Monitoring as a Strategy — SolarWinds TechPod 015

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Host Alex Navarro sits down with SolarWinds® Head Geek Sascha Giese to discuss how network monitoring as a strategy can take any organization to the next level by saving both time and money.   Related Links    
Sascha Giese

Host | Head Geek

Sascha Giese holds various technical certifications, including being a Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), Cisco Certified Design Associate (CCDA), Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA), VMware… Read More

Episode Transcript

Alex: Coming to you from SolarWinds HQ in Austin, Texas. I’m Alex Navarro with SolarWinds TechPod. This is Tech Talks.

Announcer: This episode of SolarWinds TechPod is brought to you by the SolarWinds Network Management Portfolio, recognized by the IDC as the market leader in network management software.

Alex: My guest today is Sascha Giese Head Geek at SolarWinds, with more than 10 years of technical IT experience. He holds various technical certifications including being a SolarWinds Certified Professional. Four of his years of experience includes serving as a senior presales engineer here at SolarWinds where Sascha was responsible for product training SolarWinds channel partners and customers. Welcome, Sascha.

Sascha: Thanks and hello and greetings from Ireland, which is actually not rainy at all today. It’s beautiful sunshine today.

Alex: We traded places a bit with the weather.

Sascha: Well, usually it’s just extremely hot and sunny over there in Texas. So, does that mean it’s rain today?

Alex: Yes, it’s a bit overcast today. It’s a bit gloomy.

Sascha: Okay. You deserve it. You deserve it.

Alex: Well, today Sascha and I are discussing how to leverage network monitoring as a strategy and I feel like this is definitely an important facet of your strategy and technology professionals would agree that IT just plain and simple, it needs to work.

Sascha: Well it’s quite simple. Without strategy, you’re wasting the most valuable thing which you have, which is time. Okay. It’s time, time, time, time, time. If you just go wild without any web strategy, without any information, without any rules or policies, you’re wasting a lot of time. Time is money, which is quite obvious, okay. And it’s really a problem. So I remember from my time as a sales engineer that I was actually talking to a customer and he said something along the lines like, “I know you would like to sell something to me to save time, but right now I don’t even have enough time to test it.” Which is quite sad if you consider that he is aware he needs something, but just doesn’t have time to play with it and it’s fine.

Sascha: Everyone has a day job to do and can’t just go wild with new software and have fun with that. Testing software’s always a little bit of fun in IT, but if you have stuff to do, obviously that’s usually of a higher priority and when it comes to monitoring for many IT departments, it’s like necessary evil. So, you have to do it somehow. But, in rare cases, a company would have a dedicated hat for monitoring. It’s usually someone who was like the network up in the system admin or even the database administrator, who would need to monitor not just their own stuff but the whole IT and that’s quite a complex topic and time is again a problem. So, what you usually do is just firefighting, okay. Something is broken and everyone panics and let’s quickly patch it and off you go. And that’s not a strategy, okay. That’s a waste of time because next time something happens, you’re going to fix it again. So that’s a serious problem usually.

Alex: Right? You definitely don’t want to be the situation where you’re continuously correcting this same issue over and over and over again.

Sascha: Now that is unfortunately what happens if you do not monitor at all, or are not following the strategy of your key practice. It’s not just saving time, but also, what people quite often ignore is that monitoring basic IT features is also a little bit of security. So, there’s a lot of stuff from traditional monitoring that goes into the parts of security as well. If we talk packet inspection for example, it’s an interesting topic actually. I might talk about that in a moment. So, all of these things should be kept under control, and that helps to not just minimize the risk of a problem, but also (we know problems happen) minimize the time to fix a problem.

Alex: Absolutely. And I feel like everyone out there can pretty much relate to the fact that you need to be prepared for worst-case scenario situations because inevitably something bad will happen. Something will go wrong. Your plan will deviate from what you had thought you had prepared for, and that’s where the strategy comes into play. That’s where the monitoring can really save your bacon.

