Search Our Site

Our Newsletter

Our Ramblings

Do Small Businesses Really Need Network Management?

We meet a lot of small business owners who experience a LOT of business pain because of badly performing or just downright failing networks. Network connections, (or put more simply your broadband connection and the ability to transact and communicate) have become essential for all but the tiniest fraction of businesses nowadays. Of course, its been the dilemma for as long as technology has been a factor in business that small businesses simply cannot afford to support their technological infrastructure in the way that they know they need to.

So whats to do? Most people are just winging it to be fair. The systems we buy nowadays for business are pretty good but far from perfect.

Of course the real trouble is never expected until it arrives.

So when the perfect storm of unaffordable costs to cover the systems we need and systems failure hits, we need to make decisions we really don’t want to have to make. Unjustifiable costs suddenly become justifiable in the face of the totality of the eclipse and the value proposition changes dramatically until everything is fixed, the network goes back to sleep and calm is restored. Until the next time.

This is where a low cost management solution from Rustyice Solutions really becomes your greatest asset. Our small unobtrusive RCAD (Rustyice Control & Access Device) will sit quietly inside your network continuously monitoring the health of your network devices and also your connection to the outside world.

Our systems offer 24x7x365 real time visibility of a multitude of measurable metrics within your network ensuring that, when coupled with our realtime SMS, Email and Messenger alerts component you are always fully informed about the health of your network systems.

Imagine your business broadband connection goes down in the middle of the night. You don’t want to be in the position where you are making the necessary telephone calls having just realised the problem when you arrive at the office at 8.30. With an RCAP that process can begin via our automated systems while you sleep and can potentially be resolved by the time you get to your front door.

An RCAP is much more than a broadband & network monitor however. Through your RCAP you can monitor anything on your premises such as motion sensors, fire alarm panels, smoke alarms, in fact anything that can be measured by a sensor. You can collect statistics on printer paper use, ACU health, HVAC system performance and even the levels in the coffee machine. The RCAP from Rustyice solutions really does it all and, with a customised dashboard designed by our engineers you will have all the data you need at your fingertips, alerting you at precisely the trigger points you require to ensure your business runs smoothly.

At the superbly affordable price of £14.99 per month why wouldn’t you?

Interested? Contact us today for a test drive. With no contracts and no commitments it really is an offer you can’t afford to refuse.

Contact us today to order your new RCAP.

The Warning Signs Your Network Needs Replaced

atlanticstormIf you think lightning can’t strike twice, think again. It can strike twice, thrice or even quarce. (Is that really a protologism?) A well known ferry operator on the West Of Scotland has the blown out network equipment to prove it. The coastal ferry terminals of Scotland are long standing facilities. Surprising to some, in the winter in Scotland, the seemingly constant procession of Atlantic storms frequently bring intense atmospheric instability with them as the UK’s TORnado and storm Research Organisation (TORRO for short) can testify. Lightning frequently is a major problem for many businesses in this area and it can have a devastating effect on their sensitive IT infrastructure. As Doug Rask, an IT manager in the area put it, “We would take an occasional lightning strike and the equipment would be fine initially, but after some days or weeks, they’d start falling over, and we’d have to analyse the problem and quickly get things replaced.” Lightning strikes are admittedly a bit of an extreme example, well concede, but they do qualify the problem of the constant environmental stresses and strains that your static sensitive network hardware has to face almost constantly.

When systems begin to show signs of this wear and tear, it can manifest itself in the shape of chronic network niggles such as poor throughput or frequent hangs, crashes and outages. The hardware may simply be coming to the end of its natural life, or perhaps the user enterprise has simply grown beyond the maximum capabilities of the network, says Pete Macsorley, IT manager at Corpach Pumps. Other factors that can cause an agency to consider a network refresh could be the deployment of new applications such as anti virus systems or phased migration and collaborative services. Usually the real world reason for a network overhaul is not just a single warning sign but a combination of multiple elements of the above.

