Network Monitoring Solution for the Cloud

ENP profiles Plixer, one company that can help IT managers oversee distant data.

By Julie Knudson | Posted Oct 8, 2012
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Now that cloud technology is seeping into every corner of the business world, IT departments are focusing on how efficiently and effectively their cloud providers and platforms are performing. Founded in 1999, Plixer International is a network performance management provider that helps organizations get a holistic view of the entire enterprise regardless of equipment vendor.

Sanford, Maine is not Silicon Valley but ...

The Sanford, Maine-based (yes, Maine) company specializes in analyzing network traffic using NetFlow and the newer IPFIX exporters.

"Enterprise adoption of cloud computing is expected to be the most important factor driving the demand for the market of cloud-based application monitoring," said Srihari Padmanabhan, senior industry analyst for Frost & Sullivan's Measurement and Instrumentation practice. "This factor will boost the demand for cloud-based monitoring services in future" adding that metrics offered as part of a cloud service providers package "don't provide enough visibility into the network or application."

This is where Plixer's Scrutinizer product comes in. It's a comprehensive flow capture tool that allows users to closely analyze their network data and drill down deeper into the parts that indicate where potential problems are hiding. Plixer works with customers and their hardware vendors to ensure the right data is being captured, and then Plixer builds reports that are custom tailored to each customer's needs.

Fluke, NetScout, Riverbed, et al make for a crowded field

Operations teams are increasingly relying on this type of information to quickly identify and resolve network problems, and several vendors in addition to Plixer provide targeted solutions, among them Fluke Networks, NetScout, Riverbed, CA, and Manage Engine. Many of the offerings, such as those from Lancope and Arbor Networks, provide greater scalability and a more robust feature set.

"Plixer is really kind of unique in that they have completely built their whole business around NetFlow and nothing else," said Jim Frey, managing research director at Enterprise Management Associates. But, for companies with few internal IT resources, Plixer's narrow scope might provide plenty of network and security insight.

"Our razor focus on NetFlow and IPFIX is our differentiator," agreed Michael Patterson, Plixer's CEO and co-founder.

Three areas are typically the core of Plixer's customers' monitoring needs: threat detection, forensic response, and deep application awareness. Once a company adds cloud technology to the mix -- from VoIP to applications to storage -- they also become interested in monitoring the performance of their new platforms.

"Basically, most people over the years have been concerned that if their connections are too full, they're going to get slow," Patterson said. Companies then purchase more bandwidth and faster switches in what Patterson calls "a kind of rat race." In the last few years, though, vendors have started releasing products to allow IT groups to better understand and monitor their cloud traffic.

Other products offering more room for growth

Others products, like NetFlow Traffic Analyzer (NTA) from SolarWinds, have functionalities that are close to Scrutinizer's, but may offer more room for growth.

"Once you get past NetFlow, you start to get into more complex things," said Sanjay Catelino, vice president of Marketing at SolarWinds. The need for more sophisticated tools may become more pressing as an enterprise's network evolves, and NTA, rather than continuing life as a standalone platform, is designed to integrate with a company's performance and configuration products; ultimately providing administrators with a single-console solution to network health management.

Scrutinizing BYOD

Another area companies are increasingly interested in monitoring is their bring your own device (BYOD) usage and traffic. Administrators often want to know details such as how many handhelds are on the network and device authentication patterns. Scrutinizer is able to capture that data, providing information on authentication and user traffic, and even if there are odd behaviors that are worthy of additional investigation. Administrators can also go back in time to evaluate that information from a historical perspective.

Plixer's data analysis efforts have recently expanded into the e-mail realm -- an area that can hold critical data. "For example, we built an agent that exports Microsoft Exchange logs," Patterson said. NetFlow information on who's sending and receiving e-mails can be evaluated, along with the top domains that are seeing message traffic and what time each e-mail traverses the network.

Sweet spot is small enterprise

Scrutinizer's sweet spot is likely to be small enterprises looking for solid network traffic analysis, but who don't want to spring for a bunch of additional features they might not use. Frey described Scrutinizer as "self-contained," and said that even though higher-end tools may offer more substantial architecture, real-world deployments are often too segmented to take advantage of them.

"There are not many organizations that are really integrated to the point where their security team and their operations team are both working off that same NetFlow feed," he said.

Many IT groups understand the need for a comprehensive monitoring solution, "as any impact on the quality of experience (QoE) and quality of service (QoS) values could result in loss of money and time." As cloud technologies move farther into the marketplace, Padmanabhan added that monitoring solutions "may find their way to new end-user segments such as banking and finance, consumer retail, healthcare, and government services."

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