COMPUTER BUSINESS REVIEW

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Issue Date: May 2003 (es)

Keeping your packets in check

May 2003
Andrew Seldon, feature editor

No matter how fast, how modern, how wired or wireless and what technology a company has installed; someone, somewhere is going to complain about the network, bandwidth or accessibility.

Over the last decade or two, corporations have seen amazing increases in the abilities of their networks. From proprietary systems that once only worked with particular systems, the network is now probably the poster boy of the open standards movement.
Today, there is little to differentiate a network apart from the number of packets it can transmit and the medium (copper or fibre). Most of the world has adopted TCP/IP as the protocol of choice - helped along by the Internet - and this has created a standard and a way to add value to the network by managing it better. Controlling which packets are transmitted, which have a higher priority and other management functions has become critical to the smooth running and effective utilisation of networks.
Of course, not only do IT administrators have to manage internal networks, but also the wide area networks (WANs) that link branch offices and even the 'free' Internet that absorbs so much of employees' time and devotion.
Logging the logs
While many people are arguing about maintaining privacy and anonymity on the Net, corporations need to ensure their bandwidth is well utilised - for business purposes and not for surfing and other personal projects. Managers also need to ensure the Internet is not used for abusive purposes, which could reflect badly on the company.
This could be as simple as using a log analyser to scan Web logs (the logs all systems keep of surfing habits) and determine Web traffic. Says Frank Appunn, managing director at SourceTech, "Web servers, proxy servers and firewalls create a record of the traffic and requested information they handle in a log file, recording every request that the server receives, errors, processing time, bandwidth used, visitor IP address, where the visitor came from, and much more.
"Every entry in the log file represents a separate request that the server received, the response to that request, and how long it took to reply. The log file written by the Web server contains an abundance of data, but is of no use to your business unless you can see and interpret that data in a meaningful manner."
Frank Appunn: managing director at SourceTech
Frank Appunn: managing director at SourceTech
An example of how to take this data and, without requiring database work on the part of administrators and managers, controlling all Internet access could be NetIQ's WebTrend Log Analyzer 8.0. Appunn says WebTrend collects data from all kinds of log files and presents it in an easy-to-read graphical format that can be quickly read, understood and acted upon.
Man the WAN
For the best WAN and LAN connectivity, the management options range from prioritising certain packets to even banning some. On the other hand, using the latest technologies should be encouraged and cannot be banned outright.
Caroline Wyly, account manager at Compuware SA says that it is important to implement an effective WAN management structure and use tools, which enable a company to assess when and why WAN bandwidth is being used.
Caroline Wyly, account manager at Compuware SA
Caroline Wyly, account manager at Compuware SA
Traditionally, WAN measurement tools fall into three groups: media-, device- and packet-focused.
Media-focused tools are important for analysing the physical infrastructure of a LAN/WAN. They are essentially used to find problems such as a break in a wire, signal loss from bad connections and other issues that could be affecting the network itself.
Assisting network teams in their day-to-day maintenance of infrastructure, device-focused tools keep track of router, switches and nodes on a network, sending out warnings if these components are unhealthy.
Lastly, packet-focused tools are used to capture data packets as they flow across a link. These tools are among the most commonly used by network teams and can, for example, find problems in lower-level network protocols such as network cards.
However, to effectively manage 'bandwidth budget', Wyly adds, network teams need a tool that focuses on the higher application level.
"An application-focused tool is significantly different from tools traditionally used to analyse a corporate WAN," says Wyly.
"Instead of providing analysis of media, infrastructure or protocol, application-focused tools are designed to analyse the flow of applications over a link."
Application-focused tools deal directly with the concept of WAN bandwidth budget, gathering historical data from the WAN and analysing the 'who, what, where, when and how much' of network usage.
In addition, by showing this type of data, the networking team can assess who is using the WAN link and whether it is being used for business or non-business purposes.
Compuware's NetworkVantage has the ability to deliver comprehensive WAN usage information. It collects application data 24x7 and analyses it on a daily basis, after which it is stored on an MS-SQL database.
Managing next generation applications
Anton van Bers, Nortel Networks' product manager at Comztek, says the ability of enterprises to manage their networking infrastructure is critical for the delivery of next generation applications.
"Organisations must adopt operational models and tools that provide a secure and reliable infrastructure for enabling technologies such as IP telephony and video. Ensuring these tools provide for a reduction in operational complexity will achieve a more cost-effective solution," he says.
"The new Nortel Enterprise Network and Service Management solution, for example, will enable businesses to simplify management of converged services like streaming video and IP telephony, while enhancing security in a centralised, integrated manner.
The Enterprise Network and Service Management solution features tools that allow network managers to monitor, visualise and troubleshoot even the most complex communications infrastructure, positioning them to drive enhanced network reliability and performance.
