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ISP simplifies acquisition consolidation with network discovery tool

A wholesale ISP that has grown by acquisition has deployed a network discovery tool to simplify network mapping for its hodgepodge of inherited network devices.

In an ideal world, service providers would grow their networks organically -- carefully selecting and mapping out each device on the network. But in reality, disparate networks are frequently inherited through mergers and acquisitions (M&A), often raising questions about how and where new equipment fits into legacy infrastructure. One wholesale Internet service provider (ISP) growing through M&As has saved time and discovered previously undetected rogue devices by automating that mapping process with a network discovery tool.

Stellar Association LLC, a consortium of six ISPs in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, was formed so that each service provider could share resources and reduce overall expenses in its local market, according to Stellar CTO Andy Erickson. Stellar functions as the chief network operator for its member ISP and provides fiber to the home (FTTH), cable, DSL and wireless broadband services to a combined 30,000 subscribers of Farmers Mutual Telephone Company, Federated Telephone, Gardonville Cooperative Telephone Association, Red River Telephone, RC Family of Companies and Runestone Telecom.

We need to know what's changing, what's evolving and what's plugging into a service provider network.

Andy Erickson
CTO, Stellar Association LLC

As Stellar has grown by absorbing new ISPs, the consortium's network engineers have faced increasing complexity with each new network that joins the fold. They have had limited visibility into the individual devices in these new networks.

 Engineers need to know more than whether a core router or a digital subscriber line access multiplexer (DSLAM) is up or down, Erickson said. In the event of a service outage or performance problems, Stellar needs an ISP network discovery tool that can map out the physical and logical connections among a large patchwork of devices to make troubleshooting simpler and faster.

"We need to know what's changing, what's evolving and what's plugging into a service provider network," Erickson said.

ISP: Network discovery tool simplifies acquisitions

For the past decade, Stellar has used WhatsUp Gold from Ipswitch for basic network monitoring. The consortium first used WhatsUp Gold to ping devices for outage alerts. As the product evolved over the years, Stellar used it for service-level monitoring, Erickson said.

Stellar recently expanded its WhatsUp Gold installation with Ipswitch's WhatsConnected plug-in, an automated network discovery tool that inventories all hardware and software and visually maps connections and dependencies among devices.

Erickson uses the WhatsUp Gold and WhatsConnected together for managing telecom network operations as well as Stellar's internal local area networks (LANs). But he relies on WhatsConnected to manage equipment that supports the consortium's subscriber network.

The ISP network discovery tool has made it easier for engineers to integrate new networks after an acquisition, Erickson said. WhatsConnected has also helped them identify rogue devices in those acquired networks, he said.

"We used WhatsConnected to get a better idea of what [the acquired ISP's] network looked like … and found undocumented open access points that their previous IT folks forgot to put on [the network map] or just didn't document," Erickson said. "That definitely saved many man hours by being able to get some visibility into what's going on."  

WhatsConnected started off as a basic network mapping tool, but with its 3.0 release, Ipswitch has evolved it into "an everyday toolkit" for real-time troubleshooting and performance analysis at Layers 2 and 3, said Brian Jacobs, senior product manager at Ipswitch's network management division.

Jacobs -- a former telecom engineer for Lucent Technologies -- said service providers must constantly update their network maps to understand the widespread effects of small topology changes. Logging those changes manually isn't convenient even at an enterprise level -- never mind at the scale of a service provider, he said.

"Their networks are constantly changing due to failures, change events or customer requirements," he said. "In the bad old days, which was only a couple years ago, network administrators had to remember, 'We made these changes. I've got to update the map.'"  

Automated reporting necessary for ISP network discovery tool

Discovery isn't the only benefit that WhatsConnected offers Erickson. He uses it in combination with WhatsUp Gold to automatically generate daily and monthly reports -- previously a manual process.

The two programs are always running and displayed on 55-inch LCD screens in Stellar's network operations center (NOC), Erickson said. Engineers frequently and easily flip through broad, network-wide reports down to neighborhoods or even a specific large business customer.

Erickson has been a long-time Ipswitch user but also continues to evaluate other products, including similar tools from SolarWinds. Other tools didn't live up to his ease-of-use requirements or provide the same reporting mechanisms at a lower cost. He also evaluated an open source tool, Nagios, but determined the time it would take to learn to configure and learn it would outweigh the software license savings.

Erickson said there are some capabilities lacking from WhatsConnected that he wants to see in the next release -- particularly, the ability to layer or aggregate multiple graphs into a single report to understand how different metrics compare against each other.

"We're using an open source solution [to get around that], but it's another thing we need to manage and maintain," Erickson said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer.

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