Observer extends network view

As organizations focus on emerging technologies such as wireless networks and Web services, basic network monitoring has become passe.

Officials at Network Instruments LLC are hoping to change that perception with a new version of the company's suite of network analyzer software, Observer 9.0.

For less than $1,000, network administrators can scan and analyze network traffic on a 10-megabit Ethernet local-area network all the way up to a Gigabit Ethernet network — technology that is in the early stages of deployment in enterprises, but expected to be far more ubiquitous in the future.

Observer 9.0 also includes a multiprobe feature that provides simultaneous support for up to 64 network interface cards. This feature allows network administrators across the enterprise to collaborate on problem-solving by viewing a single interface from different remote locations. Conversely, one network administrator can monitor multiple locations on a network from a single location.

Lee Eilers, lead engineer for the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and longtime Observer user, is eager to see how the most recent version performs in a working environment.

"For what Network Instruments is offering, and the price at which it is being offered, Observer 9.0 does look to be ahead of the curve," Eilers said.

Close observations

Network Instruments LLC has rolled out a new version of network analyzer software — Observer 9.0 — to help network administrators manage increasingly complex networks.

Some key highlights include:

* Application analysis — tracks application session flows and provides statistics on errors.

* Advanced multiprobes — let one operator monitor multiple locations, or several information technology staff members simultaneously work on the same network interface.

* 4G memory buffer — allows for the analyses of more network packets.

* Wireless site survey mode — monitors and provides analyses of wireless networks.

This new product brings a welcome focus back to the network's physical layer transport, something that some administrators have taken too lightly lately, he said.

"Many people just don't know what their networks are doing anymore, and they definitely need a tool that will give them a better idea of what is going on in the physical layer," Eilers said. "They really can't know the network unless they know what's traversing the network."

Observer 9.0 provides an "offensive tool" for getting a handle on network problems before they can affect critical systems, he said. The multiprobe capability will be particularly useful for that, he said, as will the tool's ability to track application session flows and discover the cause of delayed response times and transaction failures.

"The way that network analyzers have typically looked at traffic has been address-by-address and device-by-device," said Douglas Smith, president of Network Instruments. "Now you can look directly at what is happening at the application- server level and at all of the transactions for information about specific applications, what failures are associated with those applications, and so on."

Smith also touted the product's 4G memory buffer, which will be a vital component as organizations address the new monitoring challenges increasing network speeds pose.

Up to now, most network analyzers have had a maximum memory buffer capacity of 100M, he explained, which has been adequate to capture information on traffic traversing the network at slower Ethernet speeds. But when networks are improved to the gigabits/sec level, 100M will basically allow just one-eighth of a second to define a problem.

Observer 9.0 should take Network Instruments beyond where anyone else is in network analyzers right now, said Mike Disabato, an analyst for the Burton Group.

"It's important to note that it's not a full-featured application analyzer, and it certainly doesn't provide the kind of functionality that something like a Compuware [Corp.] solution does," he said. "But what Network Instruments has now is a cut above other protocol analyzers."

Brian Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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