NetOps Teams Consolidate Tools, But Sprawl Persists

May 14, 2024 3:16:38 PM

IT organizations have always relied on multiple tools to manage and monitor their networks. This reality is a legacy of the evolution of network management tools. Initially, vendors offered point products that solved very narrow sets of tool use cases like device discovery, device metric collection, config management, traffic monitoring, and so on. Network engineers needed a sprawling toolset to address all aspects of operations.

Over time, vendors developed multi-function platforms that cover broad sets of use cases, but tool sprawl has always persisted for a variety of reasons. For instance, some multi-function platforms vary in the how well they address different use cases. Network engineers hold onto specialized tools that simply tackle a particular task better. Other networking pros have their preferred tools that they have mastered, and they don't want to give them up in the name of consolidation. 

Tool Consolidation is Here (Sort of)

EMA has been tracking the issue of network management tool sprawl for more than a decade with its Network Management Megatrends research. Every two years we survey IT professionals about the state of network operations inside their organizations. We ask respondents to tell use how many tools their organizations use to manage and monitor their networks. The typical response always ranges from four to 15 tools, with a healthy number telling us they use 16 or more. The following chart (Figure 21 from the 2024 Megatrends report) reveals that some consolidation occurred between 2022 and 2024. The number of network teams that use 11 or more dropped while the number that use just three to five tools increased significantly. 

Screenshot 2024-05-14 at 4.34.49 PM

This is progress! However, EMA believes network teams will struggle to continue this consolidation trend. Specifically, networking pros who are dealing with multi-cloud networks and secure access service edge (SASE) reported that they use larger toolsets. Multi-cloud and SASE adoption will only continue to expand across enterprises, so toolsets will probably expand, too, as network teams look for solutions to improve management and observability of these architectures. 

Tool Sprawl is a Source of Pain

Network teams should hold the line as much as possible with tool bloat. There will always be point solutions that can solve pain points that your existing tool vendors fail to address, like multi-cloud and SASE management. Still, EMA recommends that network teams try to solve new management use cases through existing tools as much as possible to make sure that network operations are effective and efficient. Our research demonstrates that a rigorous approach to efficiencies in toolsets is essential. For example, Megatrends research participants named tool sprawl as their number-three network operations challenge. Only shortages of skilled personnel and budget shortfalls were more painful. 

Furthermore, the following chart (Figure 22 in the 2024 Megatrends report) reveals that tool sprawl correlates with administrative errors that cause network downtime and performance degradation. 

Screenshot 2024-05-14 at 4.48.09 PM

The evidence is clear. Larger toolsets lead to more manual, administrative errors that cause network trouble. Engineers with large toolsets are conducting swivel chair operations. Their processes often span two or more tools. They have to track data and processes across siloed tools and things get lost in translation. Errors happen. And networks go down.

This next chart (figure 23 in the new Megatrends report) also points to tool sprawl trouble. It reveals that network operations pros who have larger toolsets (particularly six or more tools) spend a larger portion of their workday troubleshooting the network.

Screenshot 2024-05-14 at 4.48.16 PMSwivel chair operations comes into play here, too. First, fragmented toolsets can fail to deliver an end-to-end view of the network, which makes it harder to proactively detect trouble. Thus, many troubleshooting processes are reactive. Network teams have to gather information and try to solve the mystery of why they're getting complaints about the network. And that information gathering is complex if they have to consult six or seven tools to get a complete picture of the situation. It's better to have all this information in one place, with event correlation and reporting that present a consolidated view. 

Consolidate and Integrate

No network team will ever reach a point where it relies on one tool for all of operations. Networks are simply too complex and constantly changing. There will always be a need for specialized tools to address new and emerging use cases.

But this is no excuse to accept the status quo. Network teams should consolidate whenever feasible, even if certain members of the team object because they have a favorite tools that they've been using for a decade or two. 

When consolidation isn't possible, integration is essential. Many tool vendors now partner to provide integrated solutions to fill gaps in their own products. This often starts with sharing data. A device monitoring vendor might share data with a traffic monitoring vendor to help network engineers with root-cause analysis. A network discovery tool vendor might integrate with an IP address management vendor or a configuration management vendor to help network teams compare their intent for the network with the actual state of the network, which can help with compliance and troubleshooting. 

The task is clear. If you have a sprawling network management toolset, look for ways to consolidate onto fewer tools. At the same time, push hard to integrate the multiple tools that remain despite your consolidation efforts. This will drive efficiency and reduce mistakes. 

To learn more about EMA's 2024 Network Management Megatrends research, download the report or watch our free on-demand webinar that highlights some key findings. , 


Shamus McGillicuddy

Written by Shamus McGillicuddy

Shamus is the vice president of research for EMA's network management practice. He has more than twelve years of experience in the IT industry as an analyst and journalist. Prior to joining EMA, Shamus was the news director for TechTarget's networking publications. He led the news team's coverage of all networking topics, from the infrastructure layer to the management layer. He has published hundreds of articles about network technology, and he was a founding editor of TechTarget's website, a leading resource for technical information and news on the software-defined networking industry.

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