SolarWinds Brings Order to Network Confusion

 
 
Posted 2010-03-26
 
 
 

SolarWinds Brings Order to Network Confusion


By: Frank Ohlhorst dnu

Distributed enterprise networks are one of the most difficult mechanisms to manage in today's IT environments. The combination of equipment, locations, software, personnel and policies can make it almost impossible for an IT administrator to comprehend what is happening on the network and how that affects business operations. SolarWinds offers a solution to that dilemma in the form of Orion NPM (Network Performance Monitor), a software package that offers a visual representation of network performance and health.

The current version, v9.5.1, began shipping last month and starts at $2,475 for the monitoring of 100 elements. An unlimited-license version can be purchased for $20,975. Orion NPM is an excellent management tool that demystifies enterprise networks and helps administrators save time, while better understanding the performance and capabilities of the networks they manage.

What Is Orion NPM?

The idea behind the product is simple: Bring all the critical information about how the network is functioning into an easy-to-understand visual management console. At a glance, administrators can determine how well the network is performing, immediately identify potential problems and come up with viable solutions to those problems. In other words, Orion makes network management proactive.

The management console is fully configurable, allowing administrators to define a home screen that reflects all the elements that are most important to their particular infrastructure. The console can be divided into multiple views and offers an innovative feature called "Top Ten Lists," from which administrators can pick predefined criteria, such as response time, wireless traffic, bandwidth utilization, CPU utilization, network traffic, packet loss and several other elements. Each list features visual elements, such as red, yellow and green icons, to relay status information to administrators quickly.

Another innovative feature is the ability to map networks geographically. This enables administrators to define network locations on a globe or a map, with each site's status represented by a color. For example, if the network in London were experiencing an alert, the icon would be yellow. If the network were down, the color would be red, and green would indicate that there were no problems or issues.

Getting Started

I installed Orion NPM on a Windows 2008R2 server system that had Microsoft SQL server preinstalled. However, the product is designed to work on Microsoft Windows 2003 or 2008 Server with IIS and the .NET Framework installed. The product also needs SQL Server 2005 SP1 or later (express, standard or enterprise editions) to store historical data and generate reports.

Although installing a product of this type can be a complex endeavor, following the included directions and deploying the product per company recommendations made the process relatively painless. The complexity of the installation is not unique to SolarWinds; most high-end monitoring products are complicated to set up.

The basic installation of the product will require some Windows networking savvy, but SolarWinds provides good documentation to overcome any hurdles. I found that the most complex portion of the setup process was registering all the networking devices with Orion. Although the product performs basic discovery of the network, it is important to fully integrate the various routers, switches, firewalls and other networking hardware with Orion. That way, all the performance and status information can be polled from the devices.

What's more, SolarWinds offers additional modules that can assist in managing network hardware, so proper integration becomes critical. That said, as long as the product is installed and configured properly, an administrator should not have any problems with accessing the management console and monitoring devices, and setting up alerts or custom views.

Working with Orion


 

Working with Orion  

Orion's intuitive console is powered by Ajax and is accessed via a Web browser. By leveraging Ajax, SolarWinds is able to offer a robust user experience that rivals other products that rely on a traditional desktop application to function. The management engine gathers information using polling technology that relies on an MIB (Management Information Base).

SolarWinds' MIB includes most every network device, helping to make communications with the various devices on the network straightforward. For network devices that fall outside the MIB, administrators can create a custom integration scheme using SNMP. That way, nonstandard devices can be polled and monitored as well.

Although much of the integration capabilities and polling functions are important to how well the product works, administrators can ignore those capabilities once Orion is configured. Administrators will spend most of their time on the home page of the management console, and that is where all the action takes place. The network summary screen of the management console gives a good 10,000-foot view of the network, and, with a glance, most administrators can judge how well the overall network is performing.

The real power of the product comes from the ability to drill down into a location, the devices located there, and the configurations and settings associated with those devices. That can reduce the weekly management load by several hours because administrators can point and click on a network to determine how a particular element is functioning and then drill down into that component–all without having to play detective, capture packets or run a particular vendor's management product. Quick and simple seems to be the name of the game here.

Of course, larger networks usually have multiple administrators responsible for different geographical areas. Here, Orion NPM helps keep things further under control by allowing senior administrators to create roles that limit what can be accessed by support staff. In other words, an administrator assigned to the home office (or headquarters) can have full access to the network, while an administrator located at a remote site may only have access to a specific section of the network or a single site. The product's roles-based administration controls access to many of the product's features, and they can be used to limit users to certain screens or reports, allowing granular control that can be applied to each defined user.

Although some networks are supported by a staff 24/7, most others rely on a more traditional level of support, consisting of the 40-hour work week. In those situations, Orion can be set up to forward alerts to notify those responsible for on-call troubleshooting.

Perhaps, the first place to start with Orion NPM is to create some baseline information, once the product is completely set up and has access to the various pieces of network hardware. Ideally, a baseline can be used as a reference point to judge increases or decreases in network performance. The product's powerful reporting tools further help administrators identify problems, especially when used to compare historical performance to baselines.

 One of the most difficult issues administrators face is resolving intermittent problems that seem to creep up with no rhyme or reason. These problems can usually be attributed to unauthorized changes to network hardware, or the addition of new components or flaky equipment. However, efforts to find their root cause can be fruitless.

Orion NPM is a valuable tool in those cases. Administrators can use the included tools and triggers to track when a problem happens and then drill down to the cause of the problem-perhaps finding that the problem is related to a high-traffic backup process or even a chatty NIC (network interface card) on a server that is used only occasionally. Orion NPM eliminates the trial-and-error approach to network troubleshooting, perhaps saving hundreds of hours a year.

Product Benefits


 

Product Benefits

Orion NPM offers several advantages to organizations adopting the product, particularly the product's ability to save time. Orion can reduce the administrative load associated with managing a network, thanks to the product's comprehensive console and extensive reports.

The product also helps improve security: A monitored network proves easier to secure and can identify unauthorized equipment or applications very quickly. Orion also is a valuable network-planning tool. Its ability to monitor and report on use, storage and traffic helps administrators better plan for network upgrades or even reassignment of equipment to where its use can be maximized.

Other advantages include faster problem resolution and centralized control. Most administrators are able to drill down to a problem very quickly and solve that problem with a few mouse clicks.

Orion NPM is also a good solution for companies that are saddled with different management products from a variety of vendors. Its extensive MIB and ability to interface with SNMP brings a vendor-neutral slant to network monitoring, helping administrators eliminate multiple proprietary management products. That leads to savings on training costs, a faster management cycle and the ability to have a comprehensive view of the network.

SolarWinds offers an array of plug-ins and add-ons, allowing administrators to increase the capabilities of Orion NPM, without introducing more complexity. Orion NPM now provides views and resources that are tailored for virtual machines, specifically VMware ESX Servers. These new views and resources give administrators immediate insight into the performance of VMware ESX Servers and the hosted virtual machines. The latest version of NPM makes it easy to create custom alerts and build reports that offer VM-specific alerts and track the performance of virtualization solutions.

Extensive reporting capabilities allow administrators to build reports for troubleshooting, as well as for upper management. ROI should be pretty easy to prove with the product by calculating the time the product can save during a typical work week, which can range from a few hours on a small network to dozens of hours on a large, complex enterprise network.

The product offers many other advantages to businesses, ranging from improving network availability to boosting network performance. For those running large heterogeneous networks, Orion NPM may very well be the must-have management tool today.

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