With a network that fundamentally changes from week to week, a large convention center and hotel ditched spreadsheets and whiteboards and implemented network configuration management and IP address management tools. Now, the hotel's networking team can be much more responsive to change requests and trouble tickets.
The Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center in Kissimmee, Fla., hosts some of the largest conventions in the country, and each show has its own requirements for network service, according to Johniel Marrero, the hotel's network specialist. Some convention organizers even build and design their own networks and ask the Gaylord Palms to provide an Internet link. Other show organizers will expect the hotel's staff to build and manage the network.
Even with these complicated systems, the hotel‘s network configuration management and IP address management tools were very manual, Marrero said. He used CiscoWorks for IOS upgrades and configuration backups. For network configuration management, IP address management (IPAM), DHCP addresses and DNS, his staff took more of a piecemeal approach.
"We were using four different [processes]," he said. "The first was email -- virtual paperwork for communicating information. We'd sit down with a convention guest and come up with the specs … and design a network around that. Then we would use whiteboards so that our guys could have a quick, easy look [at the network]. Then [we'd] keep a spreadsheet with all the information somewhat organized so that it wasn’t just in a bunch of emails and on the whiteboard. Finally, we would input all this information into our internal CRM [customer relationship management software]."
The hotel's approaches to DHCP and DNS were similarly piecemeal, Marrero said. It relied on its Internet service provider BellSouth to provide DNS services. DHCP was handled by the hotel's Cisco-based core switches. But core-based DHCP management added complexity and inflexibility.
"If we had a situation where a [conference] ran out of IP addresses, what can you do? We would have to reconfigure the core," he said. "We'd have to break up subnets. There were some long nights where we would have to reconfigure the whole network. And once we started adding more complexity to the network, adding wireless LAN and broadband wireless service providers, it was just too much."
To get more control and visibility over changes to the hotel's network, Marrero deployed the network configuration management product NetMRI from Netcordia, which was subsequently acquired by Infoblox. Not long after that, the hotel also bought Infoblox's IP address management tools to consolidate and automate DHCP, DNS and IPAM.
The Infoblox IPAM solution has made it so that Marrero's organization can ditch the spreadsheets, emails and whiteboards, and plug all of the information into the IPAM system. This helps the organization dynamically provide IP addresses according to need -- and avoid cutting users off randomly.
In the past, the hotel would set up subnets or VLANs for a conference with a certain allocation of IP addresses based on the conference customer's own specs. However, if the conference's organizers underestimated the number of devices running, a subnet would run out of IP addresses and exhibitors, and conference attendees would be cut off from the network. This became an even bigger issue once conferences started supplying free Wi-Fi to attendees. The networking team would set up a subnet with only six or eight ports for a wireless LAN, which would start handing out DHCP addresses and Internet connections to users. The wireless LAN would run out of ports pretty quickly, and lots of attendees would be cut off. With the Infoblox product, Marrero was able to shift all of those wireless users into a VLAN with a dynamic supply of IP addresses.
Additionally, NetMRI has improved Marrero's ability to analyze the root cause of service and performance issues. Using SNMP polling, NetMRI is able to track changes to the network that might cause outages. The product can infer whether devices on the client side are causing the problem. It can also determine if there's a bigger issue at play.
"We once had a conference customer who was having issues with streaming media and was complaining that our network was down," he said. "I was able to show them [with NetMRI] that the network was fine and that the problem was with BellSouth. It was great to be able to pull a canned report showing that we were fine."
NetMRI will improve even more now that it will be integrated with Infoblox’s real-time IP address management tools. The integrated version of the two products will extend NetMRI’s reach beyond SNMP-capable devices and offer real-time visibility. Typically, SNMP polling-based technology has long intervals between polls, in order to avoid putting too much load onto the network.
"Infoblox [IPAM] grabs your MAC addresses and gives you DHCP addresses, so now you can pass that information into NetMRI … and go to a port and know what device is connected. On the [hotel side] of the network, [this visibility] hasn't been a problem because I have SNMP strings to our laptops and desktops. But on the [conference] side, unless they have public or private generic SNMP strings, [NetMRI] isn't really going to see what's connected there. With IPAM integration, it's going to be undisputable that we have a particular device connected to this particular interface at this exact time."
The real-time integration will allow Marrero’s team to answer conference customers' complaints with precision. For instance, if a conference organizer had set up its own network on site and engaged the hotel to provide access to the Internet, Marrero would be able to use a real-time NetMRI to track the configuration of the ISP connection down to the minute.
"I would be able to see that they had access until someone introduces a duplex mismatch [on their side] on a Thursday afternoon," he said. "Our interface port would have been fine and we would have definitive proof."
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