The Ultimate Guide to Reliable Server Monitoring

Almost every company worldwide uses servers to store and offer access to valuable and sensitive information. As a consequence, IT Administrators have developed a strong need to deploy server monitoring systems that protect servers from failures and performance issues, affecting operations and the bottom line.

It is in this context that we prepared a complete guide to reliable server monitoring, which is meant to help you understand what server monitoring is and how to choose and deploy the best solution for your organization.

What is server monitoring?

To explain what exactly server monitoring is, it takes more than a brief explanation. In general, server monitoring is the process of reviewing and analyzing virtual servers and physical servers, to gain visibility on their activity, focusing on availability, operations, performance, security, and the overall processes. This way, IT managers and administrators may monitor KPIs that enable them to spot and mitigate risks before they turn into clusters and generate issues for the organizations.

Who is server monitoring for?

Server monitoring is for organizations of all sorts, no matter their profile or size. From enterprises to SMBs, organizations everywhere use remote, physical servers or cloud technologies. Even the smallest companies need them to host domain-specific emails and websites, backup data and store large files, provide remote access to networks, control user permissions, or run their business software.

Organizations need to commit to server monitoring, to ensure that their technology infrastructure is working accordingly.

Server administrators are the first persons to be responsible for server monitoring. Depending on the size of the company and its infrastructure, they may be solely responsible for all tasks or split them between other specialized team members.

Main Dashboard of Checkmk

Why is server monitoring important?

Server monitoring is important because it helps ensure the performance  and functionality of servers, for an operation that is smooth, without any disruptions. It assesses important metrics, on a 24/7 basis, providing IT administrators and managers the necessary insights to identify potential crashes before they happen and reduce downtime to the minimum. Here are some of the most important benefits of using server monitoring software correctly:

Server monitoring tools offer visibility on your server’s health and performance

With the right server monitoring tool, IT administrators are constantly aware of metrics like CPU usage, RAM, disk space, and network bandwidth, helping you grasp the complex interactions of the server landscape. This helps them to see when servers are slowing down or when they are failing and take measures before the situation affects internal or external users.

Server monitoring increases employee and customer retention

By acting in due time, when system errors occur or even before they do, technology managers ensure 2 important things:

  • That employees’ workflows aren’t disrupted. This means they may perform their tasks, see results and reach their KPIs.
  • That customers benefit from a good experience, which allows them to convert - make their purchase, verify an order’s status, insert their shipping details.

By providing a good context for both their colleagues and consumers, technology managers play their part in ensuring employee and customers retention, as well as in maintaining productivity high.

Server monitoring contributes to process automation

When it comes to managing servers, IT administrators have long checklists. They need to always check hard disk space, perform infrastructure monitoring, schedule system backups, and update antivirus software. Above all these, they are also required to foresee and solve critical events, as well as disruptions.

A server monitoring tool helps professionals by automatically supporting these jobs. It may show if a backup was successfully done, if a software is patched and if the server is in good condition. This way, server monitoring solves time-consuming tasks and allows managers to focus on jobs that require their involvement and expertise.

Server monitoring optimizes human resources and costs

By freeing up time and automating processes and tasks, suitable server monitoring systems may optimize human resources, reducing the associated costs.

Moreover, since it solves potential issues before they affect the organization, it enables businesses to avoid lost revenue, due to unfulfilled employee tasks, operational delays, and unfinished purchases.

The inbuilt Checkmk dashboard for Linux servers

How does server monitoring work?

Monitoring servers may be performed manually by Sysadmins, but this involves logging in to every individual server on a daily basis and reviewing the log files for each one to discover any issues that have occurred.

Server monitoring tools replace the need for this manual work by constantly collecting system data across your entire IT infrastructure, so that admins may have a clear view of when certain metrics are above or below thresholds and, thus, foresee server and security faults, and provide context for problems faced.

Server monitoring tools also automatically notify you if a critical system error is detected, helping admins to take action in a timely manner to resolve issues, even outside of normal working hours so that nasty surprises on a Monday morning are in the past.

What should be monitored on a server?

Identifying defects at an early stage, before they escalate into operational problems is a complex matter which requires a holistic approach. This is why IT administrators need to have a complete view of the servers in their IT environment and monitor the 3 most important elements: the hardware, the operating system, and the applications.  

