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Integrating edge assets into networks can cut costs

Properly managing integrated edge assets can save time and prevent headaches for network administrators.

Bringing edge assets -- everything from RFID chips to security cameras -- into an enterprise network can provide a wealth of data and substantial cost savings, but it also increases the network's complexity exponentially.

Instead of dozens of routers, switches and computers, network administrators now have to deal with hundreds, even thousands, of peripheral communicating devices that often use different protocols and process different types of data.

"When people have been talking about networking, there is an increasing focus on devices," said Patrick Esposito, president of networking management provider Augusta Systems.

He said his company was increasingly seeing data from once-closed-circuit security cameras and access control devices, such as door locks, be routed through the networks rather than being in a closed loop.

That data integration can provide great benefits, such as triggering a security camera to record when a door is open, but it also comes at the cost of greater challenges.

Proper network management becomes critical in orchestrating these environments.

Fortunately, there are a few best practices and tools that can make it easier to manage small devices and harness their full potential.

Jamie Lerner, CEO of system monitoring provider CITTIO, said networking requirements were evolving, and remote management is now a key goal.

"Four years ago, the typical requirements you would hear from a CIO were: 'I have a whole bunch of servers, and I have some applications that need to be monitored if something happens to them,' " Lerner said. "Now, for every one piece of equipment in the data center, we're seeing several edge devices outside the data center."

These include cash registers, scanners, and hundreds of other devices that used to be self-contained solutions. In a retail environment, Lerner said, seven to ten IP-connected devices per store is not uncommon.

The problem is that many of these environments are without a full-time IT staff to keep things running, even as devices are confronted with "real world" obstacles the data center seldom sees: Spilled coffee on the point-of-sale terminal or a battery outage in a scanner are two tamer examples of what could happen.

"It's just a rougher environment," Lerner said. Without an easily deployable, efficient monitoring and maintenance solution, the cost of keeping these devices running properly could far outweigh the low cost of the devices themselves.

Lerner gave some guidelines about what network administrators should have in their solutions.

Firstly, does it meet relevant compliance standards? These will vary by industry (and from public to private sector), but administrators must first assess which compliance practices they must follow, what information needs to be retained and how it must be secured.

Secondly, any solution must provide at least basic fault management. Regularly pinging devices and checking their status is key, but so is making sure that a device that thinks it is fully operational actually is.

Finally, proactive management is paramount. Lerner said that it is important to collect data that can predict choke points.

"I need some more data than just: 'Is it up or down?' " he said. "How much bandwidth is that store consuming? How full are the hard drives in the point-of-sale units?"

By regularly checking on resource depletion, the danger of sudden critical failure can be somewhat mitigated.

Complicating matters, Lerner said, is the fact that most standard network management tools are ill-equipped to handle -- and make sense of -- all the data these devices provide. A cash register that can update the network on its capacity status is of little use if the management tools do not know how to ask for that information and then process it.

Augusta's Esposito said that another key was managing what information is sent and when, and making sure the networks were ready to handle the extra burden. Particularly with video, handling the extra bandwidth and processing requirements can be a challenging task in its own right.

Esposito said that Augusta had worked with a college campus in updating its security deployment. One key discussion was between the police department and the campus IT. To help reduce the burden, for example, security footage was not sent unless certain criteria were met: Either it was requested on the management end, or certain conditions flagged it to be sent on site.

Solutions provided by companies like CITTIO and Augusta work to fill that information retrieval and processing gap. By keeping a strong focus on edge assets, they are able to accept input from a wide variety of devices, either using the increasingly adopted SNMP standard or by extending their software's functionality to pull the data in whatever fashion is native to the device.

Key to CITTIO's approach is what Lerner explains as intelligent automation. He said that complete automation had a justifiably bad name, as self-correcting devices often set off a cascade of failures throughout a network.

By developing tools that standardize and automate common, routine tasks, however, the economies of scale are taken advantage of, and updating 10,000 devices with current security patches is not quite as Herculean a task as it would otherwise be.

"If someone had to go store by store, location by location, updating all these devices, they would never get done," Lerner said.

The need for tools to manage edge assets is likely to continue to grow, particularly with the proliferation of RFID and with the efficiency and speed benefits that a fully integrated approach brings. Esposito said that between now and 2010, an estimated 4 million complex network implementations will be deployed.

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