A virtual probe for branch office network monitoring

Some branch offices have had to suffer the indignity of having a lower standard of network service than head offices. In part that’s because it can be expensive to put appliances at the edge of the network to monitor feeds for managing service delivery.

NetScout Systems Inc. believes it has a solution: a virtual probe. However, for the time being it’s a solution only available for enterprises using Cisco Systems Inc.s’ ISR branch routers.

The Westford, Mass., company’s Integrated Agent is a virtualized version of its hardware-based nGenius Probes technology that performs packet-flow monitoring and analysis to give end-to-end visibility of applications and services going through local area and wide area networks.

Initially it has been tailored for the ISR 2800, 3800 and the G2 2900 and 3900 routers. The solution also needs the routers’ optional service module, which has a Linux-based hosting environment called AXP on which third party applications can run.

Also needed is NetScout’s Performance Manager software, which gathers data for reports.

The savings over deploying a hardware probe at branch offices is considerable, says Steven Shalita, NetScout’s vice-president of marketing.

“The value is huge for both (NetScout and Cisco) customer bases,” he said. “Because of our size of customers, many have already deployed Cisco routers, they can just drop this into their existing environment.”

The Integrated Agent is based on a capability NetScout first introduced last October with its Virtual Agent for giving packet flow visibility into virtual servers.

While Cisco offers NetFlow and other monitoring tools, these are more about router performance, Shalita said. The Integrated Agent leverages NetFlow’s Common Data Model architecture to give a unified view of applications are behaving and network resources are being used, he said.

“The ones that benefit most are the enterprises looking to consolidate resources from remote branches or offices to corporate data centers,” Bob Laliberte, an analyst with the Enterprise Strategy Group, said in an e-mail interview.

The key to success is in delivering the services from the centralized data centers to the remote locations with adequate performance, he wrote.  By integrating NetScout, organizations can monitor that performance from the data center to remote locations and users. By virtualizing the probe technology, NetScout enables third party devices to provide additional functionality without increasing the physical footprint at remote locations. “This is especially critical at those remote locations where organizations are trying to keep the infrastructure to a minimum,” he said.

“The other important factor here is NetScout’s expanded relationship with Cisco,” he added. “Given Cisco’s presence in both the data center and remote office, NetScout has a significant opportunity with this solution. Combined with NetScout’s other solutions and now enterprises will be able to manage the performance of their networks from the data center to remote office to the cloud – all in one window.”

Olga Yaskova, an analyst with Frost and Sullivan, agreed the probe gives NetScout an opportunity to add to its reputation in network monitoring solutions for enterprises.

Since Cisco has an enviable position in the data centre market, he said, by extension, NetScout becomes a force for data centre performance monitoring.

With the number of services and applications on network constantly increasing, the need to manage end-customer quality of experience is increasing, she said in an e-mail message. As a result, end-to-end network visibility is becoming a “must have” feature in a network performance monitoring solution, she said.

Integrated Agent generates key performance indicators including packet loss, inter-packet delay, client and server errors, and timeouts. It measures volume, utilization, host and conversation details for RTP voice and RTP video protocols, as well as VoIP quality metrics. There’s also a wide range of alarms and alerts.

It’s not an inexpensive solution. nGenius Performance Manager ranges in price from US$20,000 to US$50,000 depending on the number of deployments. The Integrated Agent, which consumes two licenced ports within Performance Manager, costs US$1,000 per router.

As for tailoring the Integrated Agent for routers from other equipment makers, Shalita said it depends on customer demand. A large number of Performance Manager customers have Cisco routers, he pointed out. He also noted that his company and Cisco have a long partnership.

NetScout isn’t abandoning its hardware-based probes, he added. These appliances include data storage, which some organizations need for forensic analysis of packets

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