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 must deploy server monitoring systems that protect servers from failures and performance issues, affecting operations and the bottom line.

In this context, we have 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 availability, operations, performance, security, and overall processes. This way, IT managers and administrators monitor the key performance indicators (KPIs) that enable them to spot and mitigate risks before they turn into serious issues for the organization.

Who is server monitoring for?

Server monitoring is for organizations of all sorts, no matter their profile or size. From large enterprises to small businesses, organizations everywhere use remote, physical servers or cloud technologies. Even the smallest companies need them to host domain-specific emails and websites, backup data, 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 typically the first line of responsibility for server monitoring. Depending on the size of the company and its infrastructure, they may be solely responsible for all tasks, or they allocate tasks among specialized team members.

Main Dashboard of Checkmk

Why is server monitoring important?

Server monitoring is important because it helps ensure the availability, reliability, performance and functionality of servers. It assesses important metrics on a 24/7 basis, which provides IT administrators and managers the necessary insights to identify potential crashes before they happen and eliminate or substantially reduce downtime. 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 always aware of metrics like CPU usage, RAM status, available disk space, and network bandwidth, which helps them grasp the complex interactions of the server landscape and see when servers are slowing down or failing. They can then take steps to avoid any negative impact on internal or external users, due to bad server health.

Server monitoring increases employee and customer retention

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

  • Employees’ workflows are not disrupted. This means they are able to perform their tasks, see results and reach their goals.
  • Customers benefit from a positive experience. They can make a purchase, verify an order’s status, or update their account information, for example.

By providing a positive experience for colleagues, partners, and customers, technology managers play their part in ensuring employee and customers retention, as well as in maintaining high productivity.

Server monitoring contributes to process automation

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

A server monitoring tool helps professionals by automatically supporting these jobs. It shows if a backup was successfully done, if software has been patched, and if the server is in good condition. This way, server monitoring eases 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 optimize human resources by reducing many associated costs.

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

The inbuilt Checkmk dashboard for Linux servers

How does server monitoring work?

Monitoring servers can be performed manually by system admins, 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 may have occurred.

Server monitoring tools replace the need for this manual work by continuously collecting system data across your entire IT infrastructure so that admins have a clear view of when certain metrics are above or below thresholds in order to anticipate server and security faults and provide context for current issues.

Server monitoring tools also automatically notify you if a critical system error has been detected, which helps admins quickly take action, even outside of normal working hours, so that nasty surprises on a Monday morning are a thing of 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 in order to monitor the 3 most important elements: the hardware, the operating system, and the applications.  

By analyzing these categories, IT professionals are able to detect and avoid performance issues and other bottlenecks.

The hardware

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

  • CPU - monitoring CPU usage to detect 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 determining 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, hardware temperatures, cooling performance, and the temperature and condition 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. These 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 that function by accessing hardware components of the server. It is critical to monitor these as well. To do so, one needs to understand the resources that each application consumes, the processes, and the server’s intended function.

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 better 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 usage; event and application logs, print jobs and queues; and directory and file systems status.

What types of servers can be monitored?

Dashboard in Checkmk for monitoring a web server

All servers can be monitored, whether they are Windows servers, Linux servers, or servers running any other OS, and whether they are located on-premises, 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 can track performance, costs and adherence to service level agreement (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 are taking an unnecessary risk. To ensure smoothly running IT processes, a 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 crucial for keeping IP-centric networks safe and stable.

File servers

File servers are a standard part of every company's infrastructure. They allow 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, which makes monitoring them 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 set up alarms as part of file server monitoring to notify if an unauthorized IP address logs in to servers or if particular data is modified.

Monitoring storage capacity is also important since employee productivity may be impacted by full hard disks or overburdened servers that are 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, for example, that all print jobs are being processed.

Mail servers

Most organizations nowadays rely heavily on mail servers, so mail server monitoring is extremely valuable. It ensures that the servers are functioning 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, and these are often a user-friendly and easy to set up an 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. This enables 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, and Proxmox monitoring as well as web server monitoring are also important monitoring possibilities that IT administrators need to consider for their priority lists to name just a few more.

