Keeping complex networks secure

In today’s interconnected world, the network is the backbone of the enterprise. Trained personnel using sophisticated network monitoring tools are required to keep complex networks secure and functioning at peak capacity.

IT staff are frequently focused on the development and support of core

business functions and may not have the in-house expertise required to analyse network traffic on the granular level.

Smaller enterprises may lack the capital budget required for sophisticated network monitoring tools. That’s why companies often contract out network monitoring, management, maintenance and security to systems integrators who specialize in the delivery of such services.

Outsourcing this vital work to experts leaves internal IT staff free to support core business applications. Companies also save on the capital costs associated with acquiring network analysis, monitoring and security tools. And mission-critical networks continue to function at peak efficiency, which is a business requirement in the era of network-dependent virtual project teams, interactive workflow, financial reports, inventory, order processing, billing and customer contact and management.

The exact cost of network downtime can be difficult to compute, but for every hour local or wide area networks are down, companies can lose thousands, even tens of thousands, of dollars. Security breaches can wreak havoc with network operations and lead to the theft or destruction of vital, often sensitive, data and to irreparable loss of customer, supplier and shareholder confidence.

In the past, systems integrators used a variety of tools to test and monitor network status, traffic issues and potential security intrusions. These tools were frequently cumbersome to carry, difficult to use and not totally effective.

For instance, due to limitations associated with a notebook’s PCMCIA network adapter driver, software-based analysers often failed to capture data packets that may be the source of network performance problems.

These analysers, used to uncover network security vulnerabilities, have to be installed on PCs or notebooks with network adapter cards then plugged into a particular network segment and configured for that segment. Imagine the configuration work involved to sniff a network with 25 segments and 1,500 users only to end up with results that are not as accurate as they should be.

After years of experience, ESI concluded that traditional software sniffing tools were not reliable enough for high-level network analysis and security monitoring.

With a head office located in Montreal and offices in Quebec City and Toronto, ESI offers a range of network and e-business infrastructure solutions for medium and large-sized organizations. Its array of solutions include network integration, computer and network security, consulting, telecommunications, data storage and information management, software development as well as after-sale service and support.

The company needed a reliable, portable, integrated tool that would allow staff to carry out advanced network analysis, including plug-and-play network sniffing for more efficient and effective network analysis, optimization and security inspection.

Using an integrated network analysis tool that combined network monitoring and troubleshooting in one device would give ESI staff a more integrated vision of networks and provide them with timely, accurate assessments of network performance, traffic and security issues.

To be effective, ESI determined an integrated network analyser would have to identify failed NIC cards and hub ports, cabling problems, overloaded network segments or switch ports, station configuration problems, broadcast storms, improperly configured switches and routers, failed or overloaded WAN segments, and line rate data capture and security issues.

It also needs to integrate direct connections to the most common 10/100/Gigabit Ethernet interfaces so separate hardware and software are not required and should support standards such as SNMP and RMON, allowing for the monitoring of existing and future network interfaces.

ESI elected to go with OptiView Integrated Network Analyser from Fluke Networks.

As its name implies, this device integrates a myriad of network analysis and test tools. These include a high performance protocol analyser, an SNMP discovery and mapping tool, an RMON2 probe and a UTP cable tester combined in Windows-based, portable unit that can be deployed as a semi-permanent monitoring station capable of supporting seven remote and browser-based monitoring sessions.

The integrated network analyser gathers pertinent information across multiple network segments without the need to manually modify device configuration properties because it allows for the monitoring of configuration of switches including utilization and errors for each port and the device attached to each port.

ESI staff can also use it to test network firewall configuration and identify and capture suspicious traffic patterns on a network to determine if network security is under attack.

Built-in configuration tools, such as telnet and Web browser, allow network engineers to update switches and routers with firmware revisions. They can also monitor the performance of wide area network links and find serious WAN problems and determine WAN link usage. This allows ESI to help clients make informed decisions when purchasing expensive WAN bandwidth.

A reporter package allows for performance audit of the network to determine baselines. That way, network expansion can be planned intelligently and network performance changes can be caught before they become crises that require expensive solutions.

Integrated network analyser tools make it easy for system integrators such as ESI to add value to network monitoring, troubleshooting and security services and provides them with a significant competitive advantage.

Using an integrated network analyser, ESI staff spend less time monitoring each network they assess and can monitor more networks overall. The company manages the unit as a technical resource, billing it and a staff person out on an hourly basis as they would bill out any consultant or engineer.

ESI expects a return on its OptiView investment within six to eight months.

ESI’s customers get an immediate return on investment because potential network technical or security issues are identified and resolved immediately to keep networks fully secure and running at peak efficiency.

Network-dependent enterprises can communicate internally or connect with suppliers and clients in a secure, robust networked environment. And that’s a critical business requirement in today’s complex, interconnected world.

Brad Masterson is Canadian product manager for Fluke Networks. He has been involved in the field of networking and network testing since 1995. He is a Certified Engineering Technologist registered with OACETT and is a member of BiCSi.

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