Has your network been sluggish lately? If you’ve noticed delays when logging onto it, increased wait times for print jobs or slow access to network-attached storage devices, your network probably isn’t living up to its potential.

If this is the case, you might want to consider network monitoring tools. Keeping your network running at peak performance is complicated, especially when you’re constantly connecting new devices to it. But it’s important; sluggish performance will ultimately affect your bottom line.

Network monitoring should be adopted proactively, says Darin Stahl, research lead with Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont. Create a network performance profile before embarking on any new technology venture, listing all bandwidth users and hoggers, such as multimedia, continuous data protection or IP telephony. This can help you stop bottlenecks and other problems from occurring early on.

Look for a solution that’s going to monitor, measure, notify, track and report on the health of your technology infrastructure, says Stahl.

Tools used for network monitoring typically are a mix of open source and licensed software, and fall into two basic categories: point solutions like Multi Router Traffic Grapher (MRTG), and integrated management suites such as Netcool or Nagios.

Consider an integrated suite, advises Stahl. “A well-integrated solution will offer an improved total cost of ownership over a loosely integrated mix of network utilities,” Stahl says. But keep in mind that network monitoring tools can be complex and expensive, and you could end up requiring two IT investments: one for the solution itself and another for the management of that solution.

Many SMBs can’t afford that double investment, so outsourcing can be a good choice, said Stahl. But how do you know whether outsourcing is for you or you’re better off buying your own tools?

Try breaking down your IT budget and tracking your investments, says Stahl. Document any outages that can be traced back to your network, and use this to gauge the relative value of any outsourcing deals presented to you, as well as any resulting improvement in network performance. Typically SMBs walk away from outsourcing deals, claims Stahl, because they don’t see the benefit. “They’ve got to dig that benefit out,” Stahl says.

You should be continually monitoring your network. If you don’t want to do it yourself, someone else must, said Ben Mba, president of MBA Consulting in Oakville, Ont., a network consulting firm that works with SMBs.

But it’s still critical to get to know your network. If you’re having a problem, have you experienced it before or is it an isolated incident? What’s causing it? You must be able to determine such things — and do them quickly — if you are to eliminate them over the long term, he insists.

If you opt to monitor your network yourself, there are a number of software packages on the market (check out www.monitortools.com for a description of different tools, listed by category). And look for a product designed for SMBs, as opposed to a dressed-down enterprise product.

“Donít settle for more,” agrees Gregory Paul, product manager for Ipswitch Inc. in Lexington, Mass. Buy a software package that actually fits your business. You don’t want to be bogged down with extensive user training or a huge learning curve for features that are meaningless to you.

But that doesn’t mean you don’t require any less reliability or performance. Think of it this way: It doesn’t matter if you’re driving a small or a large car, you’re still better off wearing a seat belt if you get hit by a truck.

If you have a small (or non-existent) IT staff, you’ll want to lower the information load, so look for a product that is as intuitive as possible. Ipswitch’s WhatsUp, for example, provides automatic discovery of the network and colour-coded alerts.

Ultimately, the system you get should run by itself and let you know when there’s a problem. Not only will this save time, it will allow you to plan for your future network. “You can start doing things in an orderly fashion instead of running around putting out fires,” said Alex Neihaus, Ipswitch’s vice-president of marketing.

So how do you know if it’s time to invest in network monitoring tools? Think about getting them if you’re doing any kind of online work. Consider them your network’s seat belt.

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