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

Getting started with server monitoring

To achieve the best results, a suitable server monitoring tool needs to be deployed efficiently and professionally by 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 current time. By putting together the number of managed servers, the main users and stakeholders as well as their needs, network’s specifics, its overall vulnerabilities, and the company’s priorities, IT managers have a clear view of the company’s status and can then proceed with creating a plan.

The plan makes clear which systems are critical and how others 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 the different monitoring tasks, and having suitable approaches for individual scenarios. Checkmk is the all-in-one monitoring platform. It provides agents for all established operating systems (Windows, Linux and others)and 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 server performance 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 it 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 and 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 alerts.

A good tool provides default thresholds that show you if 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 monitoring by setting individual thresholds and, in some cases, even turning off specific notifications to avoid being overwhelmed with information that is less critical.

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 emails for messages or their phones for emergencies. Once an issue has been 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 place 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 are to do so.

If these procedures are in place, an alert is merely 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 by checking whether alerts are set up properly and that escalation rules are respected.

What are best practices for server monitoring?

Server monitoring is different from one company to another depending on the complexity of the system, priorities, objectives, and operational specifics. In this context, there is no one-size-fits-all approach that IT managers apply. Still, several examples of best practices 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 happening on 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) to automatically inventory 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, faulty 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 even though users experience errors.

Keep hardware operations in the average

As an IT administrator, you want your hardware functioning, and operating according to its specified use cases. This means that you have to pay attention to the overall CPU and RAM usage as well as CPU temperature to ensure that servers are running according to specified parameters and so that you know you may rely on the technology to support your organization’s needs. If any red flags should occur in these areas, 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 into a larger context. Metrics are more relevant when they are assessed over time because this enables you to understand operational seasonality and to 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 and for 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 continuous monitoring, during the working day and beyond, is particularly important since automated events – backups, virus scans, system updates, and database reindexing – should not occur during business hours. Only noticing failures when the business day starts means that interventions will cause operational disruptions that prevent teams from getting their work done.

Prioritize alerts

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

The best way to manage them is to prioritize them by 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 must act).

Once 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 server performance for a longer period of time, you can 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 always aware of your company's IT needs and can plan and budget accordingly.

How to find the best server monitoring tool

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

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

Graphic showing the different ways Checkmk gathers data from devices

Choose server monitoring software that is intuitive and efficient

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

Checkmk fullfills all the above. It combines data based on statuses, metrics, and logs in order to create warnings and alerts for all types of servers with minimal effort. These are visible by accessing the solution’s dashboard. Moreover, the tool enables users to make the most of the data it exports through informative graphics and reports. In addition, it offers powerful integrations: visualizing metrics in Grafana, exporting metrics to InfluxDB and ingesting APM metrics from DataDog. In this way, Checkmk ensures holistic IT monitoring by taking advantage of its various integrations and through the ability to integrate other monitoring solutions.

Checkmk is extremely easy to use, even fot inexperienced professionals and it also comes with a comprehensive manual, 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 by also taking into account hardware and human resources needs.

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

Due to its efficient architecture, Checkmk is easy to deploy and to scale. It requires minimal hardware resources and manpower, which makes it a good option for any organization, no matter the size.

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 to look for include:

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

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 well suited for database monitoring and benefits from integrations with all major vendors, such as MySQL / MariaDB, MSSQL, are Oracle.

FAQs about server monitoring

What areas does server monitoring cover?

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

Does Checkmk provide tools for Dell Server Monitoring?

Checkmk supports several big vendors like HP, Cisco and  also of course Dell server monitoring. Moreover, integrations also match common server hardware manufacturers such as IBM, HPE, and 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 that 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.

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, which makes them substantially more customizable than closed source tools.

What types of monitoring systems are available?

Monitoring systems come in three 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 that 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, and correcting and eliminating problems. Moreover, it may also provide sufficient system resources for day-to-day requirements, like planning service capacities. Nowadays, comprehensive server monitoring solutions support most server management tasks.