Sascha: Oh yes. Well, you know, I’m German so there’s no deviation from the greater plan. Okay. But it definitely helps a little bit to have something in mind. No, really. If we save time, the next thing really is money. If you fix a problem, if you patch a problem, and you do it over and over again, you waste money too. If we go a step back, so each person working in IT, basically has one goal. As an IT professional, you deliver service. Okay. So, that service could be something obvious, like an email service or just a running network. All of that stuff that you as an IT pro support to keep your organization alive. Your organization depends on the applications, your organization depends on the network and it’s your task to make sure everything is running. We’re not even talking about 5/9ths to 99%, just make sure that it is actually running. One of the problems there is, if you find that something is broken, who’s going to fix it? That is a very, very important question. So, is it a network issue? No, it’s not always the network that’s causing trouble.

Alex: Okay. Well, inevitably something’s going to go wrong. Right? I feel like with the evolving landscape, that’s one thing that you can count on, is things will always change and more often than not, the worst-case scenario will happen to you. So, you should be weary of any vendor who’s making lofty promises to you, that whatever it is that they’re trying to sell you will never fail.

Sascha: It’s a classic isn’t it? So, it’s not just to make sure to have stuff under control but also in case something breaks, whose problem is it to fix it? And that could very well be a problem inside your organization. The question would be, is it the network, is it not in network, but also something completely external. I actually have a nice example. There is a, actually one of my favorite customers, popular TV station in Germany and they’re using a very well-known cloud provider. There aren’t that many. So, you have probably a 50/50 shot and they were actually struggling with a feature. A feature of the cloud provider. And they used our network performance monitor to actually prove the problem is not in their environment but over in the cloud, and the customer actually explained that in detail to me. Even the conversation with the unnamed cloud provider was quite funny. But the result was there was a container. There’s various containers in rotation at that cloud provider and one of the containers was actually broken. The SolarWinds feature he used was NetPath, that was actually showing, not just where a problem occurred, but when, so they have seen the rotation over there, that’s quite interesting. So, it’s not really about blaming, “it’s your fault.” That’s not what this is about.

Alex: Well the assumption is normally the problem is with the network and that’s not always true.

Sascha: No, that’s definitely not always true, but you need to prove it. Okay. You need to prove it and just when you know what’s the root cause, the next step would be to find the responsible person. It’s again about saving time. If I’m the network guy, I usually make sure my stuff is all right and if there’s a problem outside of the network, I call my friendly virtualization administrator and tell him, “Hey, you got a job to do while I have a cup of coffee right now.” So that’s the big advantage if you’re able to prove whose fault it is.

Alex: Absolutely. That’s a fantastic example. And so, you know, if we’re talking about monitoring as a strategy, would you agree that a successful monitoring strategy includes a balance of both broad and deep visibility? And does this depend if we’re talking about a physical, virtual, or software-defined network?

Sascha: Well, ideally you would probably need both. Problems start that in most organizations there’s multiple vendors. So, you can’t rely on a one-trick pony which would cover everything from Vendor A and probably very well from everything from Vendor A, but you might have Vendor B in place as well. And whatever solution you have from Vendor A, might not talk to Vendor B. So, you need the solution that is quite brutal, that understands multiple vendors, multiple technologies, different layers in IT. We do have different layers, not just in networking. So, you need a tool that is able to put all of this together and, hopefully, is able to provide dashboards that show where a root cause is actually happening. But this is basic.

Sascha: Perhaps not too basic, but it’s like an up-down monitoring that gets you going for a while, but you probably want more after a while. There’s quite complicated technology out there and the simple, “yes, it runs well” or “no, it does not run,” is not enough. You have multiple layers to talk to each other. There’s dependencies all over the place. So, if there’s an independent layer somewhere, that’s not performing at its best, it will have an impact on all the other moving bits and pieces and it’s quite complicated to find the root cause if you don’t have a tool that’s able to look into these details. That’s another thing when we go into the discussion between broad and deep, not everyone is an expert on everything.

