NetFlow-infused systems watch for trending, traffic patterns, network abnormalities

Supply chain visibility systems are essential for companies looking to do more than just track movement of supplies from point A to point B. The same can be said of network behavior analysis (NBA) systems, as they not only monitor IT network activity point to point, but allow users to identify and quickly resolve traffic issues.
By Karen Dilger (kadilger@comcast.net) May 1, 2008

Supply chain visibility systems are essential for companies looking to do more than just track movement of supplies from point A to point B. The same can be said of network behavior analysis (NBA) systems, as they not only monitor IT network activity point to point, but allow users to identify and quickly resolve traffic issues. They also detect capacity issues and potential security concerns before they become major problems.

As a software category, NBA functionality includes network management, visibility, and security. NBA solutions incorporate NetFlow technology, a de facto standard first developed by network equipment giant Cisco .

NetFlow replaces traditional network polling, which targets certain systems. Instead, NetFlow sends a broadcast message across the entire network to receive detailed traffic data.

“Rather than doing an SNMP [simple network management protocol] query across a wide area network, messages are sent to our data center, which monitors the network, says Adam Powers, CTO of Lancope , an NBA solutions supplier. “The system pinpoints anomalies and tells users who’s talking to who. It gives alerts when lines need to be replaced, and analyzes patterns and trends.”

If routers are oversubscribed, network performance is slow, and messages can get lost. Lancope’s StealthWatch system alerts users when bandwidth or the LAN is nearing capacity. “A dashboard shows IT or help-desk users what systems have the highest usage and most problems,” says Powers.

Lancope’s StealthWatch system extends network and security operational intelligence to all groups within IT. Role-based technology enables customized views, delegated operation and reporting of security, traffic accounting, interface utilization, and host or user behavior.

StealthWatch also functions as a security system by sending messages to network intrusion detection devices, looking at behavioral data and signatures, and watching for variations or abnormalities that would signify a security problem. “It looks at packets of data, similar to the way virus-scanning devices work,” says Powers.

Lancope’s system is geared toward larger companies with sizable networks. The system can reach up to 5,000 hosts in a network, and from 50 to 500 routers can be managed.

For example, StealthWatch monitors network activity across 215 locations for Atlanta-based Oldcastle Architectural Products Group . Prior to using the system, the company did not know who or what was causing network slowdowns, and IT staff used multiple tools to troubleshoot incidents.

Today, the help desk can see users traversing the network, the ports and services in use, and any alarms associated with a specific user. For example, StealthWatch helped identify streaming Internet radio as the cause of performance problems with Oldcastle’s ERP system.

NBA systems function as valuable management tools by building a detailed, real-time view of network activity.

“Traditional network security systems are less real-time than NBA systems,” says Phil Hochmuth, a senior analyst for Boston-based Yankee Group . “NBA is very close to real time, sending trending data within seconds.”

Hochmuth says to watch the network infrastructure market, with Cisco Systems leading and Juniper Networks making gains. “There could be some activity from Cisco or other companies that want to leverage their own network data since they are the ones producing it,” he says. “NBA suppliers are simply analyzing the data.”