Product Review: SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor 12.3 & Network Configuration Manager 7.8

Product Review: SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor 12.3 and Network Configuration Manager 7.8

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‘Deeper visibility. Smarter scalability’

As IT professionals, we still spend countless hours, night and day, executing manual processes and drilling into issues with our network devices. While we are seemingly spoiled for choice for solutions, I still find that vendors do miss the mark with less than complete solutions for our problems. There is one vendor that stands out because of their uniquely focused approach to building products that provide us IT folks with what we really need to be more effective and efficient—SolarWinds, a market leader in Network Management and Monitoring who creates a suite of products to solve the larger headaches regularly faced by us IT professionals.

SolarWinds has recently released some great features, but the most recent release has got me excited. They have summarized the updates in this new release as “Deeper visibility. Smarter scalability.” It does appear that they have done just that by quadrupling their monitoring capacity per instance (now supporting 400,000 elements) and increasing their support of additional polling engines (up to 100 per instance). From the deeper visibility perspective, they introduced a brand-new auto-generated intelligent maps feature and rolled out the third in their series of Network Insight features, designed to simplify the management of complex devices. The latest feature is Network Insight for Cisco Nexus, adding large data center switches to their existing portfolio of support for Cisco ASA firewalls and F5 BIG-IP load balancers.

These themes, visibility, and scalability, are aimed at reducing the pain that comes from managing complex network equipment in constantly evolving environments.

Better network visualization

The new features within Network Performance Monitor (NPM), Network Configuration Manager (NCM), and the Orion™ platform, the core code-base that the SolarWinds products share, now gives us the functionality to have our network maps automatically generated, so they always reflect the current state of the network, with all the relevant health and performance information provided as well. These maps are node-centric, displaying all the current physical and logical relationships connected to that node with zero user interaction required. The biggest problem I have seen in my 12 years in IT is that not one company has ever known all the devices on their network and how they interconnect with one another. To ask an admin or engineer what the layout of the network looks like would be like asking a fisherman how many fish are in the sea. And the more complex the network, the worse it gets to maintain and understand.

This is where the new network maps come in handy. Add a new device? It will be reflected on the map next time you view that node or a node connected to it. Want to know the bandwidth of a specific uplink? The intelligent maps will show you traffic and utilization levels and even highlights a link if there is a problem.

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Want to know how router A connects to firewall C? You can now view that firewall to see all connections and relationships available. If you have other SolarWinds offerings (like Server and Application Monitor or Virtualization Manager), application and virtualized environment dependencies will also be shown. This gives us admins a way to troubleshoot quickly and efficiently. Gone are the days of having to guess “what port is that on?” or “what are the stats on that interface?” Having this deeper visibility gives us the tools needed to troubleshoot quicker and with more data.

Solving the complex nature of managing and monitoring Cisco Nexus devices

Having worked with Cisco Nexus switches in the past, my biggest gripe that I always had was I didn’t have a good way to visualize the various functionality from virtual port channels (vPCs), access control lists (ACLs), to virtual device contexts (VDCs). Sure, I could log in to the CLI and grab that data, but that was time-consuming and complex. For SolarWinds users why should you have to do that when you can manage the device in SolarWinds so easily? SolarWinds already released Network Insight features for Cisco ASA and F5 BIG-IP, but now has released a third iteration for the Cisco Nexus. Network Insight is their branded feature set to visualize all those hard to manage aspects of network and security equipment through the combination of both NPM and NCM, via a single pane of glass.

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Current SolarWinds users will recognize the device summary page, which provides an overall summary of interfaces, alerts, and device information. The Network Insight feature adds widgets to this page, including showing VDCs (center of the screen). As with other SolarWinds screens, you can add, remove, or rearrange widgets to customize the page to what’s important to your environment. Using the left-hand navigation, you can drill into the interfaces, VPCs, and even view this device in context on the network with the Intelligent Maps. When combined with the power of the new release of NCM, you also gain visibility into the ACLs and device firmware and configs. Let’s look at some of these below.