Sascha: So for example, I’m more like a network guy and if something is broken from my point of view, it’s always the database. Well, okay, Tom will help me with that. But that’s just, as I admitted, I don’t have much clue of how a database works and I’m not feeling ashamed to admit it because I know my network works. Fortunately, if you have a tool that comes with enough understanding and intelligence, it helps, even someone like me, to decide what exactly is going wrong. Will I be able to fix the situation right now or do I have to ring a database administrator in the middle of the night? Or whatever. So, there’s external expert knowledge which we can use to help in the decision-making process, and that definitely goes into deep visibility that is far beyond on-off monitoring.

Alex: And I feel as if it would be almost a no-brainer to be able to have this kind of insight and to be able to really strengthen your monitoring strategy by utilizing a tool like this that is more vendor agnostic. And this is also important because we want to be able to maintain consistency across the environment no matter which kind we’re talking about.

Sascha: Yeah, that’s basically a requirement. It’s not just the monitoring question. If you’re using any kind of solution that should help your business out there, which isn’t able to adapt to changes and look into various things at the same time, it’s usually not very helpful. Yes, there might be specific situations where you really need something that works for the one-trick ponies. Okay. I mentioned that already. That it might be situation for that, but usually, it’s too complicated because you always miss other elements, and everything together will give you a better overview of what’s happening.

SEGMENT BREAK: Take control and start solving today with the SolarWinds Network Management Portfolio, delivering flexibility, scalability, and visibility across complex environments.

Alex: Since we’re talking about a strong strategy including both broad disability as well as deep visibility, I’m curious, what do you think about those who say that you need to sacrifice visibility for scalability?

Sascha: Sacrificing visibility for scalability? I don’t agree to that statement. What I’ve heard a few times in the past is “sacrificing visibility for usability.” That’s what I’ve heard a couple of times. I do understand the reasons for that. If you have a really, really powerful tool, it’s quite complex. There’s lots of buttons to press and lots of features, lots of stuff to do. Last week I started a new computer game. It’s a strategy game and I put like 80 hours in it already and I just barely understand it. So, the more features something has, the more complicated it gets. That is absolutely true.

Sascha: I do remember some conversations with customers who were like, “Yes, Network Performance Monitor is an extremely powerful tool, but it just needs, I don’t know, 50% of the features.” Now, obviously as a SolarWinds employee, you’re like, “No, you, you might need them.” But also, if you work in IT, you have an understanding for such a situation. If it’s a small shop, it might be perfectly fine. The funny thing though is that more than once it happened that such a conversation popped up pretty much a year later. Again, same customer, same guy like me. When a company grows, it’s usually their requirements grow too. And suddenly it’s a complicated solution where only 50% was actually useful, turned to 80% useful, are required. So, it’s really that everything is becoming more complex in IT and sometimes it’s really that there’s a feature in a product like SolarWinds or in any other solution out there which a customer might not understand in the first moment.

Sascha: So, someone needs to explain to someone how to use it. I can give you a nice example. So, we have a feature called deep packet inspection somewhere, and if you have a look at this for the first time, you’re like, “Yeah, it’s nice charts, a little bit of green, a little bit of red.” It basically answers one question, and we had that question earlier today already. “Is a problem coming from a network layer or an application layer?” That alone, answering that question alone, is a huge time saver and it’s a really nice feature. Usually if an IT pro gets an understanding of what is happening, it’s like, “Wow, that’s awesome. I need that.” And suddenly it’s pretty high up on the list of required features again.

Alex: So I feel like a safe statement there is, it’s never a bad time to just take a look at your strategy and ask yourself, “when is the last time we reevaluated this?” Are we, you know, evolving and changing as the landscape is changing, as the requirements of the organization are changing? And so, don’t be afraid, right? Don’t be afraid to reevaluate and possibly change your monitoring strategy.

