What Is Network Discovery?

BY IT GLUE | December 26, 2023

In today’s constantly changing IT landscape, organizations rely on larger and more dynamic networks than ever before. The adoption of bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies, the switch to hybrid and remote workforces, the prominence of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) applications and various other digital transformation initiatives have led to increasingly complex organizational networks. This poses a formidable challenge for both IT teams and managed service providers (MSPs) striving to gain a complete understanding of the expanding IT environments.

The growing complexity of network topology and lack of visibility into it are significant obstacles that IT pros face while identifying, troubleshooting and fixing issues in an organizational network. What devices are connecting to the network? What do those devices have access to? How do these devices interact with each other? Such precise information about the assets in a network is crucial for IT pros to effectively manage the network.

Network visibility is also crucial in terms of operational efficiency. It can help in troubleshooting bottlenecks that affect a business’s day-to-day operations and accelerate the seamless adoption of transformative technologies. Network visibility is critical to cybersecurity as well. The absence of a clear understanding of network assets, connections and vulnerabilities can expose an organization to the rapidly expanding threat landscape.

So, how can organizations get a better understanding of their growing networks and gain better control of the countless devices in them? That’s where effective network discovery can be a game changer. Let’s see what network discovery is and how it can help improve the visibility of today’s complex IT environments.

What is network discovery?

Network discovery, also known as IT asset discovery or simply IT discovery, is the process that enables all the devices in a network to identify and connect with each other. It helps IT teams locate all the devices in a network, build network maps, manage device inventories, implement proper device access policies and achieve better control of the IT infrastructure overall.

Network discovery is like creating a map of your organization’s digital world, identifying every device, application and connection within the network. With it, IT teams can gain critical insights into the network’s structure, which is crucial for optimizing performance, maintaining security and making informed IT decisions.

What is the purpose of network discovery?

The main purpose of network discovery is to shed light on what’s happening in a large and dynamic network. Network discovery provides enhanced visibility into an enterprise’s network infrastructure that includes a wide variety of elements like network bridges, gateways, wireless access points, routers, modems, switches and hubs. It helps network administrators locate all these devices in the network, understand how they’re connected and discover any potential issues.

Why is network discovery important?

Today, organizations rely on a combination of wired, wireless, virtual and cloud networks. It is extremely difficult for IT pros to identify the root cause of an issue in these hybrid environments. As digital operations scale, the networks will equally evolve, further complicating the scenario.

Network discovery empowers IT pros to locate all the devices in a network easily and understand the relationship between them. It helps them readily identify, troubleshoot and fix different issues. For instance, if a network is experiencing downtime, network discovery provides IT pros with relevant data, allowing them to identify and address the issue swiftly. With network discovery, IT pros can effortlessly troubleshoot and resolve bottlenecks that might otherwise negatively impact the operational efficiency and security of an organization.

What types of network assets are discovered?

A network asset is any device, data or mission-critical component of your IT infrastructure. IT assets generally fall under two broad categories: hardware and software.

  • Hardware assets include network bridges, gateways, modems, routers, switches, hubs, firewalls, printers, etc.
  • Software assets include operating systems, applications, support systems, patches and updates, etc.

How does network discovery work?

Network discovery involves systematically exploring and charting the digital landscape, locating every device, application and connection within the network infrastructure.

The first step in network discovery is to scan the entire network to locate all assets and gather information from each device, including device type, unique IDs and other relevant details. The next step is to determine how these devices are interconnected. For instance, a computer may be connected to a printer as well as to the internet via a router. It is essential to collect all this information to have a clear understanding of the network’s structure.

All this information should then be categorized so that it’s easy for your IT team to access the information they need when they need it. It becomes a valuable resource for them, offering insights into what assets are present, how they interact and where critical information is located.

What are network discovery protocols?

One of the most effective ways to discover the assets in a network is by leveraging a network discovery tool. Be it any tool, they use three basic network discovery protocols while sharing information about devices and their connections. These protocols enable the process of network discovery to unfold seamlessly. They are:

Simple network management protocol (SNMP)

Simple network management protocol (SNMP) is an internet standard protocol that is widely used for monitoring and managing network assets. SNMP allows IT pros to gather and organize detailed information about network assets. Devices equipped with SNMP respond to requests from a central management system, which then gathers details like device uptime, network traffic and system performance.

Link layer discovery protocol (LLDP)

LLDP is an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEE) standard protocol that allows devices to transmit information about them to their directly connected neighbors at regular intervals. When a device connects to the network, it sends LLDP messages containing information, such as its identity, port and type. The recipient devices store this information in management information databases (MIBs) that IT pros can easily access.

