Here are 10 tasks network administrators should do to ensure that communications remain operating smoothly through the holiday season and into the new year.
As network administrators, we are tasked with the on-going administration and management of networking equipment, including mission-critical infrastructure. If we don't do preventive maintenance, the subsequent troubleshooting and resolution of issues that would otherwise negatively affect network performance for all users of its shared resources.
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This time of the year brings with it lots of cause for joy and merriment. And while many users worldwide come together with family and loved ones to celebrate the occasions (though it may be via video this year), the lights must still be kept on. That's where your friendly, neighborhood netadmin and the IT team come into play.
Whether your office is open or closed, the significantly slower-paced time of year allows IT to focus on tackling projects and checking off to-do list items that seem prohibitively difficult through much of the year due to the effect on productivity.
1. Update firmware and software
Updating firmware and software is one of the most important tasks netadmins can perform on their networking equipment. It ensures devices are protected against the latest known threats, have any critical (and not so critical) bugs squashed, and helps devices to work with the latest codebase when it comes to management commands and security for optimal networking communications. This, of course, applies to all appliances that may be used to manage equipment, such as wireless controllers and infrastructure monitoring servers, that provide on-going connectivity to client nodes. Their software should be updated regularly after proper testing cycles to maintain a stable, operational networking environment.
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2. Check equipment logs for issues
This should also be performed regularly as part of ongoing system management and network health assessment. But sometimes things just slip through the cracks, and that is understandable. Nonetheless, checking logs from a centralized source is a highly recommended way to assess issues being reported across the network for criticality. Furthermore, the information being reported can be used to assist IT in pinpointing the root cause of these issues and resolving them without it leading to greater problems down the line.
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3. Do upgrade projects
Arguably the best time to carry out equipment upgrades is when they pose the least amount of impact to the users, wouldn't you agree? This is specially true for network upgrades, which effectively prevent all users from accessing network resources for an unspecified amount of time until the project is completed.
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For these instances, it is likely best to perform these types of upgrades during off hours, and at the end of the year, when many organizations are shuttering for the holidays. It provides just that time frame with which to get these projects off the ground and completed with little interruption to daily productivity.
4. Decommission obsolete equipment
What does your organization do with old and obsolete equipment that has been upgraded? I hope the answer to that question is to dispose of it securely and not leave it plugged in. If it is the latter, then there's no better time than the present to properly pitch it, in accordance with the policies and regulations of your company and industry. Having equipment just lying around poses a multitude of threats: Regulatory, if devices are lost or misappropriated; security, if their configurations are made available to threat actors and directed as a vector to attack your network; and fiscally, because the more devices are connected to the network, the more resources they tend to use, such as power and bandwidth.
5. Audit access control lists and permissions
This entry should be pretty self-evident to anyone in IT that works with client devices that require authentication by multiple parties. Perform audits of your devices and their authentication and logging settings to make sure that only individuals authorized to be accessing those systems are the ones that have the necessary rights to do so. Any changes that must be made can be done so and recorded in change management for posterity.
6. Inventory assets and update diagrams
During peak times, IT is no doubt inundated with support calls and cannot seem to make ends meet. But, during off-peak times, IT may find itself with the opportunity to engage in projects and maybe even cross off a few items on its own to-do list. Inventorying assets is not a particularly glamorous task but it's also not a difficult one, either. It simply takes time to organize and get done. However, the benefits far out-weight the trouble, especially when it comes time to verify equipment placement and more importantly, update network topology diagrams.
And yes, many modern software tools exist to map the network and automatically create diagrams through the use of SNMP and discovery protocols, however, information that isn't verified should not be so easily trusted because discrepancies can and often do exist. Having documentation to check against works to confirm the software is correct and provide an alternate source of information, should one become unavailable.
7. Ensure equipment is supported by UPS
While it is a good practice to implement redundancy into all aspects of IT, there is an especially strong case for it when it comes to networking. Ensuring that communications remain up is tantamount to ensuring the company's business processes continue to work daily. This keeps all the lights on, so to speak, and when there's downtime you can be sure there's usually some loss of revenue nearby.
Configuring redundant links and having multiple pieces of equipment in place in the event of loss are great, but one of the biggest support faux pas generally seen is failure to install an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) with adequate wattage to support equipment when electrical issues occur. Either it's too under-powered or simply one is not installed—all the redundancy in the world won't help if the devices themselves cannot remain powered when electrical problems arise.
8. Securely back up running configurations
Running configurations contain the instructions for how routers, switches, firewalls, and controllers—among other networking devices—operate on the network. It also contains important security information that ensures that communications are routed properly and protected against malicious actors from snooping or otherwise weakening the integrity of your networks. It should come as no surprise that these configurations should be backed up and stored securely so you can get them up and running should a device fail and need replacement. This helps cut down on the provisioning time needed to get new devices or repaired ones back online.
9. Double-check monitoring tools for visibility
When using monitoring tools to provide insight into your network, it's important to realize the information reported will only be as useful as it is correct. If changes have been made to the network topology or new equipment has been added but the monitoring tools have not been updated to reflect such changes, then the information will be inaccurate and not very beneficial as a tool.
While many of these tools offer automated management of the existing network infrastructure, as well as the capability to sniff the network and detect changes and incorporate them into the dashboard, there will be times when things just don't click right and manual intervention will be necessary.
10. Schedule maintenance calls and check-ups
I know it may seem a little counterproductive as you're wrapping up the end of the year to place service calls for equipment replacements or to have the maintenance team come out to check the network to determine if anything needs a little push or reconfiguration. But it is akin to getting your car inspected by a mechanic prior to embarking on a cross-country trip—you just want to make certain that everything is how it should be; and if it's not, the mechanic can step right in and correct it before it becomes a problem.
Additionally, service calling faulty or failing equipment before closing down for the holidays is a great way to ensure that any pending problems that could impede communications are resolved before the offices are closed. While there are no guarantees in IT support, it should help to cut down on any emergency calls during the holidays.
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