In today’s stressful times, it’s difficult to get through the day without hearing news of the recession and someone offering a historical perspective and advice based on previous experience. I’m lucky enough to have a great-grandmother who’s over 100-years-old and remembers the Great Depression well enough to give a college-level class on thriftiness.

However, history isn’t much help if you’re a network manager. The last time we saw an economy like this, computer networks weren’t around yet and the idea of the Internet as we know it today was just a dream. What do you do now you’re managing a network with dwindling resources, an undertrained staff, and new technical requirements every day? You can start by implementing these five simple cost-saving practices for managing networks.

Cost-saving Practice No. 1: Manage Service Provider Costs

Although this may seem like an obvious tip, it still amazes me how many companies don’t judiciously manage contracts with their service providers. What is the easiest place to save money with service providers? Service level agreements (SLAs). If you don’t have SLAs in place with your service providers, stop reading this article, pick up the phone, and demand that SLAs be put in place.

Once you have SLAs in place, you must monitor them and make sure that vendors are meeting the goals you outlined in your contract. To do this, you’ll want to use whatever performance management system you have to monitor availability, latency, and bandwidth usage, among other measures. I’ve worked with several companies that have recouped enough money through SLA rebates from their service providers to pay for their network management system three to five times over. It’s easy money, and tight management of the SLAs gives you an advantage when it comes time to renegotiate the contracts.

Cost-saving Practice No. 2: Go Virtual, Baby

If you haven’t looked at virtualization technology recently, or if you’re under the impression that it’s not ready for prime time, think again. Virtualization technology has matured significantly in recent years and definitely gets a big “thumbs up” from this geek. Companies across the globe are saving significantly through smart use of virtualization technologies from vendors such as VMware and Microsoft.

Besides the obvious pecuniary advantage of buying less physical hardware, there are several additional advantages to virtualization. First, it’s “green,” and being green not only makes you feel good, but it can save you money.

Virtualized PCs, servers, and infrastructure consume less energy, have smaller cooling and space requirements, and help to reduce the overall carbon footprint of your data centers. Second, virtualization technology offers some great features for high-availability systems and disaster recovery. Finally, using virtualized servers and PCs can greatly reduce the amount of time required to provision and deploy new systems. In short, virtualization technology is here to stay.

Cost-saving Practice No. 3: Take Advantage of Free Tools

There are dozens of nifty free tools available. The tricky part is figuring out where to (and where not to) use them. Don’t spend time trying to leverage free software that expects you to be a Ph.D.-level expert to make it work. Remember that your time is your most valuable asset, so if the free software is consuming a great deal of your time, it has become very expensive. In my company we refer to tools like this as “free like a puppy, not free like a t-shirt,” and we’ve all been down the “puppy” road before.

A second point regarding free software deployment is that you should use it to enhance the operation of your network, not to operate the network. The last thing you need is your network to be down because a freeware application that offers no tech support leaves you holding the bag. Opt for free tools that have a strong community following or that people you know use and recommend. Looking for an example? Try

Speaking of communities …

Cost-saving Practice No. 4: Use the Community

This may very well be the most important of the five cost-saving techniques outlined here. The world of online communities has exploded, and whether you use MySpace, Facebook, Wikipedia, or Twitter, chances are that you’re a part of it. Personally, I seldom make a decision without consulting my peers within the community. Need to buy a new dishwasher? No problem — there are communities with reviews and horror and success stories just a few clicks away.

How does this play into your world as a network manager? There are online communities built especially for you that offer free advice and expertise from other people out there in the trenches. Additionally, communities are the perfect place for unbiased advice on products that you may be thinking of buying.

If you’re going to join online communities to seek help you work more efficiently while saving money, consider these tips. First, don’t try to be active within every community. Pick a few and stick with them. If you find that one of them doesn’t suit your needs, replace it with another one. Once you’ve selected the communities that you’ll participate in, be active. Participate both by taking the information you need and by contributing in the areas where you’re well-versed. This is what makes the community work.

Participating in online communities is a great way to save money and widen your sphere of influence. Before you know it, you’ll have built relationships with experts from around the globe that you can leverage in a time of need.

Cost-saving Practice No. 5: Know When It’s a Good Time to Switch Network Management Vendors

I’ve mentioned the need for good network monitoring tools. Network management tools can be your best friend or your worst enemy depending upon the solution you have, your evolving requirements, and how the vendor’s road map changes over time. If you’re faced with a forklift upgrade just to move to the next version, if your maintenance costs no longer make sense, or if the software no longer meets the majority of your technical requirements, it’s time to shop around. This is an area where you may be able to both save money and to gain significant technical advantage.

Ten years ago, network management was a goldmine for professional services firms because the software was so complicated to install, maintain, and integrate with other applications. Back then, it was difficult to make the decision to switch products and/or vendors because the transition itself was so scary. Today, the landscape is different. Leading network management companies specialize in making the software simple to install and configure, intuitive, and easily expandable to cover new technologies. If this doesn’t sound like the network management software you use, it’s time to make a switch.