Internet control message protocol (ICMP)

Internet control message protocol (ICMP) queries are used to check if devices are reachable in a network. It’s equivalent to sending echoes through a network. One of the most familiar uses of ICMP is the “ping” command. When a device sends a message (ping) to another device, the receiving device responds, allowing network administrators to verify the existence and responsiveness of devices on the network.

What is a network discovery tool?

Network discovery tools are software or applications designed to automate and seamlessly facilitate network discovery. Leveraging the protocols mentioned above, they help IT pros discover and gather information about:

  • All the hardware on the network, like printers, switches, firewalls, servers, etc.
  • All the software on the network, like different applications and operating systems.
  • Wired, wireless, virtual and cloud networks.
  • The physical and logical relationships between all the network assets.

Network discovery tools automate this whole discovery process so that IT pros can quickly get real-time information about the entire enterprise network.

Active vs. passive discovery tools

There are two types of discovery tools: active and passive.

Active discovery tools follow the classic ping-and-response approach. They proactively initiate communication with network devices by sending out signals or requests. These tools typically use techniques like SNMP queries, ICMP requests and network scanning to seek responses from devices, collecting information about their presence, configuration and status.

While active discovery provides immediate and up-to-date information about devices on the network, it can also slow down a network due to all the contact attempts it broadcasts to the devices. Active discovery is thus not a good option for time-sensitive networks like an industrial control system (ICS).

Passive discovery tools, on the other hand, have a more laid-back approach. These tools extract information from devices without directly engaging with them. Instead of actively reaching out to devices, they monitor network communication passively, analyzing the data packets traversing the network.

Since it does not impact the network bandwidth or performance, passive discovery is ideal for networks that necessitate minimum network disruption. However, it does require all the network devices to send syslogs, which are regularly updated in a log management solution.

The choice between active and passive discovery often depends on the specific characteristics and requirements of the network environment. In some cases, organizations even employ a combination of both active and passive discoveries to benefit from the strengths of both approaches.

What are the benefits of network discovery?

Network discovery offers several key benefits for organizations, playing a pivotal role in enhancing efficiency, security and strategic decision-making within their digital landscapes. Here are a few of those benefits:

  • Comprehensive visibility: Network discovery provides organizations with a detailed map of their digital infrastructure, offering critical insights into the devices, connections and applications present. It also ensures that organizations have up-to-date information about every change happening in their network, enabling proactive management.
  • Optimized operational efficiency: By knowing the devices and applications in use, organizations can allocate resources more effectively, optimizing network performance and responsiveness. Network discovery also helps identify bottlenecks, allowing for targeted improvements to enhance overall performance.
  • Enhanced security: Network discovery also identifies potential security risks by recognizing all connected devices and highlighting any unauthorized or suspicious activities. Organizations can implement better user access control policies by understanding who and what is connected to the network, reducing the risk of unwarranted access.
  • Effective troubleshooting: Network discovery helps IT pros swiftly identify the root causes when a network problem arises, streamlining the troubleshooting process. If there are problematic devices or connections, IT pros can isolate those issues and address them promptly, drastically minimizing downtime.
  • Cost savings: Efficient use of network resources, informed by network discovery, can result in considerable cost savings. You can avoid unnecessary hardware purchases and optimize the existing infrastructure with informed decisions. Quick issue resolution and proactive monitoring reduce downtime, minimizing the potential financial impact of network disruptions.
  • Vital cog in the digital transformation journey: Network discovery can also play a crucial role in your digital transformation journey by facilitating adaptability to changes brought about by digital transformation initiatives like the adoption of cloud services. Understanding the existing network architecture allows organizations to seamlessly integrate new technologies into their digital ecosystems.

Discover network assets with Network Glue

If you are looking for a solution that can help you give complete visibility into your or your client’s complex and ever-growing IT network, look no further.

Network Glue is the automation engine of IT Glue and is an all-in-one automated discovery, documentation, password rotation and diagramming solution that automates and enhances your network discovery. Network Glue’s agent — Network Glue Collector — leverages different network discovery protocols, including SNMP, pings, broadcasts, windows management instrumentation (WMI), and Active Directory, to discover network device information automatically. With Network Glue, you can automate the documentation of both managed and unmanaged devices, Azure AD and Active Directory users, as well as network diagrams.

Network Glue gives you complete and real-time visibility into the whole IT environment, leaving behind no blind spots. You can get all the information you need about a device, including its name, type and description, IP address(es), MAC address(es), port, port groups, virtual connection type, status, virtualization type and so on. Moreover, it offers automated visualizations, delivering up-to-date network diagrams that provide enhanced visibility into the IT environments. It also has robust capabilities like automated Active Directory password rotation that ensures that your network is completely safe.

Do you want to learn more about Network Glue? Get a demo now.

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