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Network monitoring gets video game touch

Network monitoring vendor NetQoS has created a tool that monitors the network using video game-like graphics and sounds to highlight problems on the network.

Network monitoring and performance management tools are a down-to-business lot that show graphs, charts, reports and other statistics about how traffic is traversing the network. But what if monitoring tools got a 3D kick and incorporated slick, video game-like graphics and sound effects to alert IT of problems on the network?

Sounds a bit goofy, but it just might work.

NetQoS, maker of tools like SuperAgent and ReporterAnalyzer, recently announced its latest creation: Netcosm, a 3D graphical representation of the network and the traffic that traverses it. It uses video game-style graphics, resembling something out of the futuristic 1980s movie Tron or early incarnations of popular games like Doom or Quake.

Steve Harriman, NetQoS vice president of marketing, said a product like Netcosm, which has not yet been released but is viewable as an online demo, targets a younger generation of networking pros who are used to the graphics and sound effects of gaming.

"They can look at it, and they sort of get it," he said. "The metaphor is pretty straightforward."

Netcosm puts graphics where text-based reports and 2D graphs once were. Both Harriman and Netcosm creator Mike Johns are quick to note that Netcosm is not a replacement for other network monitoring and performance management tools, but it could be considered a different way to obtain and digest information at a glance.

For example, while viewing Netcosm, you see dropped packets ejected from the stream and detonating into a ball of fire. Servers that are struggling under the load begin to smoke, and, if the struggle continues, they catch fire. Along with the visuals, audio can also keep networking pros informed of what's on the network. Exploding packets make a noticeable boom and the fire crackles. If the crackling or explosions become frequent, then something's wrong.

"When you hear things exploding, there's probably a good chance that you have something to look at," Harriman said.

Netcosm allows users to move around and zoom in on particular parts of the network, or even to one specific server. Zooming out gives a look at the entire network. Harriman said the controls will be familiar to gamers.

According to Johns, NetQoS product research engineer, Netcosm came about almost by accident during work on a research project using 3D graphics.

"It's always a struggle to represent as much as we can [with network monitoring tools]," he said. "Now we're able to represent a lot of different metrics and present them simultaneously."

Harriman said Netcosm could also help ease recent college grads into a career in networking because they are likely to have a solid understanding of video games and how they're played. Applying game knowledge to IT could be a recipe for success, he said.

"It could be that this is a taste of things to come," he said, noting that other networked tools may also take a video game-like approach in the near future.

Netcosm is still in the early stages and is not widely available, Harriman said, but he foresees it as a downloadable program that allows network managers and operations teams to plug in the data they want to view and how they want to see the network represented.

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It may also be a better way to present findings to higher-level executives who lack a technical background, Harriman said.

Johns, who notes that he's been a gamer for years, said he envisions Netcosm working in concert with SuperAgent to give networking pros a thorough view of the network. He added that monitoring the network is somewhat similar to gaming in that you tell the program what to do and it produces results.

"When you're playing games, you're learning to process a lot of information at once," Johns said. "You're learning to use a system based on the feedback it gives you. It becomes about pattern detection. You can detect a change in the ordinary sound and motion."

Carl Duhnoski, director of IT operations at PSS World Medical, watched the demo and was "blown away" -- no pun intended.

PSS World Medical has used NetQoS products for the past 10 months, Duhnoski said, summing up the value of a tool like Netcosm with the adage, "A picture is worth a thousand words."

Duhnoski, who said he was raised on Space Invaders, said adding in the "sexiness" of 3D, video game-style graphics not only adds a little glitz to IT but, "on a psychological level, it brings familiarity to users."

"There's just an ease with which you can understand this," he said. "It's like watching the final scene in Star Wars. You just get it. You can watch this part of the data center killing that part of the data center and it makes perfect sense. If I see something on fire, that's always bad."

Along with being useful, a tool like Netcosm could simply be fun just to watch, Duhnoski added. He said being able to watch data fighting against itself is not only cool, but useful.

"When was the last time we had a tool in IT that interested us with its aesthetic nature?" he asked.

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