How network management systems aid firmware, configuration updates

July 11, 2013
As technology advances, automation projects today are becoming more and more complicated. Many times engineers are focused on the design of the end application and fail to spend enough time thinking about the ongoing needs of the network.

Today’s automation projects are always connected to some sort of network. A reliable network is an integral part of the successful automation project. If you fail to plan for the growth of the network or plan the management aspect of it, the project is bound to run into problems down the line when it is too late to change things.

Most network devices contain firmware and need to be updated for security patches or increased functionality over time. Failure to plan for how firmware updates will be accomplished in the running system can lead to miss-configuration and long downtimes. When you only have a few devices deployed, this can be a simple task to accomplish. When you have many deployed, it can become challenging and time-consuming.

The order in which the network devices are updated can make a big difference in the connectivity of the network and needs to be planned out as well. Another common problem is failure to plan how configurations of your network devices will be backed up after changes are made. You want to ensure that when a device needs to be swapped out, its configuration can be quickly installed on the replacement device with no ambiguity as to which features to enable.

Over time, as new functionality is added to the system, changes may be required to the network topology as new devices are added. Unfortunately, hand-drawn documents of network diagrams are the last thing to get updated and often get overlooked. This can lead to problems later on when new systems engineers are assigned to maintain the project. In addition, the ability to generate an inventory report that details the exact devices on your network can aid in upgrading and maintaining the network.

In order to manage these kinds of tasks, include a NMS, or network management system, in your systems design up front. A NMS should be capable of not only managing a single vendor’s equipment, but should include third-party devices as well. Make sure that your NMS has the capability to discover devices added to the network. It should also be capable of auto-topology, which can document the connectivity in the system. Firmware upgrade and device configuration and documentation must also be present to ensure ease of maintenance.

Including an NMS also provides for ongoing monitoring of network availability and stability. Having the capability to look at the availability of network links can help to isolate problems in the network before they become critical. It’s also important to have the ability to replay network conditions after a problem occurs. This can aid in isolating the root cause. Planning for these tasks up front will help lower the maintenance costs for your system.

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