Capacity management is becoming a top priority for network managers as the economy continues to put pressure on enterprise budgets. But capacity management is easier said than done.
Capacity management is the process that network managers use to ensure that there are enough ports on the network to connect all networked devices within the enterprise. In the past, network managers have solved capacity management problems by simply buying more ports and switches, according to Glenn O'Donnell, senior analyst with Forrester Research.
Today, network managers don't have the option just to buy more switches to add capacity, O'Donnell said. They can't buy new equipment right now, so they need to understand where they have unused capacity.
"In general, we in IT tend to operate in a high degree of sloppiness," he said. "That's starting to change with things like ITIL and such, but people didn't track this kind of stuff before. They just thought, 'It's there. It's accessible. We don't have to worry about it.'"
Now, network managers need to take a more systematic approach to assessing port capacity, O'Donnell said.
"I've been in this business a long time," he said, "and every time a downturn happens, capacity planning rises to the top of people's priorities."
Comprehensive capacity planning requires that network managers have an accurate count of how many ports they have on the network. More importantly, they must have an accurate understanding of how many of those ports are being used.
The answer to the question of how many ports a company has might be buried in a pile of spreadsheets on someone's desktop. But that spreadsheet usually isn't a live document. Ports come and go. Their locations change. Having an accurate count can be a challenge. An accurate assessment of how many of those ports are being used is even tougher to get.
"When you first build out an infrastructure, you wire everything out," O'Donnell said. "Every desk gets a cable to it, and that cable is plugged into a switch port somewhere. But then people move around, and those ports can become physically disconnected in a closet, or they just sit there unused."
This week, Infoblox, a vendor of core network services products, released PortIQ, a network appliance that automatically polls network infrastructure and builds an inventory of the number of network ports an organization has. In addition, PortIQ can provide real-time and historical analysis of just how many ports are being used. It also uses Infoblox's existing IP address management (IPAM) technology to identify which devices and which IP addresses are connected to which network ports.
"PortIQ uses a series of techniques and protocols that include some vendor proprietary protocols, like Cisco Discovery Protocol [CDP] and others," said Richard Kagan, Infoblox vice president. "You point it at the first switch you know about, and it will walk your infrastructure and find every device that's connected. Once it finds all the switches, it uses other protocols like SNMP to query each and every one and report on the status of every port on every switch."
Once PortIQ has completed this discovery phase, it will poll the switch ports at regular intervals to determine whether they are being used. Over time, the network manager can see how many ports he has and how many are being used.
"That's really important when there is so much pressure on capital expenditures," Kagan said. "Does it really make sense to be buying the next 48-port switch when you have hundreds or even thousands of spare ports that are available, but you just don't have visibility into them?"
It is important to have both a real-time and historical perspective for capacity management, Kagan said, because a snapshot of port usage won't necessarily tell a network manager how many surplus ports he has. For instance, a critical device might only connect to a network port once a month. A network manager might look at a snapshot of port usage and assume that the port is available to connect another device to the network. When the latter device attempts to make its monthly connection, it is locked out of the network, creating a serious disruption of service.
In addition to improved capacity management, Kagan said, PortIQ improves troubleshooting and network security.
"You routinely get alerts that there is a security problem," he said. "Your IDS or IDP will say, 'Here's an IP address that's putting out bad packets.' Where do you go to find out where that thing is connected? In this case, you get an alert from a firewall. What do you do? You have to go out and query all the switches and routers and talk to them and find out their network management port. You have to find out which IP addresses are connected to which ports. This type of thing can take hours. With PortIQ, you type in the IP address and it will return the port that the device is on, and you can take action."
O'Donnell said many vendors offer technology that can discover and understand ports on a network, but most vendors haven't moved forward and provided much intelligence around those capabilities.
"I think the real innovation from Infoblox is they're coupling together [port information] with their address management products and actually doing capacity analysis," he said. "The technology has been available to [network managers] in many forms, but it's required them to do some of the 'adult assembly required.' There hasn't been a whole lot of will to do [capacity management] before."
PortIQ is available now. It comes in two versions. The IPAM Connector version, which synchronizes data with Infoblox's IP Address Management technology, starts at $14,995. The Capacity Planner version, which includes the IPAM Connector and a capacity management application, starts at $32,495.
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