Network Management on a Shoestring

Like most small businesses owners, you probably started off with a couple of PCs. As business grows, you might add a few more PCs and a server as. All of a sudden, you have a simple network on the premises — or maybe not so simple.

Although a network offers tremendous benefits in terms of computing power and office communications, it also comes with a fair share of headaches: spikes in usage can reduce application performance to a crawl; not enough of bandwidth can cause Web site visitors leave your site because it takes too long to view each page; and calls from frustrated employees mean constant interruptions in order to troubleshoot minor issues.

A full-time IT guy can avoid lots of trouble, but many businesses can’t afford one. So whether you — the boss — or someone you delegate pulls double duty to take care of the network, the right management tools can eliminate much of the hassle.

Management Systems
Staying on top of the network without a management system is like driving a car without any gauges. It won’t be long before the car stutters to a halt. But while having no gauges is a problem, you can also get too much of a good thing.

Management systems like HP OpenView and IBM Tivoli were designed for large organizations, with a price tag to match. They cost hundreds of thousands, and sometimes millions, of dollars to deploy. Further, they tie up dozens of highly trained (and well-paid) IT resources as they burden you with more instruments and controls than you see on the flight deck of a Jumbo jet.

“Implementing a large network and systems management package remains a formidable task,” said Richard Ptak, an analyst at Ptak, Noel & Associates in Amherst, N.H. “While the total cost can still be high, today’s management solutions can — in some cases — provide significant payback in a matter of months.”

Fortunately, the market has evolved to the point where small businesses can choose from a wide range of inexpensive or even free tools. Some of the free tools are good enough for a start-up business, while others cost a small price and offer many of the features you’d find in enterprise management systems. Further, most of them are easy to learn and easy to deploy.

Free Tools You can choose from a wealth of free management tools to maintain network system performance and uptime. We provide several examples from different categories below.

Viewing Systems and Network Traffic
Multi Router Traffic Grapher
Before you take any action to troubleshoot your IT systems, you have to be able to see what’s happening. A free tool called Multi Router Traffic Grapher (MRTG) gives a live visual presentation of network traffic. MRTG logs the traffic data and creates graphs representing the traffic on the monitored network connection. You can view these graphs from any browser. The tool shows you real-time details as well as historical data on the last seven days, the last five weeks and the last twelve months.

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The Nagios tool runs on Linux and UNIX and monitors services running on the network.

Virtual Network Computing
VNC is a platform-independent remote display system that allows someone to view a desktop over the Internet.

The Net-SNMP package of tools helps with various aspects of network monitoring.

Another free utility, Qcheck runs on your desktop and identifies performance problems, such as response time, throughput and availability.

Security Management Tools
In this day and age, every small business has to pay attention to computer security. If you need a program that will alert you to people attempting to access your network, try Snort. It’s an open-source Intrusion Detection System that has been downloaded over 500,000 times to date.

Two other essential security technologies include anti-virus and firewall protection. Computer Associates provides both for a year with EZArmor.

Tracking Software Licenses
The big software companies are on the prowl for licensing offenders. Visit the press release section of the Business Software Alliance Web site, and you’ll see dozens of small businesses that were caught on licensing violations. In most cases, the violation was inadvertent, but that didn’t prevent them from being fined.

Therefore, one of the important uses of your network is to monitor all the software you have running internally. For a small shop of less than 12 people, you might be able to get away with going from computer to computer to log the software on each machine. But then you may not do that again for six months, and in the interim your employees may have downloaded all sorts of unauthorized stuff that gets YOU in trouble.

The solution is asset management software. It can cost an arm and a leg unless you buy smartly. The good news is that small businesses have a great alternative. They can use OStivity, from Somix Technologies, on up to 50 computers — for free. It identifies and inventories hardware and software components from workstations and servers. It takes only minutes to use it to spot exactly what version of what software is running on what machine.

A Small Price to Pay
Free tools are great, but sometimes it is smart to pay a little to get the full value out of them. An emerging trend combines a number of open source tools into inexpensive network and systems management packages. This approach offers small businesses the convenience of managing things from one screen, rather than cobbling together a bunch of different tools. These products, while not free, pay for themselves in terms of reduced administrative costs and provide an economical alternative to buying an enterprise class package

What’s Up Gold
A network monitoring and alarming system produced by Ipswitch Inc, What’s Up Gold sells for $1,195 with a one-year service agreement. Even better, there’s a small business version available for $295 — also with the one-year service agreement. You can easily locate network problems, and track bandwidth or CPU utilization on any device.

Denika A Web-based capacity and resource trending tool, Denika integrates with WhatsUp Gold. Out-of-the-box, Denika automates and provides up to 500 leading indicator reports on bandwidth consumption and availability, disk space usage, CPU and memory utilization and more. It’s available from Somix for $795.

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow’s Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.

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