Sniffing out problems

Netcordia device helps National Guard unit monitor routers and switches in far-flung network

With a network that spans the state, a small
problem such as a misconfigured switch could
quickly turn into a big problem for the information
technology staff members at
the Tennessee Army National Guard.
Even worse, once it became apparent
the network had a problem, finding
it was a time-consuming, manual
process.

With nearly 500 network devices
spread across the state, the Guard's
IT staff needed a way to automatically
sniff out problems
and identify
where they were in the network, said
Master Sgt. Earl Salazar, a network
engineer in the Tennessee Army
National Guard.

"We were just looking for a device
that could help give us an overall
view of how our network was functioning,"
Salazar said. "We needed
something to do an inventory of what we have
and to tell us the errors that were occurring
on our network. Normally, if you're sitting
behind a desk all day, you're not aware of
potential network problems."

Ultimately, Guard officials selected NetMRI,
a network management tool from Netcordia
Inc., of Annapolis, Md. Salazar oversaw the
deployment of the network-monitoring tool.

HUNTING THE PROBLEM

Before installing the NetMRI device, the
Guard occasionally had router issues it wasn't
aware of, Salazar said. Once the IT staff knew
of a problem, they had to manually examine
several routers and switches to figure out what
the problem was and where it was occurring.
That is exactly the kind of problem NetMRI
is designed to solve, said Greg
O'Connell, Netcordia's vice president
of federal operations.

"Things like misconfigured IP
addresses happen all the time,"
O'Connell said. "You fat-finger in an
IP address and get it wrong, then the
next thing you know, it is causing
problems across your entire network."

NetMRI analyzes events and
problems as they happen so network
managers can respond before the
issues seriously affect a network. It
also lets network managers automatically
collect, store and index event
data and analyze network problems
with built-in best-practices rules.

It automates network management
functions, such as resetting
user passwords and applying software
upgrades, in addition to detecting issues
for a range of technologies and applications,
including routers, subnets, voice over IP and
virtual local-area networks.

KEEPING SCORE

NetMRI's Web-based interface provides IT
managers with a score card that rates the
health of the network.

It starts with a high-level score card showing
how the network is performing
overall. The single
number indicates the health of
the network or severity of any
issues. From there, IT administrators
can probe for in-depth
detail and analysis.

The product is designed to complement
larger, more complex network management
platforms such as IBM's Tivoli NetView,
O'Connell said. Those kinds of tools focus
more on structuring the network and
automating processes.

NetMRI adds the layer of performance
management, he said.

The tool can also make changes based on
specified requirements or policies. It automatically
reports devices that are out of policy
and takes corrective actions.

For the Tennessee Guard, it's critical to
have a tool that points to where problems
might be occurring because a small IT staff
has to maintain the statewide network.
"We save a lot of time by not having to sit
down and manually search where problem
areas may be," Salazar said. "It doesn't necessarily
have to be routing issues. It can be
things like IP phone issues or audio service.
The tool gives us a generalized area ... to start
looking instead of us just arbitrarily ... hopping
through devices."

For the Guard, NetMRI does an overall
evaluation of the different areas of its network.
It looks at devices, routing protocols, configurations,
IP setups and more. Then the
score card shows the health of each of those
areas. The score can be updated on a daily or
hourly basis depending on how often scans
are conducted.

Changes in those scores give an indication
of problems that might occur in the future.
With only four people to
work on the Guard's routers
and switches, the tool helps
them keep up, Salazar said.

"You can look at the areas
where it indicates below-optimal
performance," he said.
"You can get in there, and it gets pretty granular
? down to the specific device ? and it
will tell you exactly what the error is or what
the error might possibly be."

After manually fixing the problem device,
the staff members can perform a new scan
immediately.

"If it clears the problem up, then your score
will change," Salazar said.

Doug Beizer (dbeizer@1105govinfo.com) is a staff
writer at Washington Technology.

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