Network analysis in the eye of the Observer

Minneapolis-based Network Instruments has unveiled the newest version of its Observer network analysis product, which has been enhanced to offer analysis of NetBIOS/NetBEUI, IPX/SPX, Frame Relay, and SQL events and errors. Also included in version 8.0 is compatibility with Windows XP.

Network Instruments President Douglas Smith explained that most of what is now offered in the product was out of customer response. What they asked for, they are now getting, he said.

“One of the big things in a protocol analyzer these days is a real-time expert,” Smith explained. “The administrator basically turns it on and it sorts through the millions and billions of packets, and tries to find a predetermined set of problems. What makes a bad medium or good as far as an expert system is the number of predetermined problems you can hunt for, and we’ve increased ours by about 30 per cent.”

Observer 8.0 also features an entirely updated user interface with an intuitive menu layout – organized by functionality – and a larger view area based on streamlined use of the layout area, according to the company.

Smith stressed the addition of the ability to decode 20 per cent more protocols, which the company said brings the total to “well over” 500 protocols decoded and 4,000 unique frames recognized.

Other enhancements include a full-duplex, wirespeed gigabit analyzer in various formats, including a portable PC and hardware probe; and a hardware-based, portable Frame Relay probe which offers two capture speed options: T-1/E-1 and lower, or T-1/E-1 to T-3/E-3 and DS3.

The gigabit analyzer will be available in the fourth quarter, and the Frame Relay analyzer is scheduled for release early in the first quarter of 2002.

“What you purchase today is kind of separate. What people would buy today, which is in essence an Ethernet 10/100 or what is called a half-duplex gig analyzer, is just a piece of software,” explained Smith. “The gig analyzer and the Frame Relay analyzer are both hardware-based. Now, if someone said, ‘I bought this Observer Suite, and I really want to move to a gigabit,’ we would credit their Suite towards the purchase of that, as we always do.”

While not standalone products – as they need Observer – Smith said these are essentially separate products to add functionality to what customers already have.

Observer is the kind of thing that everybody likes to have in their chest of networking tools, said Bill Gassman, a senior research analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner. It gets down to the protocol analysis, and often will show users where problems exist when they can’t figure out where they are. But it is not a primary, full-time tool, he said.

“This is a tool of last resort. This gets on the line, shows you what is really going on, and it does require a reasonable amount of technical skill,” explained Gassman.

He added that Observer offers some of the functionality that can be found in much more expensive tools.

“It gives you a throughput usage, response time usage and so forth. It’s an adequate tool for that,” Gassman said. “It’s an adequate tool for snapshotting, or for doing an occasional analysis, but the price is literally a fraction of what it would be for some of the more high-end tools.”

Hugh Waller is the president of Edmonton-based 3WAN Inc., and has been using previous versions of Observer for three years. He is also a reseller of the product, and uses it on a limited basis when he does custom diagnostics for some customers. He has been quite happy with the tool so far, and noted he was impressed with the company.

“Network Instruments is small enough to be reactive to the audience and the customers’ needs as opposed to the other guys – the big guys – who they are up against. They just can’t do it the way a small company can.”

Observer is priced at US$995. Expert Observer (which includes Observer) is US$2,895 and the Observer Suite (which includes Expert Observer) is priced at US$3,995.