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How are enterprises tracking their Network Inventory in 2024?

In this post, we’ll define a network inventory, discuss why maintaining one is useful, and talk through approaches we see enterprises taking to maintain one.

network inventory
Dennis Thankachan

Mar 21, 2024

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Network operations is typically not the most fun part of an IT professional’s job, especially during the stressful moments when network performance issues are holding back your company from functioning. When you’re tasked with configuring your LAN / WAN, dealing with bandwidth issues, troubleshooting an outage, or seeking to change a service, you may find yourself asking questions like “who is the ISP at this site again?”, “what’s the circuit ID on our primary dedicated connection?”, “what static IPs have we been allocated on this circuit?” or many more along these lines. 

This is where your handy-dandy network inventory should come into action! That is, if you maintain one. In this post, we’ll define a “network inventory,” discuss why maintaining one is useful, and talk through approaches we commonly see enterprises taking to maintain one.

What is a network inventory anyway? Why should I keep one?

A “network inventory” is a comprehensive, up-to-date database of your network services (internet / WAN circuits, voice services, colo services, etc.), vendors, and corresponding service details organized in a way that helps you streamline network and vendor management operations. 

Let’s say you operate a simple enterprise network with two dedicated internet connections and a point-to-point fiber circuit. Your network inventory will include a series of data points on each of these three services including vendor details (who the ISP is and support contact information, account ID and circuit ID with the ISP), contract details (address, start and end date, notice period, cost, term, SLAs), configuration details (bandwidth, transport, static IPs), and anything else of note (managed firewall / router, etc.).

That’s a whole lot to keep track of for each service in your network! Feels tedious already, huh? Well, keeping track of all of these details for your various network services can pay back many times over.

  • When troubleshooting an outage, or putting in a repair ticket with a circuit, you’ll need vendor details, account details, your circuit ID, and maybe more - not having this information at your fingertips can be costly, as outages can be expensive.

  • When approaching contract renewals, you can take advantage of bandwidth cost deflation by renegotiating with your provider or seeking bids from other providers, but you’ll need to stay on top of your renewal dates and notice periods.

  • If you’re hoping to move, upgrade, downgrade, or disconnect a service, or deal with a billing problem, vendor and service details must be organized.

  • When setting up, reconfiguring, or monitoring your LAN / WAN, circuit and configuration details are necessary for several reasons.

…and the list can go on. Maintaining a comprehensive network inventory that’s up-to-date can save you lots of time and money, and most importantly, it can help you avoid a lot of heartache and liability during stressful outage or repair situations.

So, how do enterprises go about doing this? The answers differ a bit by company size profile, but they all have a few drawbacks to keep in mind.

SMB Network Inventory Approaches

Unfortunately, life is never easy for an SMB IT leader. Although tools do exist to help enterprises build and maintain a network inventory system, they’re costly and mostly built for mid-market to larger enterprises, and many of these vendors won't even entertain selling to SMBs. If you think that’s unfair, we’d agree. As a result of this, sometimes we see SMBs avoid building a network inventory system altogether. We of course wouldn’t recommend this, as this can be costly even with just a small service footprint.

Most often, we see enterprises build and track their network inventory via a static or dynamic spreadsheet system, using tools like Excel, Sheets, Smartsheet, or Airtable. The benefits of this approach are that it is cheap to set up and maintain, and pretty intuitive so long as you set up your spreadsheet with the right columns.

The drawbacks? Quite a few unfortunately. For one, spreadsheets, even dynamic ones with some automation built-in, require manual upkeep and are only as accurate as the data you put into them. This makes building an accurate inventory record difficult - you have to manually check and enter all of your service data, double-check that it’s correct, and make sure to update things any time a service changes. Further, certain important network service details are hard to find (your exact contract start date, or individual circuit IDs for example) and may never be tracked in your spreadsheet at all. Finally, changing your network inventory is easy in a spreadsheet, but not so easy in real life. If you’d like to disconnect a service, you can easily delete the row that corresponds to this service in your spreadsheet, but you’ll also have to contact your provider to process a disconnect ticket for this service and see it through to resolution. If you forget a critical step in a service change process, you could end up with a changed spreadsheet but an unchanged service.

For the reasons noted above, when we at Lightyear evaluate SMB network inventory spreadsheets, we often find large discrepancies between the spreadsheet and what’s actually discovered in their network, which is far from ideal.

So what do bigger companies do to deal with this?

Mid-Market / Large Enterprise Network Inventory Approaches

Thankfully, larger enterprises do have some tooling available to them to deal with network inventory tracking and management, but the tools available do come with some flaws.

Often, enterprises will roll out some form of SD-WAN or network monitoring software solution that has “eyes” on an enterprise network and can do some automated network discovery and inventory tracking. This is a really nice “easy button” to have in your back pocket to discover your various network services, but it won’t get you to anything comprehensive. This tooling will only give you generic information on what’s in your network (ISP, some IP and circuit configuration details) and won’t be able to capture any contract information (circuit costs, renewal dates, etc.). Further, these tools will likely only capture your ISP circuits and not things like your voice or colocation services. Also, you’ll still be responsible for making any needed service changes when needs arise, as these tools won’t deal directly with ISPs for you.

Alternatively, or in addition, we’ll see enterprises leverage Telecom Expense Management (TEM) software and / or a Configuration Management Database (CMDB) system to maintain an inventory of network assets, vendor details, expenses, and the like. These systems can help you capture much more than what you’d see from an SD-WAN tool, but they also have their limitations. CMDB software puts the entire burden on the customer to build and maintain an accurate inventory, and it can at times be costly. CMDB software is also less oriented around vendor and expense management details. 

TEM software providers will sometimes help you with inventory gathering and onboarding, but will still place a lot of this onus on the customer, and TEMs can get very expensive (sometimes pricing at 3-6% of annual telecom spend).

CMDB solutions will not help you with any aspects of vendor and service management, making customers handle that end-to-end completely on their own. Some TEM vendors will help with bits of vendor management and service management, but their offerings are limited in scope, with most of the responsibility in the hands of the customer. TEMs can at times be helpful with things like bill payment and invoicing, if that’s a component of what the TEM is offering you, but they’ll charge you a pretty penny for it.

Regardless of the approach taken by an enterprise, it is true that without significant effort on the end of the customer, they’re likely to end up with discrepancies between what’s in your actual network and what your tool of choice would output as your network inventory, which is far from ideal.

A Better Way

In an ideal world, enterprises would have a closed system that tracks each component of your telecom service inventory, with fulsome data (vendor info, contract info, configuration info, etc.), tracked automatically from service acquisition through to eventual service termination. Ideally, this system would also handle things like circuit RFPs and acquisition, service change tickets, and / or bill payment to ensure inventory is kept up-to-date without customer intervention.

Well, because of the pain points noted above in tracking network inventory, this is exactly what we’ve built at Lightyear with our Network Inventory Manager offering, which ties directly into our Procurement offering. 

If you’d like to learn more about how Lightyear can make your network management journey much easier, please book some time with us today.

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