Probe gives users better handle on WAN

When Chris Lukas agreed to view a demonstration of NetScout Systems Inc.’s nGenius Real-Time Monitor, he didn’t intend to spend money on new products. After all, his job is to keep IT costs down while giving 500 or so users the most bandwidth and uptime possible. But he took a chance – and to his delight, the tool now saves his company more than US$1 million per year.

Stock trading firm Hold Brothers pays more than US$80,000 per month to maintain an average of four T-1 lines to each of its 15 remote offices. Initially, it seemed the company would have to add more T-1 lines to help employees sustain their rate of about 1,000 trades per day. According to his calculations, Lukas would have had to pay another US$6,000 per month, per T-1 line.

“We had not even considered buying software to monitor WAN usage, but NetScout’s demo showed us instantly how our internally written software that worked well on the LAN was using too much bandwidth over the WAN,” says Lukas, Hold Brothers’ CTO. “We were able to rewrite the application to minimize WAN utilization.”

He says the application all the traders use just didn’t translate well in the wide-area environment. Using the data NetScout collected, Lukas’ staff reconfigured the WAN connections and re-routed traffic to optimize WAN bandwidth for each user. Network World (U.S.) reviewers also recently looked at what NetScout’s nGenius product suite had to offer users.

During the demo, Lukas found one user tying up lots of WAN bandwidth during trading hours because he had chosen an “upgrade Windows” option. Lukas says he was able to track down the user and the site to which he was connecting, and postpone the bandwidth-hogging activity until after hours.

“The demo showed us the user and what he was doing, and we were able to tell him instantly to stop,” Lukas says.

Last December, Hold Brothers installed NetScout’s WAN RTM multiport probes at five remote offices, and the LAN RTM at its headquarters in Jersey City, N.J. Each probe can monitor four T-1 lines and send data back to a management console at headquarters. The data collected by all the remote office probes is stored in a Sybase database, which delivers WAN usage information to authorized users via a standard Web browser.

In the past, Lukas’ staff of seven IT workers monitored WAN traffic by checking Cisco router ports, but he says that method never told them immediately which users were taking up more than their share of bandwidth and to what site they were connected.

Now that they have NetScout probes plugged in, Lukas and his staff can monitor the “top 10 conversations,” or users of the line, and take action when they see something that doesn’t belong.

“The employees aren’t doing anything wrong – this isn’t about MP3 abuse. It was our responsibility to reengineer the applications so that when employees simply do their jobs, the bandwidth is used appropriately,” Lukas says.

One thing Lukas would like to see improved with NetScout’s products is “real-time expert analysis of packets at low speeds.” He says no vendors seem to be able to perform this type of analysis at high speeds, though Network Associates’ Sniffer can do it at low speeds.

Not only does Lukas track response time on internal applications, but he can also track how well an electronic communication network (ECN), an alternative exchange for Nasdaq stocks, responds to traders’ requests. Hold Brothers’ direct access traders can see all the ECNs simultaneously and choose to send an order to any of them.

“Now we can announce to our traders if there is slow response time with an ECN, because no one wants to send their orders to a slow ECN. The whole idea is being the fastest,” Lukas says.

He says that because RTM “is extremely easy to use and completely unobtrusive to our network,” remote staffers can monitor their own WAN usage and chase down bandwidth hogs at their locations, saving time for his staff. In the future, Lukas plans to further simplify WAN and LAN traffic monitoring by tying his NetScout monitors into the company’s network management software, Hewlett-Packard’s OpenView.

Lukas says the US$300,000 investment in NetScout products is already paying off by saving him more than US$1 million per year in T-1 costs. Depending on network configuration, the nGenius RTM software and products can cost as low as US$15,000.

“It’s one of the very few products, by far the easiest to use, that lets us see – workstation by workstation, line by line, address by address, and conversation by conversation – exactly what traffic is flowing over our LAN and our WAN,” Lukas says. “It simply gives us visibility we’ve never had before.”

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