The proliferation of network-connected devices that BYOD tends to unleash can bring with it a host of challenges for the network. When administrators can't pinpoint the cause of issues, those challenges multiply and spread. Network visibility and monitoring solutions are therefore key to maintaining uptime and SLAs.
Higher education, in which networks must balance the delivery of mission-critical educational and administrative applications and content with the leisure time bandwidth demands of their students, often make compelling case studies for solutions to BYOD problems. Last month, I spoke with Rick Coloccia, network manager at SUNY Geneseo College, about how Plixer's Scrutinizer NetFlow Analyzer has helped him and his team solve those problems.
SUNY Geneseo is home to over 3,100 students, with approximately 2,000 more commuting to the campus, which offers 50+ computer labs with more than 900 PCs and Macs. All that activity from both student- and campus-owned devices added up to some serious challenges for the school.
Among those challenges, capacity planning stood out. "When you have a switched network with just one core, as we do, we didn't have a good feeling for the amount of traffic coming in and out of certain interfaces—any interfaces, really," Coloccia said. While the school had a handle on traffic leaving the campus network, it didn't have the same visibility internally. SUNY Geneseo needed better visibility to aid in upgrade scheduling and server location deployment. That visibility would also help with diagnostics and troubleshooting of email, file sharing, and application delivery issues, as well as with security and policy enforcement. And having concrete metrics for network use would assist in the justification of bandwidth and infrastructure upgrade projects.
Coloccia was interested in adopting the Cisco-developed NetFlow IP traffic information collection protocol, but needed an affordable supplemental tool to take advantage of the technology. Most commercial NetFlow analysis tools he evaluated "were priced wrong," he said, explaining that the trend is for products to be priced per user quantity. Given the large number of users on the SUNY Geneseo campus, that pushed those solutions far out of range of Coloccia's budget.
Open source alternatives, meanwhile, lacked the features and usability Coloccia wanted. "Every query needed to be hand-written, and it would have taken a great deal of effort to do so and maintain," he said. After discovering Plixer's Scrutinizer, Coloccia felt that he'd found his solution. The price point was right, as was the usability of the Scrutinizer web-based client. Scrutinizer also supports both hardware and VM deployments. Coloccia runs "almost everything" in virtual machines, making Scrutinizer's VM support an additional plus.
SUNY Geneseo first installed Scrutinizer 6 years ago and remains satisfied with the solution today. It became particularly useful when the RIAA cracked down on college students' illegal file sharing, since the software allows unlimited automatic archiving that enabled Coloccia's team to investigate RIAA notices. The software also helps keep students' activity in check as needed—or not.
"One thing about the higher education environment is every time you turn around, the students have a new app, a new protocol, a new piece of software that behaves differently on the network. And that's okay, but we need to sometimes work out what these things are and decide whether that's a good thing or bad thing or whether we are indifferent to it, as we are with most of these programs," he said.
The challenges of higher education may seem far removed from the challenges of the enterprise, but at heart the goals are the same. Network administrators must have access to the traffic information they need to keep critical systems up and running while simultaneously monitoring use to identify and address problems or abuse. Doing so requires detailed visibility into activity on the network. Many tools promise that visibility, and finding the right one can mean the difference between success and failure.
What traffic monitoring and analysis tools do you recommend (or not)? Let us know in the comments.
Jude Chao is managing editor of Enterprise Networking Planet. Follow her on Twitter @judechao.