By analyzing these categories, professionals will detect and avoid performance issues and other bottlenecks.

The hardware

The server hardware focuses on server performance monitoring, assessing the following:

  • CPU - monitoring CPU usage to detect early bottlenecks and ensure that enough processing power is available for all tasks.
  • RAM - performing similar operations like the ones above, to ensure that the memory space enables all applications to run.
  • Block or object storage - checking system storage and how key data points match the expected throughput.
  • The network - monitoring which users have access to what data and at what speed.

Moreover, for physical servers, the environment is also important. This refers to power supply units, uninterruptible power sources, temperature, cooling, etc. the temperature and conditions of the fans.

Customized dashboard in Checkmk for monitoring server performance

The operating system

Each server has at least one operating system, such as Microsoft Windows Server, Linux distributions like Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Unix or macOS.  

In order to monitor them, there are several elements to be considered, which include: DHCP client / daemon, DNS client / daemon, TCP client / daemon, services updates, Task Planner (Windows), Plug & Play (Windows), Linux Daemons (cron, atd, Syslog, udev).

Additionally, you can monitor print spoolers, printing, or Windows firewalls.

The applications

Applications refer to programs that are installed on operating systems and which function by accessing hardware components of the server, so it is critical to monitor them as well. To do so, one needs to understand the resources that each app consumes, the processes, and the server’s intended function.

These applications use their own protocols that also need to be monitored, especially since they communicate with other apps and create dependencies. In this context, you need to be aware of what is happening, have an overview of the whole picture and put it in the right context to identify issues.

By assessing, for example, how much RAM a database needs, IT administrators may understand what complicates scheduling, what risks exist and how to proactively solve them.

Server monitoring tasks

Server monitoring tasks include monitoring a wide range of metrics and features, such as server availability, uptime and resource utilization, CPU, memory and disk utilization, event and application logs, print jobs and queues, directory and file systems status etc.

What types of servers can be monitored?

Dashboard in Checkmk for monitoring a web server

All servers can be monitored, whether we are referring to Windows servers, Linux servers, or servers running any other OS, located on-premises, as well as to those off-premises, virtual servers, or any kind of cloud servers.

When it comes to server infrastructure, organizations use resources like bare metal servers, virtualized servers or servers in the cloud. All these may be monitored for full visibility, no matter where teams deploy services.

For cloud servers, monitoring services may track performance, costs and SLAs. In hybrid environments, you need to take a look at the interaction between cloud servers and on-premises systems as well.

Technical support members can monitor multiple servers, such as web servers, files servers, or database servers. These servers often perform business-critical tasks, and are essential for the success of your business. If IT managers do not take various factors into account when monitoring servers, they will be taking an unnecessary risk. To ensure the smooth running of IT processes, the server's use case should be included in the IT monitoring.

DHCP servers

A company’s network may have thousands of IP addresses which are made available through DHCP servers. IT administrators need to keep track of all of them, to know how many exist, how many are in use and how they are utilized. DHCP server monitoring is, thus, crucial for keeping IP-centric networks safe and stable.

File servers

File servers are a standard part of every company's infrastructure, allowing employees to access shared files. Information may be exchanged in a computer network or via the Internet using protocols such as FTP, SFTP, or WebDAV. Internal corporate data is frequently stored on file servers, making their monitoring particularly essential for security reasons.

It's a problem if employees don't have access to the proper servers, but it's a critical issue if unauthorized or external users can access sensitive corporate data. Admins can set up alarms with file server monitoring if an unauthorized IP address logs in to servers or if particular data is modified.

Monitoring storage capacity is also very important, since employee productivity may be harmed by full hard disks or overburdened servers due to being unable to execute their tasks effectively.

Print servers

Print servers may be dedicated hardware servers or integrated into printers. Their purpose is to make printers available to a network’s users. Although not a priority for many IT administrators, print server monitoring is extremely important as it ensures the smooth operation of the printers’ fleet, by, for example, monitoring if all print jobs are processed.

Mail servers

Organizations nowadays rely very much on mail servers, so mail server monitoring is also extremely valuable for worldwide companies. It ensures that the servers function correctly, that the response time is in the agreed range, that emails are archived and backed up properly, and that information is encrypted.

What is particularly valuable about mail server monitoring is that it enables IT administrators to be notified over another channel when mail servers are down.

