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Network configuration management software boosts university networking

Texas A&M University used Netcordia's network configuration and change management software to get an unruly multi-vendor network environment under control. The tool freed up the networking team to tackle multiple new projects.

By managing its infrastructure with network configuration and change management (NCCM) software, Texas A&M University has freed up its small networking team to accelerate other critical projects that were once left on the drawing board.

Willis Marti, chief information and security officer for Texas A&M, said the automated network configuration and change management of NetMRI (an NCCM tool from Netcordia) gives him a holistic view of his network. NetMRI is designed for managing the configuration of multi-vendor network environments like the university. Instead of seeing individual pieces of the network, Marti said, NetMRI shows him an overall network "health score" that gives him a high-level understanding of what is happening with the devices in his network.

NetMRI can complement the major network management systems offered by the "big four" vendors, such as HP OpenView or IBM Tivoli. Those major vendors offer competing NCCM products of their own, however. There are also plenty of smaller vendors competing in the NCCM market, such as AlterPoint.

"I've tried AlterPoint," Marti said. "I used them a few years ago. That looked just a little too complex, and it was not as reliable. They were trying to be too multi-vendor, and you had to tune it and tweak it so much."

NetMRI is easier to deploy, and Marti likes the high-level view it gives of his network.

The best thing that a network manager can be is not a bum. If [that phone] rings someone is not there saying, Willis, you did a great job today. They're saying, Willis, you bum, the network's down.
Willis Marti
CISOTexas A&M University

"Most network management tools see your network as a bunch of trees, and I want to see the forest," he said. "I don't want a list of individual routers and have to go through those."

That high-level view of the network has allowed Marti to free up his 18-person networking team to tackle the projects that had been stuck on the drawing board.

"We've accelerated deployment of our wireless LAN," Marti said. "We've gotten 10 gigabit introduced into the network core. We've been able to support a statewide optical network. We've gotten rid of some old network gear about eight months early, because it takes an engineer time to go out there and plan a replacement and do the configuration for new equipment. We have that extra engineering time now. And we're probably going to roll out IPv6 this fall."

Marti said his engineers also had time last year to work with the University of Texas at Austin to dual-home the two schools' independent Internet service providers. While Texas A&M was using Level 3 as an ISP, Austin was using Qwest. The schools collaborated to dual-home their ISPs so that neither has a single point of failure. If Qwest goes down, Austin fails over to Level 3, and if Level 3 goes down, A&M fails over to Qwest.

"We wouldn't have had the planning time to do that originally," Marti said, "because we were having to take care of the little things."

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Network engineering guide: Policy and process

By taking care of the "little things," Marti meant the daily grind of ensuring that his 90,000 edge ports scattered over 340 buildings and his 10 core routing centers were all configured properly on a daily basis. In the days before NetMRI, that configuration management was handled by a combination of paper and digital spreadsheets.

The spreadsheet approach made network debugging difficult and less robust, Marti said.

"The No. 1 problem was inconsistency in software versions and then configurations for hardware, particularly on our routers," he said. "We've probably got 150 to 200 real routers that run complex OSPS and other protocols, and as you go through day by day, sometimes you get inconsistencies. It makes debugging hard, and it might make operations fail."

NetMRI lets Marti enforce a network policy for configuration across the school's systems from one central point.

"You don't have to manually go through the systems and check them," he said. "You create a configuration template and say this is what I want. [NetMRI] will do it or come back and tell you, 'Well, this box is not configured that way or these ports have been changed.' So what that does is let me better leverage my senior engineers."

Those senior engineers can now use the bigger-picture view of the network that NetMRI gives them to pinpoint configuration problems and then send junior engineers out to deal with them. "You don't have to have your senior people dealing with every exception and doing the diagnostics," Marti said.

The Netcordia technology has also helped him demonstrate the business value of IT to the university.

"NetMRI scores are helping me give feedback to the business people," he said. "It helps me justify what I'm spending money on because it gives them a visible score for the network, and I can be pretty confident that what it says about the network is true. Instead of … bits and bytes, I can talk about reliability, operator-caused errors, and I can give them additional functionality."

"The best thing that a network manager can ever be is not a bum," Marti said. "That phone sits on my desk. If it rings, someone is not there saying, 'Willis, you did a great job today.' They're saying, 'Willis, you bum, the network's down.' So the more I can keep the phone from ringing, the better off my group is. But NetMRI gives me a bunch of statistics, so when I have to go to a bunch of meetings and they say, 'Why are you spending this much?' I can say, 'This is why.' "

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

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