For more than a year, three wiring closets were giving network engineers at Western Iowa Tech Community College (WITCC) fits.
Each closet had a stack of Extreme Networks switches that would give out random errors and kick users off the network. Although the school's IT department had a collection of management and monitoring tools, such as Extreme's management platform and WhatsUp Gold, engineers could never isolate the problems.
Then the institution installed NetCure Enterprise from Rocket Software. The tool crawls and models the network and provides real-time visibility up and down the OSI stack. It also maps and monitors connectivity from the network core all the way to hosts, whether they are connected via wire or wireless.
"Within the first month of deployment, we had identified [the problems]," said Monti Molzen, network engineer at WITCC. "One ended up being a switch stack initialization error. Another one, one switch in a stack of seven would randomly reboot itself without any notification and kick all the users off. The third problem was in a stack of five [switches] -- the fourth and third switch would trade numbers. They would reboot and one of them would try to be master. So we would have random issues and those closets, things that -- even if you visually inspected or logged into them -- you couldn't catch because they still showed up in numerical order. You physically had to catch it, which was next to impossible."
Consolidating management tool kit with NetCure
When WITCC's IT organization was getting ready to refresh its campus network, CIO Mike Logan decided he needed to improve his management kit. His team needed better insight into how the current network was being used before it replaced aging equipment.
"Trying to get seven or eight different products to report through one structure and show us any kind of graphical reference of our infrastructure was like standing in a supermarket blindfolded and picking out one jar," Logan said. "Throughout my career, I've been frustrated by all these products and their inability to go across boundaries and be a true information source so that I could know what was going on. I was looking for a way to understand and make more intelligent and data-driven decisions."
Logan took a shot with NetCure, an all-in-one management platform with agentless Layer 2-7 auto-discovery and topology mapping, event filtering, event correlation and rule-based management policy configuration. NetCure gave Logan's department visibility into everything after a little customization by Rocket's engineering team, which at WITCC's request added support for Aruba Networks' wireless LAN products and WatchGuard's firewalls.
"Within three days of turning it up, I was able to see individual endpoints on most of my switches," Molzen said.
NetCure paid for itself almost immediately, Logan said.
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"We had a project underway to replace some aging switches," he said. "We had 7,000 ports on campus and we immediately eliminated close to $120,000 worth of switch replacements based on discovering 2,000 ports that were not needed."
Logan's predecessors had used a grant 12 years ago to light up every Ethernet jack on campus, even though not all of them needed to be live. Logan said the project leaders at the time didn't realize how much it would cost to have so many redundant jacks.
"Rather than label them and then move the port to the jack that they needed, they just made them all live," he said. "So every office had four jacks and only one is in use."
When it came time to plan a switch refresh, Logan wanted to know which ports were redundant. He hired some techs to come and map the jacks to ports. After three months, they had identified one closet. "Within 10 minutes of bringing NetCure up, we had identified every single one on the college campus."
NetCure provides evidence for tech support run-around
The improved visibility with NetCure has also given WITCC's engineers the information they need to deal with vendors and service providers.
"We have a SharePoint system we use as a portal for students and employees," Molzen said. "We were having resource issues with one of the servers and we couldn't figure out why."
The integrator that had set up the system kept insisting that the load balancer for the system was properly distributing traffic across three SharePoint servers, she said. For nearly a year they couldn't find the problem, but then NetCure was able to show how many users were accessing each server and the problem became obvious.
"We thought it was load balancing across all three servers, but it turns out we were only load balancing across two of them. One server was dedicated for just employees," she said. "I could show a dashboard that indicated I have 1,390 users on one server, 218 on another and 420 on the third."
NetCure also allowed Molzen to prove to an Internet service provider that she wasn't getting the bandwidth she was paying for.
"We had dual Internet providers," she said. "We were losing one of the providers. They [sold] us 140 Mbps, but they were delivering less than 5 Mbps to our campus. It was frustrating. They kept bouncing us around. I had Rocket data that I showed to them. I said, 'I have you and then it drops.' It took seven or eight hours on the phone, but we finally got it resolved."
NetCure improves user and IT relations
Finally, NetCure's Web-based dashboards provided yet another benefit for the school: as a good public relations tool, Logan and Molzen said.
IT placed monitors in student centers to display data about network activity. "Our customers, mostly students just out of high school, get a kick out of seeing how many Android phones are on campus versus iPhones. It generates interest in IT that wasn't there before," Logan said. "How much bandwidth are we consuming? Oh, we're using that much? There is value to that, because for once they can see some of the things that go on behind the scenes to make their experience successful."