NAS servers

NAS stands for Network Attached Storage, describing storage that is connected to a network. NAS functions, in most cases, on dedicated hardware servers, which are often a user-friendly and easy to set up alternative to file servers.

Storage devices are an incredibly important network component. Monitoring NAS servers allows you to check the health, utilization, and performance of your NAS devices, enabling your system administrators to proactively add additional storage before capacity is reached and performance suffers, or to prevent any other types of issues before they occur.

Dashboard in Checkmk for monitoring a Kubernetes cluster

Other types of servers

SQL server monitoring, VPN server monitoring or Proxmox monitoring are also important monitoring practices that IT administrators need to put on their priorities list, as well as web server monitoring, and many more.

Moreover, Checkmk also provides solutions for swap monitoring and Splunk monitoring. Splunk is a cross-platform which is used for monitoring and searching through big data. In order to do so, the software acts like a high-performing search engine. Since it connects to your network and valuable information, Splunk needs to be monitored on a different terminal than the one on which it runs and using an externally-sourced program. Checkmk provides excellent, efficient Splunk monitoring.

Getting started with server monitoring

To deliver the best results, a suitable server monitoring tool needs to be deployed efficiently and professionally, taking into account the following five steps:

Step 1: Assess and create a monitoring plan

Server monitoring starts with assessing the current situation and understanding where the company is at the time. By putting together the number of managed servers, the main users and stakeholders, their needs, as well as the network’s specifics, its overall vulnerabilities, and the company’s priorities, IT managers have a clear view of the company’s status and may, thus, proceed with creating a plan.

The plan will distinguish which systems are critical and which should be prioritized by the business, as well as what their key elements are.

Step 2: Discover how data can be collected

Depending on the environment, there are several sources for gathering monitoring information that you should pay attention to.

Windows, Linux and other operating systems provide output for monitoring. Some vendors have their own interfaces for monitoring bare-metal servers. IPMI and SNMP can also be used to monitor servers.

In the case of virtualized servers, you can get data from the hypervisor and other sources as well. If you are working together with a cloud service provider, you can use their APIs to extract monitoring information and get it into your own monitoring platform.

The main challenge in server monitoring is balancing all of these different monitoring tasks, and having suitable approaches for individual scenarios. Checkmk is the all-in-one monitoring platform, and it provides agents for all established operating systems (Windows, Linux and others), but it is also able to monitor virtualized servers and hypervisors (such as Microsoft Hyper-V or VMware ESX), and servers in cloud environments (for example AWS or Microsoft Azure).

Step 3: Define metrics

Server monitoring tools are only useful when they analyze the right data for your company’s IT infrastructure, so setting metrics is a crucial step in creating and implementing your strategy.

The starting point should be to distinguish between the hardware basics (CPU, Memory, Storage and Network Connection) and to focus on the most important metrics from the OS and from the applications in question. This is just the beginning. The challenge is to grasp the complex interactions of the server landscape with all its different server types.

Through its Intelligent Monitoring feature, Checkmk automatically discovers what server metrics to monitor, and offers numerous options to customize the monitoring to your requirements.

A good monitoring tool needs to provide a holistic overview of the most important metrics, support users through easy setup and configuration to get a clear picture of the critical indicators.

Dashboard in Checkmk showing different time series graphs

Step 4: Set up alerts

Once metrics are set, it is time to add the acceptable benchmarks and the values that spark the alerts.

A good tool provides, by default, thresholds that show you if the performance is in the right range and if the server is online and functioning. Still, things don’t end there. It should also allow you to fine-tune the monitoring by setting individual thresholds and, in some cases, even turning off specific notifications to avoid getting overwhelmed by too many red flags.

Step 5: Have a workflow

As an IT Administrator, you have to set up a workflow and inform IT specialists of how to handle alerts. First, they need to know how they are set up so that they are aware they have to check their phones for messages or their emails for emergencies. Once an issue is identified, it needs to be acknowledged to ensure that team members know that someone is working on it. This way, efforts and resources are efficiently allocated. You also have to have procedures in order, so that the person or team who first sees the alert knows what is expected of them, who to contact in case they require help, what are the most efficient means, etc.

If these procedures are in place, an alert becomes the way to solve an expected error instead of a door to a crisis.