Sascha: That is absolutely right. You should do this with lots of other solutions. Usually if you buy something, you have like a contract for a while or whatever. When that’s up, check if it’s really the right tool or is there something better out there which I need. That’s the question that we should answer ourselves when we buy something for our home, but also for an organization when it comes to software. Is it still the best solution out there for me? So as my requirements grow, it’s worth considering the strategy again.

Alex: And I feel like we all know how expensive it can be to not reevaluate and not have a strong strategy in place.

Sascha: We’re going back to the time. Which is expensive.

Alex: Time. Money. Even credibility, when you think about it, because let’s say you’re trying to convince management of a new solution that you need or an upgrade that is needed to better serve the business. If you don’t necessarily have the best track record because you weren’t evaluating or you weren’t evolving with the times, then that could come back as a disservice.

Sascha: Oh, that is a very dangerous topic. If you, as the IT pro who is usually tasked with create like a business plan says, “I need some money and I would like to invest that in a piece of software.” That is quite often out of your comfort zone because you’re dealing with bits and bytes and not with dollars, or whatever. But as an IT pro, you should have lots of experience in, “How does the software fit in?” And that alone should help you to set up some bullet points and that will help you creating a nice discussion with the guys who have the money in the end.

Alex: We’ve covered the fact that a successful monitoring strategy will save you time, which is a precious resource, as we all know. So, if you’re able to accomplish that, then ideally you could use that extra time to focus attention on more important things that would better serve you, your team, the business, the organization. Sascha, if our listeners only take away this last bit from you and you had to narrow it down to three major tips for networking monitoring strategy success, what would those three high points be?

Sascha: Three. Ooh, that’s a lot. Simplicity or usability. Usability, keep it simple. You don’t have time again and there’s absolutely no time to spend on a solution that you would use to monitor or something instead of monitoring itself. If you waste time on a monitoring solution, it’s super wasted. Something like that piece of software should work mostly out of the box. There’s always some bits and pieces that needs to be changed. But it’s absolutely impossible that a vendor will send five people who spend a month in your environment setting up everything.

Sascha: That doesn’t work, because any kind of change, any update, again, later in the process might require people coming to your office and you’ll probably say, “Yes, it’s the vendor. It’s not me wasting time.” No, there’s a significant amount of your time that’s wasted as well. Also, how does the software, and it’s a general thing, how does the software deal with change? There’s always stuff changing, and static system won’t get you very far. A static system will work fine the moment you deploy it, and five months later your company might acquire another company and to have to integrate another AD forest or whatever. There’s always change, and the software should be able to deal with that. I would call that visibility as well. Perhaps back to your scalability. It fits in as well.

Alex: And then just the upkeep as well, because there’s inevitably going to be maintenance needs.

Sascha: Yes, there will be updates. Is it easy to deploy these updates? Will the software shut down for an amount of time for the updating process? That’s something which you probably don’t figure out easily during an evaluation phase because when you test the software, you rarely will test an update process. It’s the same, like, when you back up something, we all know you should test your backups, but I rarely do this. But all of this is basically the usability and simplicity part.

Alex: Okay. So, I guess I’ll let you slide with that and we’ll count that as just tip number one. What would be tip number two?

Sascha: Coming back to the ability to adapt to future changes. You might be able to talk to the vendor. Like, what happens if another hardware vendor is pushing out new devices? How long would it usually take for you guys to support this? How quickly can a change by the vendor be deployed? How short is the development circle? Is there an update once in five years? Don’t do it. Okay. Is their 20 updates in a year? Don’t do it because then there’s something wrong with the software. There’s a healthy amount of new releases in a year which will tell you that there’s lots happening in the background, but the guys know what they’re doing. It’s not like each update is just like a hot fix.

