Know your network

Milwaukee County uses discovery tool to keep network humming

Milwaukee County, Wis., provides government services and operates the local court system for the city of Milwaukee and the surrounding area. County officials maintain a wide-area network (WAN) that reaches 40 buildings countywide.

Like most government budgets, the county's budget has shrunk in recent years, forcing staff cutbacks. In the information technology department, network managers have found it increasingly difficult to gather information about the network to help them fix problems and maintain performance levels.

Cost of inaction

Before the county reduced its staff, administrators managed the network manually. Documenting what was attached to the network, even generally, was time-consuming and labor-intensive.

"Three of us would visit the different sites and trace all the connections," said Francesca Dawson, a network technical specialist for the county.

To collect more detailed information about devices connected to local-area networks and which LANs connected to the county's WAN, administrators faced an almost impossible task. They would have needed to document every port connection and look at every hard drive in the county's inventory of about 3,500 PCs, 200 switches, 45 routers and more than 200 printers connected to the network.

As a result, county officials had a costly process that produced minimal results. "We could not drill down to the level of detail that automated tools could," Dawson said.

Administrators struggled when they tried to remotely troubleshoot problems because they didn't know how the devices were configured, how disks were partitioned, which software version was deployed or how the devices were connected to the network. At best, the lack of information slowed their efforts. At worst, an administrator needed to go to the site.

The fix

To solve the problem, network administrators purchased Neon Software's LANsurveyor. The solution does not fit neatly into a network management category because it performs automated network discovery and documentation.

"Neon says it does network management, but it doesn't do provisioning or take any actions, like turning something off," said Dorian Cougias, an independent network management consultant. "What it does do is discovery and reporting."

Specifically, LANsurveyor maps the entire network and identifies every device that has an IP address, including IP telephones, said Jamie Laudin, a spokeswoman for Neon. It also continuously scans the network and tracks changes.

LANsurveyor was exactly what Milwaukee County officials needed, they said. "It tells us the switches, what ports are active," Dawson said. "It lets us drill down to details. We can see what kind of PCs there are and how many volumes are on a hard drive. That's more information than we could ever get manually."

Neon's enterprise package accommodates an unlimited number of PCs. Neon charges by the number of management stations, and Milwaukee County required one. The enterprise package costs $12,500, but the county was eligible for a 20 percent government discount, reducing the final price to about $10,000.

The payoff

Savings for Milwaukee County came quickly. The software eliminated the need to send administrators to county sites to document network changes. In addition, when changes occur, the solution lets administrators update the network documentation quickly and easily.

"The only time we would go out is if there is a major problem that needs someone to be on site physically," Dawson said. "But having such good documentation lets us handle almost everything" from headquarters.

Although county officials have not calculated the savings from using LANsurveyor, the three network administrators are more effective and productive because they have current, accurate documentation, Dawson said.

Radding is a freelance journalist based in Newton, Mass. He can be reached at alan@radding.net.

Words to the wise: Picking the tool
  • Research the options. More than a dozen products provide the capabilities that Milwaukee County, Wis., administrators sought, and the products’ prices varied. County officials used online research to find information about the products and help them narrow their choices.

  • Try the tool. County officials tested Neon Software's LANsurveyor demonstration application to make sure the package would fulfill their needs.
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