Tools for secure networks

More than ever, managers have to balance security with ease of use

A vast number of programs can be loosely described as network management tools. This reflects both users' desperate need for help and the broad range of problems you can encounter on a network.

Among the long list of concerns, network security has recently come to the forefront.

Besides the threat of break-in and compromised data, the current world situation has increased the need for many networks to improve uptime, whether the threat is malicious attackers or merely twitchy software.

There is even a move to organize a technology equivalent of the National Guard'volunteers ready to step in to help recover vital systems in an emergency. Having your own in-house incident response capabilities will not only make your office independent and lighten the load on these volunteers, it also will prepare your staff to help others.

While the accompanying chart includes tools that make it easier to measure network performance and install software across the network, it focuses on security-related products. They include everything from packet sniffers to programs that test for known vulnerabilities and even warn you if you have forgotten to apply an available patch or change passwords regularly.

Some security tools are the same ones used by crackers who attempt to penetrate and interrupt your systems; others have applications in general network maintenance as well as security.

As managers meet the ongoing challenge of keeping networks secure and running at peak performance'which you could view as tactical management'many also are partially responsible for strategic planning.

Outside users

Many government agencies are beginning to see citizens as clients in the same sense businesses do. As networks become accessible to people outside your agency, user experience or user friendliness will become a vital concern, one that was largely ignored when only employees used networks.

Sad to say, but many networks have been very unfriendly'only a captive audience of employees could be forced to use them. Considering the difficulty of simply installing and running a network, managers often took the view that keeping the servers online was so demanding that users would just have to make do with what they got.

Now, even if the network is only available to employees, its performance and usability will directly affect how well staff members serve the public. That alone makes it vital that networks be easy to use.

Taken together, security concerns and the need for greater user-friendliness will change the way we all look at network management over the next decade.

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John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at powerusr@yahoo.com.

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