Since everything has been defined, it is time to test the monitoring system and ensure it works properly, checking whether the alerts are set up properly and the escalation rules are respected.

What are best practices for server monitoring?

Server monitoring is different from one company to the other, depending on the complexity of the system, the priorities, the objectives, and the operational specifics. In this context, there is no one-size-fits-all approach that IT managers apply. Still, several best practices examples may help you transform server monitoring into a smooth, reliable process that benefits your organization.

Screenshot shows CPU inventory of all monitored servers

Create and manage a software and hardware inventory

You'll want to know what is going on within your servers. In practice, this means one of the first steps should be to create an inventory of your installed hardware and software.

Modern monitoring solutions also offer integrations with configuration management databases (CMDB) for the automatic inventorying of IT assets.

With monitoring of your inventory in place, you can systematically check this information and even make comparisons over different time frames.

This allows organizations to see broken hardware or changes in the hardware setup. Missing hard drives, broken RAM or malfunctioning memory blocks are made visible immediately.

Without monitoring your inventory, partial malfunctions are usually hard to localize. Memory or storage devices will be listed as fully functioning in the OS – and even users experience errors.

Keep hardware operations in the average

As an IT Administrator, you want your hardware to thrive, and to operate according to its use cases. This means that you have to pay attention to the overall CPU usage, RAM usage, as well as to CPU temperature, to ensure that servers are running in the best parameters and, thus, that you may rely on the technology to support your organization’s needs. Once there are any red flags in these concerns, you have to reconsider your hardware structure.

Take into account the whole picture

When using a server monitoring solution, you need to focus on more than the figures and put everything in a bigger context. Metrics are more relevant when they are assessed over time because this enables you to understand operational seasonality, as well as identify sudden risks.

If, for example, the CPU temperature rises abruptly in mere hours or days and there is no fluctuation in operational volumes or user activity, it might be a sign that a fan is about to crash.

A good understanding of the operational environment, as well as of how metrics evolve, over time, helps IT Administrators interpret metrics and identify potential risks in record time.

Screenshot shows a graph of the CPU utilization of a server

Monitor 24 / 7

Server monitoring is not a 9 to 6 responsibility. Successful IT Administrators continuously watch key metrics to ensure they are always aware of potential performance issues before these generate crises.

This constant monitoring, during the working day and outside of it, is particularly important since automated events – backups, virus scans, system updates, and database reindexing – don’t occur during business hours. Only noticing failures when the business day starts means that interventions will provide operational disruptions, preventing teams from getting their tasks fulfilled.

Prioritize alerts

Alerts are extremely important for server monitoring, as they highlight important metrics that are outside the specified threshold.

The best way to manage them is to prioritize them, differentiating between different types of alerts, to ensure that you and your team recognize them according to how critical they are.

Bear in mind that there are three types of statuses in monitoring: OK (fine), WARN (you should, maybe, act), CRIT (you need to act).

Once the alerts are set, clarify with the team who will act during each situation.

Use time series data to plan resources and changes

When you monitor servers for a longer time period, you may identify resource utilization trends and predict when servers need to be added or when certain hardware is approaching its end of life and needs replacing. This way, you are constantly aware of your company's IT needs and may plan and budget accordingly.

How to find the best server monitoring tool

Choosing between the best server monitoring tools isn’t easy, as it requires a good understanding of your infrastructure, the systems in it, which are critical etc. As the monitoring tool should support you with your daily business it should ease your processes and save time.

Still, to make a good decision, there are certain tips that IT Administrators and decision-makers should take into account.

Graphic showing the different ways Checkmk gathers data from devices

Choose a server monitoring software that is intuitive and efficient

A great monitoring tool is one that has proved its success for different clients and which is adjusted over time to deliver the best results. The key objectives of such a product should be to gather and analyze as much information as possible, and to alert efficiently while using the minimum of resources, to not interfere with server operations.

Checkmk responds to all the above, as it combines data based on statuses, metrics, and logs, to create warnings and alerts for all types of servers with minimum efforts. These are all visible by accessing the solution’s dashboard. Moreover, the tool enables users to make the most of the data it exports, by providing its graphics and reports, as well as offering powerful, improved integrations: visualizing metrics in Grafana, exporting metrics to InfluxDB and ingesting APM metrics from DataDog. In this way, Checkmk ensures a holistic IT monitoring by using its various integrations and having the possibility to integrate other monitoring solutions.

