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Ball State Dials in Network Management

Managing the network on a university campus may not be the most glamorous of jobs, but it's certainly a critical one. Just listen to the howls should the network go down.

At Ball State University in Muncie, IN, an hour Northeast of Indianapolis, 18,000 students and 3,000 faculty rely on some 50 routers, upwards of 400 switches, and 800 access points to use the wired and wireless network. Ball State's extensive wireless network covers all academic and administrative buildings, along with residence halls, athletic facilities, and popular outdoor gathering spaces on campus. Fiber-optic voice, data, and visual networks also link classrooms, laboratories, residence halls, and offices.

Needless to say, management of all those network devices had grown into a campus-wide headache at times. Six people in a network group at the university manage the network, along with working on a wide range of other projects and new technologies. "We've got a lot of things on our plate," according to Daniel Fortriede, Ball State's senior enterprise/network engineer, "Anything that helps us in managing the [network] gear on a day to day basis is welcome."

To ease the crunch, this fall Ball State deployed Netcordia's NetMRI, a network analysis and reporting solution, to automate many of the university's network monitoring chores.

The appliance works by continually checking the network against a default set of known issues and parameters that are set up during implementation. The tool records any changes to those settings and can alert network management staff accordingly. NetMRI is also flexible enough that additional settings can be added to check other areas of network functionality that Fortriede and his team specifically want to monitor.

Because NetMRI monitors discrepancies between what should occur on the network, and what actually does, "it's a sanity check on our part," Fortriede said.

Before installing NetMRI, network troubleshooting at Ball State was largely done by hand. During a slow period, explained Enterprise/Network Engineer Christopher Cahoe, a network engineer might find time to compare settings by hand and look for problem areas, often after the fact. "Now," Cahoe said, "we do it as a matter of course, not as an afterthought."

NetMRI can actively discover problems on the network that previously weren't detected, either with other monitoring systems or by hand. For example, it can find issues with power supplies that in the past went unnoticed and can identify network port errors faster than previous solutions.

Although Ball State has only recently installed the NetMRI appliance, it "absolutely" will pay for itself over time, both engineers predicted. "On our network," Fortriede said, "there's no way a person could do this as efficiently as a computer program."

Although the engineers at Ball State haven't found the product difficult to configure or use, both Cahoe and Fortriede noted that it is a serious network management tool. "It's not a tool for [someone] with four or five switches," Cahoe said. "There isn't enough there to bother with." For a medium-size network or larger, Fortriede agreed, a device such as this one, which automates many of the routine but essential day to day network troubleshooting tasks, can be well worth the cost.

"It becomes a tradeoff between how many people you have looking for issues, how often issues come up, and the time you're willing to spend," Fortriede said.

In fact, he pointed out, once the size of the network warrants the cost, a computer appliance will always trump a network engineer in handling routine network checks. "It runs in the background ... and never makes a mistake. It never forgets to check the forty-seventh item on the list."

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About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at [email protected].

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