The solution also features proven policy management and Quality of Service (QoS), allowing network managers to prioritise communications traffic and services so that critical data can be delivered to the right people at the right time.
Dispersing your problems
If you happen to be a bank or a Dimension Data, keeping the staff on board to handle these management issues would be part of the normal business process. For the rest of the world, getting experienced, competent staff can be a problem. This is where the outsourcing of your network management can solve many problems - or at least make them someone else's problems.
It is a tired, old saying, but outsourcing technical problems enables the outsourcee to focus on running their business while the outsourcing company focuses on its, and makes sure the connectivity is there.
Edwin Thompson, UUNet legal and regulatory director, says the trend to managed outsourcing has been developing for a while and is related to the brain drain and the ability to find resources. "It is about companies sticking to their knitting."
Thompson adds that outsourcing usually happens in the mid-range networks. "Simple networks are usually handled by the company or a system integrator, and the top-end systems - such as those the banks run - are handled in-house."
When outsourcing the management of a network, it is not having the cables in place that count, but having the packets flowing - uptime, throughput and bandwidth utilisation are the measure of a network. As noted above, no matter how well the network is running, someone is always going to complain about it, therefore a well-crafted service level agreement (SLA) is critical to both parties in an outsourcing agreement.
"There is peace of mind and value in letting someone else manage your problems," Thompson notes. Companies need to look at their problem areas in their networks when outsourcing, set up an SLA with penalties for non-performance and then take a hands-off approach.
Compuware SA's Wyly says an SLA is a valuable tool that sets the parameters for acceptable performance from a network service provider. However, the establishment of an SLA brings with it its own challenges - those of setting and then managing the various metrics that determine the level of performance, and finally addressing any shortfalls.
"The first step to establishing a realistic SLA begins with determining the IT services requirements of the end users," says Wyly. "What is to be monitored in terms of the SLA must be decided, and baselines should be established. Thereafter, appropriate communication and reporting channels must be determined, and business users should be educated on problem escalation procedures."
Just as the field of networking is vast and complex, the management of networks is also a complex field that requires complex skills and, above all, experience. Experience is perhaps the key, since, as with much of IT, sometimes technology seems to do things the way it wants to, seemingly oblivious of the way it is supposed to function.
It is the collective experience gained by outsourcing companies that make their services more appealing (and hopefully effective) for corporates that want to pass their packet problems to someone else. Although it is a marketing cliché by now, an effective outsourcing programme governed by a well-designed SLA does allow a business to concentrate on its core competencies and relieves it of the curse of fighting with its own IT.
For more information contact SourceTech on 011 885 3211 or Compuware SA on 011 516 2900.
D-View 5.1 SNMP Network Management System from D-Link
The latest addition to D-Link's networking product range is the D-View 5.1 SNMP Network Management System - a comprehensive standards-based management tool designed to centrally manage critical network characteristics such as availability, responsiveness, resilience and security in a consistent way.
"This flexible and versatile software accommodates a wide range of new D-Link and third-party devices," says D-Link South Africa branch manager Attie Pienaar. These include wireless bridges and access points, multilayer switches, remote routers and multitenant broadband CO devices.
"In addition, D-View provides useful tools to allow users to effectively manage device configurations, fault tolerance, performance, security and accounting services."
Using modular architecture, D-View is organised into a vendor-independent platform and user plug-in modules. The platform consists of five main components - the alarm/trap manager, discovery/parsing, MIB utilities, Internet tools and the user account manager. "Plug-in modules are for the devices that users want to manage," explains Pienaar. "When a device is selected to manage, D-View will look for that device's plug-in module and display it on the screen."
Macsteel upgrades its WAN and DR network
Macsteel has successfully upgraded and consolidated the Macsteel Services Centre SA wide area network (WAN) and disaster recovery network.
The implementation includes dual Catalyst 6500 switches, 3660 DC routers, 1751 edge routers, a single Pix 515 unrestricted Firewall, Cisco Intrusion Detection Blades for the 6500 Catalyst switches and Cisco Works 2000 - the Cisco Routed WAN network management system.
By streamlining and upgrading the network, Macsteel Services Centre SA is reducing costs, number of data lines, hardware expenses and improving efficiencies. Dennis Sterley, IS director, operational support and infrastructure at Macsteel Corporate Services says, "By standardising on one technology vendor, the organisation is able to keep the IT support personnel head count and training to a minimum as the technical skills required by the company are greatly reduced. The consolidation on Cisco products offers other benefits such as the improved speed of network repairs due to the systems management tools being able to communicate with all elements of the network and relay this information to the support team."
Macsteel had found that it had outgrown its legacy networks and was being restricted by the limitations of the system. The new network has been built with the future in mind. Dimension Data has designed the architecture to ensure that we can include technologies such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and supply chain management solutions, once the company is ready to expand its current functionality.


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