What Is Network Management?

Network management refers to two related concepts. First is the process of configuring, monitoring, and managing the performance of a network. Second is the platform that IT and NetOps teams use to complete these ongoing tasks.

Network management systems have evolved to help IT teams operate in more agile ways, incorporating advanced analytics, machine learning, and intelligent automation to continually optimize network performance. As organizations adapt to a more distributed workforce, these network management systems are increasingly deployed in cloud and hosted environments.

How does a network management system do its job?

Network management systems collect data from connected network devices such as switches, routers, access points, and client devices. They also give network administrators fine-grained control over how those devices operate and interact with one another.

The data captured from these devices is used to proactively identify performance issues, monitor security and segmentation, and accelerate troubleshooting. 

What kinds of devices can a network management system control?

Many network management platforms started as a way to control LANs. As enterprise networks increased in complexity and diversity, these management planes extended their capabilities into SD-WAN, network security, and IoT.

The most effective platforms combine devices and sensors into a single view of network traffic, making it easy for IT not only to monitor but to protect and remediate performance issues.

How do network elements send data to the system?

Network management systems collect real-time data from network elements, such as switches, routers, and access points, as well as from endpoint devices, such as mobile phones, laptops, and desktops. This information is used to provide insights into the health of the network.

Typically, the data is collected and sent to the system in one of two ways:

  • SNMP: The Simple Network Management Protocol is an open standard and has been widely supported by most manufacturers of network elements since the early 1990s. SNMP queries each element in the network and sends each response to the network management system.
  • Streaming telemetry: A software agent installed in a network element allows for the automatic transmission of key performance indicators in real time. Streaming telemetry is rapidly replacing SNMP, because it is more efficient, can produce many more data points, and is more scalable. And telemetry standards, such as NETCONF/YANG, are gaining traction as ways to offer the same multivendor support as SNMP.

What are the most important network management capabilities?

When it comes to managing a complex or highly distributed network, the three most critical capabilities of a network management tool are directly tied to how well that platform unifies sites and remote workers.

First, ease of adoption and deployment directly affects the value that IT teams will get from the tool. There's an adage in software as a service (SaaS)—"Adoption is the new ROI"—and the same is true for network management. If it's not easy to deploy and use on a daily basis, it will quickly fall by the wayside.

It's also key to find a platform that can manage the full scope of the network, from access to WAN to IoT.

And finally, the security, control, and treatment of network data must have equal priority, no matter how you choose to deploy.

What are the top myths about network management systems?

Networks become more complicated as the number of devices and applications connected to them grows, but a complicated network doesn't require a complicated-to-use network management system. Today's network management systems are open, extensible, and software-driven to help accelerate and simplify network operations while lowering costs and reducing risk.

Powered by deep intelligence and integrated security, these systems deliver automation and assurance across the entire network, whether big or small, resulting in better efficiency and cost-savings while offering end-to-end visibility, automation, and insight.

Open APIs and standards such as OpenConfig mean users can optimize their networks with solutions that best fit their business objectives.

How can network management systems meet the demands of hybrid work?

In today's hybrid work environment, organizations face a variety of new challenges. The challenges include a highly distributed and mobile workforce, an inconsistent range of quality connectivity options, and the need to rapidly implement tools for collaboration, support, and business continuity.

In turn, network management systems need to be agile, with built-in intelligence and automation to facilitate decision making and reduce errors. Security must be inherent and prioritized to help ensure that networks and the devices connected to them are secure from the core to the edge.

Operational models for network management systems


Agility, flexibility, and scalability

Whether you need to prepare your central campus for its new role as a hub of hybrid work or you're scaling out hundreds (or thousands) of branch sites, cloud-based network management systems are designed to give you the flexibility and reach you need. These platforms offer easy access and monitoring across highly distributed networks and make provisioning of remote sites simple.

Cloud-based platforms also provide a high level of configurability and customization, through open APIs and robust application ecosystems. These platforms also support advanced analytics, automation, and optimization use cases, through large data lakes and the power of cloud computing to support sophisticated machine learning applications.


Higher performance and scalability

On-premises network management systems can be used for large campus networks that require greater performance and scalability. They also provide advanced features such as analytics, assurance, and artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). Organizations that need sovereign operations can benefit from on-premises network management servers, since all the data is stored onsite.

In many cases, network management systems for larger networks can generate a lot of data that is collected from telemetry and SNMP.

On-premises systems are usually larger servers that have enough power to process the data so that it can be used to provide the insights IT needs to manage the network. This is one reason an on-premises server is usually located in the core of the network. Although it can be accessed from the internet, remote access requires a VPN connection. 


Network management platforms

On-premises network management

Respond to changes and challenges faster and more intelligently with Cisco Catalyst Center.

Cloud-based network management

Simplify IT management and work from anywhere with the Cisco Meraki platform.

SD-WAN management

Quickly deploy and monitor an SD-WAN fabric using Cisco Catalyst SD-WAN Manager.

Data center and cloud network management

Centralize public or private cloud management with Cisco Nexus Dashboard. 

Network management enhancements

Modern networks are growing exponentially and becoming much more functionally complex. As a result, many network management systems are enhanced with advanced capabilities, such as automation, assurance, and monitoring, that leverage technologies such as AI/ML.

These advanced features simplify the day-to-day running of the network while helping IT to respond to changes and challenges faster and more intelligently.

How are these advanced capabilities used?

  • Network automation is the process where repetitive tasks such as configuration and software upgrades can be done automatically. Network management systems push out new software updates and updated configuration files, saving IT time and improving performance.
  • Network assurance leverages AI/ML to provide IT with better insights into the health of the network, clients, and applications. IT can use it to identify and correct issues such as a poor client experience or wireless coverage gaps.
  • Cost-effective consumption made possible by software subscriptions is offered by many vendors of network management systems. Users can subscribe to various tiers of software that deliver value where and when they need it.