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Monitor your network the thrifty way

For those who have deep pockets and abundant IT resources, have fun buying those big-vendor network management packages. For the rest of us, here are some frugal choices.

For those with abundant IT resources and an acceptable budget, the big-vendor network-management packages such as HP OpenView (HPOV) or Tivoli may be the right choice. However, many buy these pricey management suites based on their many bells and whistles, much like buying an expensive car because of its sunroof, CD player, speakers, and cup holders. According to a recent survey by Coleman Consulting of New York City, most organizations only use about 30 percent of a product’s feature set. Once installed, few tinker with advanced features.

You want to keep costs down when adding network management software, and we want to help. We’ll focus on two areas: what to look for during the purchasing process; and a selection of open-source/inexpensive tools you can deploy rapidly on a limited budget.

Purchasing prudence

When you are buying software, especially management software, filter out those parts of the sales presentation that are not specific to your needs. If all you need is mapping, red/green icons, and notification of failures, don’t let a salesperson sell you on advanced trap filtering or event correlation features.

Another good way to trim costs is to choose out-of-the-box products whenever possible. But beware of being told during sales presentations that the system can do it via an API. Too much scripting or customization can lead to the deployment of unwieldy tools that respond poorly to changes within the network.

When it comes to reporting, too, focus on the basics. Pay most attention to reports that cover: utilization of resources such as bandwidth, CPUs, memory, hard drives, etc.; response time of resources such as servers, applications, and network devices; uptime of resources such as servers, applications, and network devices.

If a database is required for your management software, request the schema and make sure data is easily exportable. Two years after the purchasing decision, you might be changing systems again, and you might need to export the data to a new system.

Similarly, keep an eye out for the little things. For example, if an IP address is added or removed, you want to be certain that updates will cascade throughout the application. If you don’t, you could be in for a lot of extra work.

Integration is another important area. Can your management suite integrate well with other tools? Does the ticketing system, for example, open and close tickets based on HPOV or WhatsUp Gold events? Is the back-end open and well documented so that reports can be generated with Crystal, Perl, Access, or Visual Basic? Can the reporting software be fed IP addresses from HPOV, WhatsUp Gold, or Unicenter? And even in a suite of tools from the one company, watch out for integration woes. You’d be surprised how often individual tools within one suite integrate poorly.

Exaggerated claims, of course, should be taken with a pinch of salt. Some tools claim to isolate the exact situation right down to a specific link, application or user. Rarely does this ever work out. A good rule of thumb is that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Or else you will have to recruit and train a team of ten to make the package do what the sales person said it would.

Tools to keep costs down

A wealth of free and very inexpensive management tools exists to use in maintaining system performance and uptime. Here are a few examples:

— MySQL: An excellent freeware SQL database backend.

— Multi Router Traffic Grapher (MRTG): An open-source tool written in Perl and C that generates HTML pages containing GIF images to provide a live visual presentation of network traffic.

— RRDTool: This freeware tool created by Tobi Oetiker is the next generation of MRTG. It is more powerful and scales better. RRDTool collects data fast, as it is not labored with building the same graphics as MRTG.

— OStivity: This tool is offered free for a site up to 50 users by Somix Technologies Inc. It identifies and inventories hardware/software components from workstations and servers through Web-based reporting.

— VNC (Virtual Network Computing): A freeware program from AT&T Research Labs UK that works with 30 different operating systems. It is used for desktop remote control for help desk calls.

— Cricket: A free, more scalable version of MRTG for monitoring network traffic loads.

— WhatsUp Gold: For less than $1,000, Ipswitch Inc.’s WhatsUp Gold is an excellent network monitoring and alarm system that works very well in the small and mid-sized market. It includes realistic network renditions, a good SNMP viewer and a comprehensive performance management reporting module. You can easily filter through events and locate the log data for any type of network event by searching on event type, IP address, or device name. You can also use it to track variables associated with any port on a network device. For instance, you can track bandwidth or CPU utilization on any device.

— TCPNetView: This freeware product created by Alexander P. Gorlach determines the IP and MAC addresses of computers and devices on a LAN.

— NetSaint: Monitors hosts and services, such as SMTP, Post Office Protocol 3, HTTP, Network News Transport Protocol, and ping, on a network. It can send an email or a page when problems arise.

— Qcheck: A free utility that runs at a user’s desktop and identifies performance problems, such as response time, throughput, availability, and lost packets.

— Sysmon: This public domain tool created by Jared Mauch monitors host-based services and devices, such as mail and news servers.

— Denika: A Web-based capacity and resource trending tool that integrates with WhatsUp Gold. Denika automates and provides up to 500 indicator reports on bandwidth consumption/availability, disk space usage, CPU/memory utilization, email servers, custom applications, etc. Available from Somix for $795.

— Ping Scanner: Where ping sends an echo request to let you know if one device can reach another over a network, Ping Scanner shareware sends requests to one address many times or many addresses one time.

— Sam Spade: A tool set for testing different Windows utilities. Includes ping, lookup, whois, and other query-oriented tools.

— Loriot: A free network node manager for Windows.

— Net-snmp: A free set of software tools that deal specifically with the SNMP protocol and managing SNMP devices. This agent allows MRTG and Denika users to graph CPU, memory, hard drive space, etc., on various operating systems (e.g., UNIX, NT, etc.)

— Sec: A free event correlater.

— SHAMAN: A free tool, Spreadsheet-based Hierarchical Architecture for Management (SHAMAN) is software designed to provide network management by distributing management functions based on the nature and urgency of the task.

Small apps for small companies

On the surface, you might expect that the arrival of all these cheap or free tools would mean that everyone would deploy them and the sales of the larger network management packages would crash.

This has not happened for two reasons: One, large network management packages such as CA Unicenter are probably the only products that scale well enough to monitor massive government and Fortune 100 networks that span the globe. Two, as many of these tools lack integration and support, many organizations are reluctant to deploy them.

Fortunately, this appears to be changing due to the emergence of commercial vendors building network management platforms that support open-source tools. Companies like NetBotz, MySQL, Somix, Random Minds, and Red Hat are harnessing these free tools to provide robust and low cost network management.

WebNM, for example, is a suite of software products for managing and controlling network assets. It utilizes a MySQL database, RRDTool, WhatsUp Gold and VNC in order to give IT managers the proactive tools they need to adequately manage the network.

Michael Patterson has a Master’s Degree in Computer Information Systems and is president of Somix Technologies, based in Sanford, Maine >www.somix.com

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