Product review: Too much, too soon

Computer Associates' Unicenter TNG is like a hurricane -- huge in scope and power. Realising that its complexity might blow away smaller competitors, CA split off parts of Unicenter to create a family of function-specific integrated software applications. NetworkIT Pro is the resulting collection of network-centric management applications, including advanced monitoring capabilities, programmable automated responses and a shared SQL database.

Unfortunately, despite the unbundling of applications such as backup, security and systems management, NetworkIT Pro still feels more like its blustery parent than the scaled-down management application package it purports to be.

NetworkIT Pro looks at your network via a 2-D topology map, an object viewer application and a distributed state machine. The 2-D topology map gives you a device-centric view of the net. NetworkIT Pro is able to identify most hardware, and places a vendor-specific icon on the map for each device. Clicking on an object's icon pops up a small window showing the object's IP address and device status information. But double-clicking won't enable you to drill down into the device, as you might expect; you must use the right mouse button to select the object viewer or Remote Monitoring (RMON) tool. We found this disconcerting.

NetworkIT Pro contains a diverse set of other utilities, including a good RMON analysis package. The object viewer allows you to select a Management Information Base and walk through the MIB tree for each device. The distributed state machine provides a display of the properties associated with managed objects, including performance information gathered by the RMON analysis application. A polling engine monitors bandwidth utilisation and node response time as well as application-specific information, including end-to-end response times, delays between the user and the application, and application traffic flow.

In addition to reporting, you can configure NetworkIT Pro's event management facilities to take action when problems arise. For instance, if it receives several alerts that indicate a router is performing poorly, NetworkIT Pro can reboot the router.

NetworkIT Pro can use separate Event Managers at remote locations. Each remote Event Manager monitors all the devices on its section of the network and propagates traps and alerts to the central Event Console, thus limiting the amount of information passing across the WAN link.

NetworkIT Pro's database is initially populated by running the application's autodiscover feature. Once the appropriate subnet masks and discovery ranges are set, NetworkIT Pro uses one of several methods to search for devices on the network. You have a choice of using Fast Address Resolution Protocol, Address Resolution Protocol Cache, Internet Control Message Protocol ping sweep or Domain Name System search to probe the network.

NetworkIT Pro displays a process meter that allows you to see how many subnets, pingable devices and SNMP agents are found as the discovery progresses. The process meter also displays a clock showing cumulative run-time; we liked this feature because it allowed us to estimate how long each subnet discovery would take.

A major disadvantage of the way the discovery process is implemented is the need for multiple discoveries. The initial discovery only populates the database with core information. To use the Switch View you must run the discovery process again to find switches. The same holds true for endpoints running NetworkIT Pro agents. We found the need to run multiple discovery processes to be confusing and time-consuming.

After discovery, Path Doctor helps diagnose the health and performance of a path between two network nodes. Path Doctor requires that all nodes in the path between the systems being tested have a community name string of "PUBLIC" and a subnet mask of 255.255.255.0, or have CA's SuperPing Agent installed. The first two requirements are unrealistic in large nets; our test network has different subnet masks and several wide-area links with hardware we don't manage or configure. Installing agent software on every node isn't practical; without it, we were unable to get Path Doctor to provide us with more than an icon of each endpoint. We found Path Doctor to be of limited use in a heterogeneous net, especially one that's not managed by the same organisation from end to end.

On the other hand, we really liked the RMON analysis application and found it to be the best package in NetworkIT Pro. With it we were able to monitor the health of several of our Cisco routers in real-time and historical modes. The application sure beats the old way of monitoring the CPU load of our routers, by firing up a telnet session and constantly typing "show proc cpu." Using the RMON analysis application, we were able to open several windows that displayed the loads on all of our backbone routers. NetworkIT's real-time strip chart provided us with excellent information about the health of our network.

For devices that don't have RMON capabilities, NetworkIT Pro provides a graphical SNMP display tool called DashBoard that allows you to monitor select performance characteristics using several graph styles. We found this to be a handy feature that was easily configured and performed well.

NetworkIT Pro's reports are straightforward and text-based. While rather plain, they are well-formatted and easy to interpret. The Report Wizard makes it easy to select a range of dates to report on and provides an easy-to-use report navigator.

CA's NetworkIT Pro attempts to give network managers a comprehensive centralised management console for enterprise networks, but we found the product suffers from a lack of cohesiveness; individual features feel more like add-ons than an integral part of the management package. We recommend waiting until a later release to give NetworkIT Pro a try.

Currier is director of data communications at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and the 1998 Grand Prize winner in the Excellence in Campus Networking competition sponsored by CAUSE, a user group for computer professionals in higher education. He can be reached at robert.currier@duke.edu.

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