USDA bureau gets a firm grip on its WAN

USDA bureau gets a firm grip on its WAN


The Food Safety and Inspection Service has installed network monitoring software that lets it track the service's WAN activities nationwide.

The Agriculture Department bureau is using a souped-up version of WebNM from Somix Technologies of Sanford, Maine.

'This moves the FSIS from reactive to proactive network management,' said Kevin Schulke, a computer specialist who oversees the network. 'The system allows us to spot trends across the network and isolate situations with traffic, hardware or interrupted service that would otherwise go unnoticed.'

The USDA bureau inspects poultry and beef. Its frame relay WAN spans the country with 23 sites.

The network uses a combination of servers from Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co., as well as routers and switches from Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif. All of the bureau's units run Microsoft Windows NT.

Network management was largely missing within the bureau, Schulke said. The only monitoring tools in use were the users themselves, he said.

If someone spotted a problem, such as a failed Internet connection, they had to call in a report, and the systems team would determine the cause.

'When you have to rely on users to inform you of problems, your network is at risk,' Schulke said. 'You could have your WAN down for hours and not know it if nobody was using the wire during that period.'

Room for improvement
Such inefficiencies drove the bureau to look for a better way. First, the technical team checked out large enterprise frameworks.

Unfortunately, management applications have a reputation for being complex, difficult to support and extraordinarily expensive, said Dennis Drogseth, an analyst with Enterprise Management Associates in Boulder, Colo.

'For many users, this has, sadly, turned out to be true in practice,' he added.

The large enterprise apps proved to be more appropriate for the networks managed at the upper echelon of Agriculture, Schulke said.

He wanted a package that could monitor the network and provide the tools to keep it working without breaking his group's limited budget.

'These big monitoring systems are extremely expensive, require dedicated staff and have a steep learning curve,' he said.

The bureau heard about the government of Maine's use of WebNM. Network monitoring tools can often take a year or more to fully implement, but one technician loaded WebNM on the bureau's central server within three days.

That time also included work to customize the package for the bureau's environment.
The USDA bureau paid less than $30,000 for WebNM, its installation and customization, Schulke said.

Guardian angel

WebNM works with WhatsUp Gold, a network monitoring, alerting and recovery tool from Ipswitch Inc. of Lexington, Mass. WebNM analyzes network data and provides real-time information about network status, including use, latency, uptime and response time.

'I can see at a glance when performance is degrading and do something about it before the users even know there is a problem,' Schulke said.

If a router's memory overloads, for example, it could drop packets. The bureau's computer specialists can quickly spot the error and take action to prevent router overload, he said.

'I can tell management when we need to upgrade bandwidth, if we are continually experiencing heavy loads,' Schulke said. 'But equally, I can demonstrate to them locations where we have bandwidth that we never utilize and recommend that we downgrade it to save money.'

Schulke said the Food Safety and Inspection Service also is taking advantage of other WebNM features:

  • Consolidation of problem alerts: Instead of receiving 50 notifications if one device is down, the system identifies the device at fault and sends one alert.

  • Trouble ticketing: This feature lets users submit requests for help via the Web and lets the help desk track work electronically.

  • Remote administration: The help desk staff can remotely take control of a user's PC, determine the problem and fix it.

The bureau also uses the system to compile hardware inventories to track software licenses. The program is detailed enough to let the tech team include such information as brands, models, versions and other details.


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