While Checkmk is extremely easy to use by inexperienced professionals, it also comes with a comprehensive handbook, video tutorials, and training materials.

Assess direct and indirect costs

When comparing offers for software monitoring, our recommendation is to focus on more than just the monthly or annual fee paid for software licenses.

A good approach includes analyzing what direct and indirect costs software monitoring will involve in any of the given scenarios, taking into account hardware and human resources needs.

The higher a tool’s usability and less user requirements, the fewer expenses it generates. Moreover, a server monitoring system that can't be scaled will drive additional costs, in the long run, as it will not be able to keep up with your organization.

Due to its efficient architecture, Checkmk is easy to deploy and to scale, and requires minimal hardware resources and manpower, which makes it a good option for organizations, no matter their sizes.

Pay attention to the features that matter

When assessing server monitoring tools, our recommendation is to focus on their features and identify whether they bring added value to your technical environment assessment. Things for which to look include:

  • Broad coverage, across all commonly used operating systems and services, supporting both virtual and on-premises servers.
  • Intelligent alarm management, which includes the possibility to set sensible thresholds and notification means, when necessary.
  • Extensive root cause analysis. A good monitoring tool not only indicates that errors are occurring, but also offers the possibility of seeing them in context, showcasing how the 3 elements – the hardware, the operating system, and the application layers – are impacted by the situation.
  • Support policies, which translate into how easy it is to contact support, how prompt their response time is.

Ensure your monitoring tool adjusts to your servers’ needs

Not all servers are alike. Depending on their purposes and on the needs under which they function, servers may require customized rules and individual thresholds.

Databases, in particular, require servers optimized for quick replies, even in peak times. Checkmk is suited for database monitoring and benefits from integrations with all major vendors, such as MySQL / MariaDB, MSSQL, Oracle, etc.

FAQs about server monitoring

What areas does server monitoring cover?

Server monitoring covers hardware, operating systems, network interfaces and applications, and depending on the server type additional assets like performance, uptime, hypervisors, databases, asset management, protocols, etc.

Does Checkmk provide tools for Dell Server Monitoring?

Checkmk supports several big vendors like HP, Cisco etc. and this also includes Dell server monitoring. Moreover, integrations also match common server hardware manufacturers, like IBM, HPE, or Huawei.

What is the difference between monitoring server performance and server monitoring?

Server monitoring is a broader term, which focuses on a series of key metrics, which relate to hardware, operating systems, and applications. Server performance monitoring assesses performance metrics only.

For a web server, for example, performance may translate into KPIs focused on response time, uptime, and requests per second.

While for a database server, performance KPIs might also include response time, but also throughput and hit ratios.

Physical and virtual server performance analyzes CPU utilization, memory consumption, disk I/O, and performance.

How does open source monitoring work?

Open source server monitoring tools work similarly to closed source in that they both gather metrics from endpoints to enable system administrators to gather critical information about their IT infrastructure.

However, open source monitoring tools, like all open source software, are different from closed source tools in a number of ways.

Most importantly: open source utilizes communication protocols and data schemas that are available for anyone to use and modify.

This means that open source monitoring tools are designed with flexibility and extensibility in mind. This opens up a whole new world of possibilities for users because it allows them to customize the tool to fit unique organizational processes and needs.

Open source monitoring tools can be used, for example, to implement custom checks and analysis, making them much more customizable than closed source tools.

What types of monitoring systems are available?

Monitoring systems come in 3 different versions:

Solutions installed on-premises, on separate systems in the IT infrastructure. The advantage of this solution is that organizations that use it retain control over their information.

Cloud services. Their configuration and administration are managed through web interfaces, and the service is available through a subscription which offers flexibility.

Mobile applications. While server monitoring capabilities are not provided on mobile applications, some tools offer their users access to limited dashboards and data on their smart physical devices.

What is the difference between server monitoring and server management?

Server management includes server monitoring but is not limited to it. Server management also covers update applications, security patch applications, installing a new physical device, correcting and eliminating problems. Moreover, it may also provide sufficient system resources for day-to-day requirements, like planning service capacities. Nowadays, complex server monitoring solutions support most server management tasks.