To some, network troubleshooting is a puzzle without all the pieces. To others, it’s a black art mastered by wrestling hardware and software into submission. Sure, networking components have become more user-friendly, but networking is still complex and unpredictable. To the uninitiated, locating (and fixing) network problems can seem akin to sorcery.
Why is that still the case?
It starts when things start going wrong.
Networking is ever present. Every business needs it from day one. Mobile devices and cloud services depend on it, and IoT devices are mission critical. Nearly every house or apartment has a router and devices communicating with the outside world. Given the proliferation of networked devices, people assume that networking is already a solved problem. But when your network starts behaving erratically, you realize networking is still difficult. Why?
The flawed promise of public protocols
A network with all its component parts purchased from the same company is extraordinarily uncommon. Modern networking enables hardware from different vendors to interoperate — in theory.
There are several flaws in that vision.
- Public protocols are so flexible that people make hardware do things the writers never anticipated.
- The protocol definitions can have design flaws or errors in protocols and specifications. For instance, vendors implementing DNS make slightly different choices and those devices may not interoperate.
- Some protocol specifications are too expensive or not available due to proprietary elements. As a consequence, they are not reviewed as thoroughly as they should be.
With protocols running over the same media, details can interact unexpectedly, causing network issues.
Technology is changing… rapidly
Advances in technology that make networking powerful also add layers of complexity and volatility. There is a broad marketplace of vendors hoping to benefit from changes in technology. But the fast release cycle means updated networking products might not be tested properly.
Organizations who don’t leverage the new technologies risk losing a competitive edge. Their network architectures are morphing as they adapt to mobility, BYOD, the cloud, and IoT. Concern about bandwidth is now coupled with worries about availability and security for mission-critical systems.
Security’s additional complexities
What can be harder than communicating with a component that is tight-lipped about errors?
Security layers and components are by nature paranoid, which makes them more difficult to troubleshoot. They are persnickety with details of errors, demanding proper authentication, and access control. Evolving technology is also mutating network security. The old perimeter of an office network is no longer sufficient. In-depth defense is called for, and network security is an ongoing arms race.
Depth and breadth of knowledge needed
Knowing specific technologies and security protocols is important, but having base-level knowledge is crucial. Many major networking hardware vendors provide a lot of help with configuring and troubleshooting. But first, you should understand OSI model layers, key protocols, and major standards.
A solid grasp of networking fundamentals makes it possible for you to diagnose problems. But you also need to know how the different devices operate and are configured. Each device’s UI gives you an incomplete view of its configuration, particularly concerning security.
Administering a network calls for continuous learning and varied experience. It involves grasping the theory, off-premises services, critical applications, and network management tools.
Juggling details and logic
It takes a specific type of mindset to be able to work through networking complications. Every network is unique, and many are a rats-nest of complexity. Network administration relies on logical problem solving while juggling a large number of details. Network engineers pore through packet traces trying to spot where something went off the rails. Or they are logged into routers and switches, making tweaks, and observing results.
Tooling makes things better but demands expertise
The difficulty of networking doesn’t only lie with concepts, but with using tools effectively.
Packet analysis (e.g., Wireshark) and network mapping (e.g., Nmap) are essential, but there are tools that make maintenance easier. Traffic and bandwidth monitoring and analysis tools summarize useful information and capture network history. And they can send alerts to warn you about developing trouble.
Infrastructure configuration management tools can ensure those network devices are configured the way you want. Tools can assist with network performance management and Quality of Service tuning. They can also monitor apps and the quality of connections to distant services.
But to use these tools, you need a thorough understanding of how they work.
Networking remains difficult
Networking is pervasive, complex, and ever-changing. Tackling a network issue calls for multiple kinds of knowledge, details, and problem-solving skills. Networking is not a black art, but it takes effort to remedy your issues.