Netcordia network appliance strikes a chord with engineers – and compliance managers

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Content Copyright © 2007 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

Does your organisation have an optimised and reliable network? Do you know and do you care – and can you prove it? Unless you are a highly qualified network engineer all you may know is that data is reaching your screen and, well, “performance seems OK for the most part.”

Poor network performance through, for instance, badly configured routers and bridges might never get reported in real time. IT and network managers are usually fully occupied with fixing ‘real’ problems so they may rarely go to their network monitoring ‘toolboxes’ unless a disaster has occurred.

Here are a couple of newer issues. Did you know that the US’s dreaded Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act 404 includes the need to produce evidence of having a compliant network – covering control of changes to routers, configurations and passwords – or that the medical profession’s HIPAA requires proof of no unauthorised access? No, neither did I until very recently.

What about voice over IP (VoIP)? While two people are chatting on the phone, the network dropping the odd packet here and there and slightly breaking up the conversation may not matter – so VoIP suppliers are not very concerned either. But suppose someone implemented VoIP for a call centre environment – seeing a potential to vastly reduce phone bills if quality was satisfactory – and who said what might in extremis lead to a court case so retaining every ‘odd packet’ may be critical.

VC start-up Netcordia seems to have spotted a gap in the network so to speak. It provides a black box appliance and software which takes just about half an hour to install on the network and can then be told to go and discover and analyse the network up to, say, four times a day. It has made quite an impact in the US and is now beginning a push in Europe.

The beauty for network engineers is that, first and foremost, it runs on its own using agent-less discovery and taking up less than ½ % of bandwidth to come back with a report in ‘engineer speak’. They do not have to take time out to do anything until it has reported back – which it does in the language that they understand – because it is network-engineer designed.

Because it is network equipment vendor independent, its reporting is not ‘siloed’ but trouble-shoots system-wide. Yet one might think that, after so many years of network trouble-shooting and repair, such products should exist from other network monitoring specialists. Of course plenty of tools do exist but, it seems, these are not automated or productised to this level.

From getting its first VC injection in 2005, Netcordia reached 100 customers by the end of 2006. The company has had its first $1million plus order and boasts five consecutive quarters of 25% growth. So there has to be rather more than a retrospective analysis tool to get enterprises interested on this scale – and there is, but rather too much to cover here.

At the simplest level it can provide proof of compliance for both SOX and HIPAA. That is a peace of mind issue more than anything. It can likewise get to the bottom of poor performance and packet-dropping within a VoIP environment.

So those two non-typical capabilities indicate the analysis is extremely rich. Some network “issues” lists it has produced have run to thousands of issues, according to Don Pyle, Netcordia CEO. Of course this can create a problem of ‘where to start’ but “This can be prioritised to the top issues,” said Pyle, explaining another feature.

The appliance is also network policy-driven. It comes with a large number of ‘template’ policies which can be applied unchanged as ‘zero expert rules’ or may be tailored. These might cover anything from a half-duplex mismatch to nearing a real-time threshold violation – and how to report them. Pyle says around 50 new ones are being added per month.

From this it can be seen that issues threatening to jeopardise SLA performance boundaries could hit the top of the priority list. The policy software can be set to reactively trigger an issue or event in the network through a user-policy previously set to action a change in a given set of circumstances.

In the same way, network changes are frequently needed – either planned or forced – and the appliance can help troubleshoot these to reduce network downtime and prevent problems before they occur.

It is perhaps unsurprising that many of Netcordia’s sales have come through systems integrators and network-savvy channel partners using the software as part of their service. The product will be sold primarily through the channel for the foreseeable future in fact.

So Pyle summarised what the product could do to protect against brown-outs: “Other vendors provide fire alarms but what we do is write fire code.” In other words, it doesn’t only detect a problem; it can go on to sort it out.

To you and me, a techie-friendly report may not be too impressive. Netcordia is conscious of this and plans more intuitive portal access to information – and access to a wider spectrum of interested persons. But there is no substitute for solid fact-finding and remedy for engineers faced with maintaining robust, optimised networks that run 24/7 – and that is needed the world over.