One of the things that we have noticed with reporting tools lately, including ntop (the reporting tool we integrate), is that there is no easy way to show instant bandwidth for a user. Most reporting tools smooth out usage over some time period, a 5 minute average is the norm.
For example, this popular Netflow Analyzer touts a 10 minute average, right from the FAQ on their main page it states:
“Real-time Bandwidth Reports for each WAN link
As soon as Netflow data is received, graphs are generated showing details on incoming and outgoing traffic on the link for the last 10 minutes.”
No where can we find a reasonable bandwitdh monitoring tool that will show you instant, as of this second, bandwidth utilization. We are sure somebody will e-mail us to dispute this claim, and if so, we will gladly publish their link and give them credit on our BLOG.
When is an Instant Bandwidth Reporting Tool useful?
1) The five minute average reporting tool is of little use when a customer calls and tells you they are not getting their expected bandwidth on a speed test or video. In these cases it is best to see the instant report while they are consuming the bandwidth, not averaged into a 10 minute aggregate.
2) If a customer has a fixed rate cap, and calls and reports that their VOIP is not working well. The easiest and quickest way is to check what their consumption is during a VOIP call is to see it now. You don’t need a fancy protocol analyzer to tell them they are sucking up their full 1 megabit allocation with their YouTube video specifically. You just need to know that their line is clear and that they are consuming the full megabit at this instant, thus exonerating you (the ISP or support person) from getting drawn down in the dregs of culpability.
For most IT administrators, bandwidth monitoring of some sort is an essential part of keeping track of, as well as justifying, network expenses. Without visibility into a network load, an administrator’s job would degrade into a quagmire of random guesswork. Or would it?
The traditional way of looking at monitoring your Internet has two parts: the fixed cost of the monitoring tool used to identify traffic, and the labor associated with devising a remedy. In an ironic inverse correlation, we assert that costs increase with the complexity of the monitoring tool. Obviously, the more detailed the reporting tool, the more expensive its initial price tag. The kicker comes with part two. The more expensive the tool, the more detail it will provide, and the more time an administrator is likely to spend adjusting and mucking, looking for optimal performance.
But, is it a fair to assume higher labor costs with more advanced monitoring and information?
Well, obviously it would not make sense to pay more for an advanced tool if there was no intention of doing anything with the detailed information it provides. Why have the reporting tool in the first place if the only output was to stare at reports and do nothing? Typically, the more information an admin has about a network, the more inclined he might be to spend time making adjustments.
On a similar note, an oversight often made with labor costs is the belief that when the work needed to adjust the network comes to fruition, the associated adjustments can remain statically in place. However, in reality, network traffic changes constantly, and thus the tuning so meticulously performed on Monday may be obsolete by Friday.
Does this mean that the overall productivity of using a bandwidth tool is a loss? Not at all. Bandwidth monitoring and network mucking can certainly result in a cost-effective solution. But, where is the tipping point? When does a monitoring solution create more costs than it saves?
A review of recent history reveals that technologies with a path similar to bandwidth monitoring have become commodities and shunned the overhead of most human intervention. For example, computer operators disappeared off the face of the earth with the invention of cheaper computing in the late 1980’s. The function of a computer operator did not disappear completely, it just got automated and rolled into the computer itself. The point is, anytime the cost of a resource is falling, the attention and costs used to manage it should be revisited.
An effective compromise with many of our customers is that they are stepping down from expensive complex reporting tools to a simpler approach. Instead of trying to determine every type of traffic on a network by type, time of day, etc., an admin can spot trouble by simply checking overall usage numbers once a week or so. With a basic bandwidth control solution in place (such as a NetEqualizer), the acute problems of a network locking up will go away, leaving what we would call only “chronic” problems, which may need to be addressed eventually, but do not require immediate action.
For example, with a simple reporting tool you can plot network usage by user. Such a report, although limited in detail, will often reveal a very distinct bell curve of usage behavior. Most users will be near the mean, and then there are perhaps one or two percent of users that will be well above the mean. You don’t need a fancy tool to see what they are doing; abuse becomes obvious just looking at the usage (a simple report).
However, there is also the personal control factor, which often does not follow clear lines of ROI (return on investment).
What we have experienced when proposing a more hands-off model to network management is that a customer’s comfort depends on their bias for needing to know, which is an unquantifiable personal preference. Even in a world where bandwidth is free, it is still human nature to want to know specifically what bandwidth is being used for, with detailed information regarding the type of traffic. There is nothing wrong with this desire, but we wonder how strong it might be if the savings obtained from using simpler monitoring tools were converted into a trip to Hawaii.
In our next article, we’ll put some real world numbers to the test for actual break downs, so stay tuned. In the mean time, here are some other articles on bandwidth monitoring that we recommend. And, don’t forget to take our poll.
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