Keeping track of network infrastructure

Companies often neglect the hardware that makes networking possible. That’s largely because managing network hardware is such a hassle. “Maintaining the physical layer is typically the domain of ‘cable jockeys’ – people who go down to the datacentre and check to see that after a user moves, the proper cable is plugged into the proper device,” says Paul Bugala, an analyst at research company IDC, in Framingham, Mass. “It’s tedious.”

It’s also difficult. To change your network, you must untangle the implications that change has on your cabling infrastructure, and then record the action for future reference. “That can only be done by a network engineer using extensive documentation,” Bugala says. But many engineers, lacking adequate software, keep track of their network infrastructures using only pencil and paper.

And what happens if you don’t manage your physical network carefully? The risks run from administrative confusion to, in a worst-case scenario, security breaches. That’s why many companies are slowly becoming sensitive to network hardware management.

New York-based ChoiceSeat Inc. is a case in point. ChoiceSeat installs and maintains broadband interactive entertainment systems, which include client devices, at seats and stadium boxes in sports arenas. Attendees can access information such as live and recorded video from a variety of camera angles, player and team statistics, and shopping sites, all from the consoles installed in their seats. The system has already been used at two of the past four Super Bowls, and the company recently signed an exclusive 5-year contract with the NFL.

In effect, ChoiceSeat creates stadium-wide broadband LANs. That means thousands of clients – and thousands of potential hardware problems.

“Today, if something happens to the cable infrastructure that we deploy in stadiums and arenas, we rely on a console manager that tells us we have a problem,” says Mary Frost, the CEO of ChoiceSeat. “But it doesn’t identify that the problem is in the cable, for example, or that somebody has patched the cable somewhere else.”

ChoiceSeat currently manages each client manually. “If someone changes a patch cord, for example, we rely on them to tell us,” Frost notes. But now that the company is conducting large-scale deployments – one project on the company’s docket could involve as many as 56,000 seats – reliability and automation have become paramount.

To that end, ChoiceSeat is currently testing White Plains, N.Y.-based ITT Industries’ new LANSense network management system, which provides tools to monitor and control fibre and copper networks from a single access point.

LANSense consists of specially designed patch panels and patch cords, a sensor device known as an “analyzer,” and database software. A patch panel is a piece of hardware that links computers within a LAN or connects the computers to the Internet; patch cords are the wires that make the connections to a wall outlet or hub.

Whenever a user plugs a patch cord into a panel or unplugs it, the analyzer detects voltage changes through a sensor in the cord. The system then updates the changes in a SQL-based database that contains the company’s network information. That data can then be viewed via the Internet.

The result: a complete, accurate picture of all the devices and users on the company’s network, updated in real-time. “You don’t have to bother with paper management anymore,” claims Anthony Cicero, ITT’s director of technology. “Everything is automated.”

That appeals to customers such as Frost, whose company tries to automate as many of its processes as possible. It’s also attractive to virtual organizations, which usually cannot send engineers to check on remote locations every time a change is made. Other companies simply use the system to evaluate their network investments: Which devices are being used, and where are they located?

RIT Technologies and Avaya already have physical network management solutions on the market. (Most standard network management solutions, such as Tivoli and HP OpenView, do not provide visibility down to the physical layer.) Still, many analysts consider LANSense’s approach unique.

LANSense can play a pre-recorded audio warning from a speaker mounted in the wiring closet whenever an unauthorized change occurs to network hardware, a helpful tool for preventing inadvertent rewirings. If you’re concerned about malicious attacks on your equipment, LANSense can be set up to take a photograph of anyone making an unauthorized cord installation or removal.