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From the NCM page, we can dive deeper into the configuration. In NCM we see data on the device’s firmware vulnerabilities, configuration changes, policy violations, and even do a config compare. Again, combining the power of NPM with NCM gives us the ability to have the single pane to get the data we need quickly.

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With this new feature, Network Insight for Cisco Nexus, we can also go deeper into the interfaces and Port Channels on a Cisco Nexus. Say you want to see the health of your vPCs, how would you do that today if I asked you? You’d probably log into the device via CLI and check right? That means you must do all the correlation of member interfaces and port channels for each device line by line in a CLI session, a time-consuming task as you open each session and execute the necessary commands to bring up the relevant information. Having been there and done that, this GUI interface from SolarWinds is a breath of fresh air. I can now see all the relevant details of my vPCs, including the member interfaces configured associated with those vPCs. I can also see a side by side of each sides configuration of the interfaces and vPC.

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Anyone who has worked with Nexus switches knows they have hundreds of interfaces you could be managing. SolarWinds has also added interface config snippets to the interface details page, allowing you to immediately view the running config specific to that interface. It’s such a simple little widget that SolarWinds snuck in that I think this feature could easily be overlooked, but it adds tremendous value in reducing the steps required to troubleshoot. It also applies to all Cisco devices in the NPM and NCM environment, not just Nexus and ASA, so this addition could have broad ramifications to simplifying a workflow.

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The last piece of Network Insight for Cisco Nexus is the visibility it provides into access control lists (ACLs). No more “show run | grep” and then digging through ACLs on the device. Even if you’re only running 100 rules, that’s still 100 lines to go through, in addition to drilling into each object group. Now all within the single pane of glass, NCM version controls each ACL, provides the ability to compare different version ACLs, and enables us to view the rules configured on the device, including drilling down into the ACLs. From the screenshot above, we can see that SolarWinds is warning about overlapping rules and should you need to update the rules, it has the line numbers. It also provides you the hit counts on the each of the rules and will allow you to filter and search your rules.

Does SolarWinds provide deeper visibility into your network and simplify the management of complex devices? That’s a most definite yes, but that’s not all they are bringing to the table.

Scalability

This new release has effectively quadrupled the monitoring capacity of SolarWinds NPM. Networks are growing and continually scaling up or out, yet finding tools to grow with this need can be challenging. You don’t want to implement a monitoring system that’s more than your needs today, but you also want something flexible enough to change as your business changes. This scale increase, coupled with SolarWinds tiered licensing structure and modular approach to their products means that they’ve really enhanced their capability to grow with their customers. Customers can start off with just the monitoring level and products they need, but by leveraging the common core of the Orion platform, can easily add nodes or products as needs change. The scale increase that SolarWinds has introduced will help clients who are running large scale or highly distributed networks effectively monitor their environment with a single, robust monitoring solution with deployment and budget flexibility.

Final notes

I leave you with a question to ask yourselves, why are you not utilizing the SolarWinds platform with NPM and NCM to monitor and troubleshoot your network? I’ve worked in many different types of environments in my career, some small and some global. No matter the size, troubleshooting a network issue is probably the most tedious and stressful tasks, and configuration issues can drive a significant portion of errors. Integrating performance monitoring and configuration management into a single pane of glass just makes sense. As an admin with a ton of other work on my plate, the last thing I want to be doing is spending a day troubleshooting a network. I salute you network engineers out there that have the patience for it, but I’d much prefer to pull up SolarWinds and have an answer in just minutes, so I can focus on other projects. If you’re still unsure, SolarWinds offers a free 30-day trial of NPM and NCM, or you can play around with their product offerings using their public demo. I encourage you to download it and give it a try, I’m sure you’ll find the value in just a few days running it on your network.

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Learn more about SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor and Network Configuration Manager or download a free trial

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