.

Moreover, a survey from market research company Vanson Bourne found approximately two-thirds of businesses say network blind spots are one of the biggest security challenges they face in their efforts to safeguard data. That’s why visibility is so crucial, especially for managed services providers (MSPs) tasked with guarding customer data.

This guide will outline the definition of network visibility, explain how it can help you overcome availability and security challenges, and recommend a monitoring software option to pay attention to.

What Is network visibility? 

In simple terms, network visibility refers to having an awareness of all the different components at work within your network to be able to analyze the following aspects:

  • Performance
  • Traffic
  • Big data analytics
  • Applications
  • Managed resources

This list is by no means exhaustive, as different monitoring solutions offer varied capabilities. In addition to increasing visibility into your customers’ networks, a comprehensive solution can give you more control to make changes based on the metrics you’re monitoring.

With a solution for visibility, MSPs can help improve security for customers allowing to see telltale signs of network compromise. Better visibility also results in better analytics, which will enable MSPs to make informed decisions about the data protection strategies you apply.

Why is network visibility important?

As mentioned above, cybercrime is increasing, and blind spots are a major concern. These are unknown vulnerabilities that can potentially give individuals with malicious intentions a direct route into your systems. Visibility solutions keep you informed by helping spot weaknesses.

A visibility solution allows you to monitor traffic—scanning it for bottlenecks in performance. For instance, a monitoring tool might provide visibility by alerting you to unexpected behavior such as an unacceptably slow response. These alerts notify technicians and system administrators and enable them to take immediate action to resolve underlying issues.

Another advantage of improved visibility is the ability to engage in application monitoring. As an MSP, you likely utilize numerous applications as part of your services. When granular network visibility is established, you can gain invaluable insight into how your applications are affecting performance and connectivity. With this visibility, you can choose to filter critical application traffic to the appropriate tools and monitor who is using each application, and when. You can then make your application performance more efficient. For example, you can ensure email traffic is not sent to non-email gateways. This can reduce server processing power and bandwidth usage.

Enterprise network visibility challenges for MSPs 

Unfortunately, there are also several challenges associated with network visibility for MSPs. Safeguarding your customers’ security and ensuring optimal performance are top priorities, but there are some hurdles posed by our modern digital environments that you’ll have to address.

With the rise of cloud computing and an increase in mobile traffic, there are more blind spots than ever for MSPs to look out for. Cloud and mobile both create new blind spots for MSPs to contend with. Gone are the days when monitoring traffic via MPLS links was sufficient. WANs today are a combination of internet-based VPNs, cloud services, MPLS, and mobile users. As such, many traditional monitoring tools are unable to offer you full visibility across your WAN, simply because there are so many components to address. With the complexity of these various sources to consider, MSPs should be extremely picky about the monitoring tools they choose to employ.

Network visibility within the WAN was traditionally facilitated by a combination of management systems and security information and event management (SIEM) solutions. These solutions aggregate packet flow data from numerous tracking solutions, like endpoint sensors and firewalls. While some of these solutions may have been sufficient in the past, the introduction of cloud and mobile technologies have hindered the ability of many of these tools to provide full visibility.

Why is this the case? For a start, endpoint sensors aren’t especially compatible with mobile devices. Moreover, attempting to gain visibility of traffic passing between cloud datacenters can also pose difficulties at the application level. Each cloud platform employs its own security policies and protocols, creating silos within the network. Furthermore, many monitoring tools struggle to work in the cloud and can exacerbate the problem. Because these tools can obscure data, encryption and Network Address Translation may impact the sensors and stifle packet inspection attempts.

Another visibility challenge MSPs may face is that traditional monitoring methods are tied to virtual or physical site-specific devices—for example, secure web gateways and unified threat management appliances. Every WAN location needs to have its own individual set of applications, and these must be appropriately sourced and maintained. Alternatively, all traffic can be backhauled and inspected from a central WAN location. This inefficient method can take a toll on performance.

Because of this inefficiency, it’s difficult to scale this traditional approach to visibility. For organizations with a lot of applications, networks will quickly become complex—with a variety of applications and their individual configurations and policies to maintain. There are also appliance capacity restrictions to consider, which limit the amount of traffic that can be analyzed without requiring a hardware upgrade. Appliances will need to be patched and—eventually—replaced entirely. As a business scales up, network visibility will rapidly become limited and security vulnerabilities may go unnoticed.

The Right Network Visibility Solution for MSPs

While many traditional monitoring tools might fail to address the network visibility challenges faced by MSPs, there are—fortunately—several enterprise network visibility solutions that rise to the challenge. SolarWinds® N-central® is an IT solution that helps technicians manage complex networks. This tool was designed specifically for MSPs and offers a highly advanced approach to visibility, with a range of features included that mitigate the challenges MSPs face when it comes to their customers.

N-central’s network topology mapping capabilities help provide complete visibility, automatically detecting new devices and offering scheduled scanning. Troubleshooting issues is efficient and easy with an up-to-date visual representation, which allows you to rapidly identify any anomalies for minimal downtime.

N-central also offers more than monitoring capabilities, enabling you to control, manage, and customize your solution through one centralized interface. With an emphasis on scalability, N-central is able to manage networks with tens of thousands of devices, giving IT services providers the tools they need to fortify security and maximize efficiency.

With this tool, you can monitor and manage Windows, Linux, VMware, Mac, and network devices. N-central’s NetPath feature, allows you to track every hop and view latency both historically and in real time. NetPath can be set up to monitor in 10-minute intervals and saves all path performance historical data. This can significantly reduce time spent troubleshooting by providing you with an incremental timeline of path history.

NetPath collects performance metrics, so you can be made aware of outages before your users. You will gain visibility of connectivity between source and destination nodes, which will give you an understanding of end-to-end performance experienced by your users. If thresholds are crossed for packet latency or loss, you will be notified immediately, so you’re always in the loop.

NetPath gives you complete, unhindered visibility, delivering information on the one or numerous paths a packet takes before reaching its destination. NetPath is also cloud and mobile compatible, unlike many traditional monitoring tools, which addresses one of the major challenges encountered by MSPs. This feature can help identify whether issues are caused by slowdowns on a cloud service, or if they’re related to a problem in your own environment.

With a dynamic and user-friendly dashboard, N-central is a firm favorite among MSPs. The product offers an all-in-one solution to endpoint detection and response, mapping software, remote monitoring, patch management, automation management, backup management, security management, report management, mobile management, and—of course—network visibility. If you’re interested in giving N-central a try, start with our 30-day free trial today.