PacketTrap Helps Old Devices Find Their Voices

Older devices often pose a challenge for network administrators trying to track the most detailed performance data. PacketTrap's ptFlow helps them speak up by providing NetFlow-formatted records.

By Drew Robb | Posted Feb 24, 2009
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In these days of slashed budgets and layoffs, it’s important to find ways to do more with less. Enter ptFlow by PacketTrap Networks Inc. of San Francisco, which offers a means of discovering data about application performance on the network from old devices that otherwise would be unable to retrieve such information.

“Every network, no matter what the size of the business, has network devices that can’t talk back,” said Matt Bolton, vice president of products at PacketTrap. “As a result, network administrators have a really hard time identifying bandwidth hogs or applications that are causing problems.”

That information can’t be received because the device doesn’t adhere to industry-standard protocols developed by the big platform guys like NetFlow, JFlow or s-Flow. As a workaround for aging devices, ptFlow converts that data into NetFlow standards so it can be analyzed.

This is all part of the 3.0 release of PacketTrap’s Perspective management platform. To establish application-aware visibility ptFlow makes it possible to gather NetFlow records from devices that do not natively support it. The records are then added to Perspective Traffic Analysis.

“The vast majority of help desk calls come in due to lack of expected application performance, not specific network issues,” said Jim Frey, an analyst with Enterprise Management Associates Inc. (EMA) of Boulder, CO. “When those calls come in, you need to know things like: How are those applications utilizing the network? What else is happening on those same links? Are there any unexpected applications being used, perhaps to the detriment of those upon which my organization is depending?”

These questions require a network view of application activity. According to Frey, that can be achieved via packet capturing tools and packet-based real-time monitoring tools. But these often demand a hefty investment and dedicated instrumentation. Alternatively, flow records can be accessed using NetFlow or s-Flow.

This latter approach detects who is on the network, what application is being used, and the amount of traffic generated. Unfortunately, older devices sometimes are unable to detect flow records. Frey lays out the options: upgrade the device to support NetFlow, add a WAN optimization appliance in-line, install packet-based instrumentation or for those on the Perspective Platform, ptFlow.

“ptFlow delivers NetFlow capabilities for any IP-connected device, by means of an application of packet monitoring software to generate flow records in NetFlow format, and bringing application visibility to places where it had not been possible or practical before,” said Frey.

It does this using Perspective Agents or existing deployments of Perspective Server software to see into the packet stream. Frey points out that an additional NIC may also be needed for the system.

“ptFlow automatically upgrades older or generic devices that may not be flow-enabled so that they can provide critical traffic data,” said Bolton. “It allows network managers to quickly identify network traffic problems. This is especially important in today’s environment because companies are pushing out upgrade cycles and making do with their older equipment that frequently doesn’t support a flow standard like NetFlow.”

Traffic going over one port on a device is replicated to another port which is known as the port mirror. Perspective effectively plugs into the port mirror, collects the traffic, and displays it on a dashboard within Perspective. Pricing for the ptFlow module starts at $995.

“ptFlow works only with Perspective platform right now, but we’re working on being able to offer that standalone module as an option,” said Bolton.

For those who don’t have or aren’t familiar with Perspective, it is a network management platform that allows network engineers to monitor, troubleshoot, diagnose and remediate network problems. It includes alarms and reports, configuration tools and network discovery gadgets. Like many high-end, six-figure network management platforms, Perspective does performance baselining i.e. the software recognizes usage patterns of the network so it understands not to send you an alarm if, for example, there is tons of network traffic on Monday morning at 9 a.m. Perspective pricing starts at $1,495.

“ptFlow brings application traffic visibility to places where this important source of operational intelligence was not available before,” said Frey. “Better visibility across the delivery infrastructure means better control, translating into better planning capabilities, faster recognition of problems, shorter troubleshooting times, and thus hap¬pier end users and, ultimately, happier networking professionals.”

As a side benefit, Frey adds that anyone deploying this software can extend the lifespan of existing infrastructure. This might bring welcome budgetary relief to organization’s contemplating expensive upgrades or device replacement.

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