Sascha: Also, let me point something out, which is really cool for us. I’m assuming that many people who are listening to this podcast are familiar with our community but perhaps not everyone. In our community, there’s a really amazing feature. It actually has a few, but one which I would like to point out. As a customer, you actually can have an impact on the development process of our solutions. So, you can suggest a change and other customers can vote on this feature request or change request, whatever it is. And it does have an impact on the development, which is pretty awesome and a quite unique approach because it’s good for us because we know where we’re going, what is hot right now, what is important. But it’s also good for you guys because if you have something you want your environment to change again, you can drive the development towards these changes. It’s not like, “Hey, we need this change tomorrow,” and it’s not going to happen for various reasons, but it does have an impact and that’s actually the visible track record in the community where you can see implemented, implemented, implemented.

Alex: And for those of you who are not familiar, Sascha is referring to our THWACK® community.

Sascha: I’m glad you’re saying it because it’s very difficult for me to pronounce that.

Alex: Now I just kind of want to force you to say it.

[Sascha trying to say THWACK]

Alex: Okay, so we’ve got successful monitoring strategy, you want to keep it simple. How easy is it to use? Future planning?

Sascha: Well, make life easy with features that do some work for you if possible. We can start with simple if/then scenarios and other things. So, something is happening and instead of the system sending you an email, why not automate things? Why not have the system fix the situation and just send you an email as a confirmation like, “Hey, something was wrong. I fixed it, but for your reference, have a look on it later on.” So, automation might be a nice feature. Again, it’s about saving time.

Alex: Oh, it’s always about saving time, right. I like that. That’s a good wrap up. So, we’ve got straight from Sascha’s lips. Successful monitoring strategy means you need to keep it simple. You need to plan for the future, and, when possible, look for opportunities to automate.

Sascha: Yup. And usability, that’s four. Well, three and a half.

Alex: Plus usability. And I’m curious because you brought up the user community, which is THWACK. And talking about our customers and them having an impact in sort of guiding the development of the solutions that we’re able to offer. Has there ever been, you know, someone who’s come up and has just been super proud to tell you about the creative solution that they came up with?

Sascha: Quite often actually. I do travel frequently, actually counted it the other day. Since I started with SolarWinds, I did 59 trips, which is quite nice. I do happen to speak to customers and sometimes at trade shows that happens. So, if someone is popping up at our stand who was using the tools since an X amount of time, they quite often come up with really nice ideas, stuff that we would never think about. I think I mentioned that example earlier with the TV station that was using a cloud provider, that is actually what they did. They used these nooks, these mini computers.

Sascha: So they deployed the SolarWinds agent on these mini computers and whenever someone is reporting a problem for accessing a resource, they plug in that minicomputer in the switch right next to the employee and it will monitor the path starting from there to whatever destination. And that was such a great idea. So, it happens quite often that you guys out there come up with really creative ideas.

Alex: They don’t always tell you what they are.

Sascha: Yeah, some do, the Germans not so much.

Alex: Does that happen? Has that happened where you ask for more details and they say, “Oh no, no, we cannot divulge that information, sir.”

Sascha: It’s usually like, “That’s not your business.” It happened. I actually, I kind of understand that depending on who you talk to, sometimes it’s like public organizations, armies, or whatever. So, there’s not much of the talking, but sometimes it’s really a little bit like, “No, not your business.” In German it’s actually called, “Das geht dich nichts an.” So, now you learned a little bit of German. But sometimes it really depends. Sometimes people come up and explain exactly how they did this and they’re proud they figured something out we didn’t think of. It’s pretty cool actually.

Alex: Fantastic. Well, thank you so much for being here with us. And again, remember if you are evaluating your monitoring strategy. If you have some creative solutions that you want to share, by all means, you can reach out to us on social media or, by all means, join the conversation with the SolarWinds THWACK community.

Sascha: Or say hi at a random trade show.

Alex: At one of the random 59 trade shows that Sascha will be at.

Alex: Fantastic. Well thank you so much for being here, Sascha. I really appreciate it.

Sascha: You’re welcome and enjoy the day!

Alex: And thank you for listening. I’m Alex Navarro and we’ll catch you on the next episode of SolarWinds TechPod Tech Talks. And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to SolarWinds Tech Pod anywhere podcasts are downloaded.