CONSISTENT EQUIPMENT FAILURE

When lightning strikes a building, the earthing systems should and almost always will protect the systems but every now and again a strike of ferocious magnitude can overwhelm these safety systems to the point that damage is caused to the network  and IT equipment. “When we get strikes on our sites, it typically doesn’t kill of our systems there and then. It does however initiate a collapsing system which culminates in the eventual hard failure of equipment. This can take 3-6 months,” said Mark Forrest, IT engineer for a well known salmon farming company.

At some time in the next 6 months, the kit would begin to play up. Users would notice a badly performing network, intermittent hangs and patchy access to servers, forcing Forrest to carry out systematic fault finding and replace the failing kit. “Atmospherics and particularly lightning places a cost burden of 3 to 4 switches per hit” says Marks boss, Joe McGarry.

AGEING HARDWARE

headerAgeing or end-of-life networking gear can compel organisations to replace their systems, especially when the initial warranty expires and/or support organisations place a premium on their support due to the increased likelihood of call out and expensive engineering time. “Sometimes this cost uplift is so great that there is no option left but to replace new for old and enjoy the more relaxed maintenance landscape that ensues,” says Dan McDougall, CTO at a major food manufacturing company.

“Networks are there for one reason, to serve the business. Unless they’re failing too frequently, the main reason we would decide to upgrade the network is the cost of their support,” McDougall says. “Sometimes the kit on your business network is just so old that the cost of the warranty dwarfs the cost of new for old.”

For example, the salmon farming company mentioned previously recently needed to move their regional offices in Oban. It made perfect sense to look at equipping the new premises with a new network and servers because most of the kit at the old office was 5-9 years old and EOL (End Of Life), Forrest says “I was sure I didn’t want to be moving any of my old equipment that had been through the lightning hits more than once. I wanted new for old.”

They had also decided to move some services to the cloud such as their voice network services and had enhanced the resolution with which they remotely monitored the underwater salmon pens. They purchased 2 Cisco UCS servers, three new routers, eight switches and upgraded their WIFI network using Cisco Meraki, Furthermore in addition to moving to hosted voice, they improved the storage of their IP video inputs from the farm cages as well as a new access and building control system which also used the network. This network upgrade brought with it gigabit networking to the desktop and has markedly increased the performance and efficiency of the business unit.

For example, in the past, bandwidth contention had sometimes resulted in the live video from the pens squeezing out the traffic for the very control systems which were used to enable the application of feed to the pens. The upgraded network, using 802.1q VLAN trunking was able to segment the traffic and ensure that the requirements of each business process were safeguarded. Bandwidth contention had become a thing of the past. Finally and perhaps ironically, they also installed a new earthing system and new earthing cable, which should protect the new locations sensitive electronic equipment more effectively from future lightning strikes.

CREATING BANDWIDTH

Sometimes, the introduction of new applications on the network necessitates a network upgrade. For example, VoIP (hosted or owned) or realtime video services can place very specific demands on a network and if it isn’t up to the job, a refresh can prove inevitable,

An increased rollout of virtualisation and thin client technology can also drive cost savings in terms of network user hardware which may be partially offset by the costs of the new network to support it.

CONTINUOUS PHASED APPROACH

tick-tock-google-searchSome agencies adopt what is best described as a continuous phased approach to keeping the network at the cutting edge. This can prove to be a useful mitigation to the sometimes problematic expense of replacing the whole network every few years as well as enabling financial planners to smooth the requirement for capital across many financial years. It’s a cost-effective way of keeping the network stable and up to date.

DB Refrigeration in Ayr, for example, has gradually upgraded most of its 15 wiring-closet switches since 2012 and will replace a few more this year, says IT manager, Connor Piacentini.

This autumn however, it was the core routers turn to be replaced. The IT department upgraded its Gigabit Ethernet Cisco Catalyst 6509 core switch to a 6509-E which could support 10 Gigabit Ethernet. “It was 8 years old, so we knew we had to upgrade it finally,” Piacentini says.

SHARED SERVICES

Consolidation by agencies of the use of their expensive network resources seems to be a popular way to save costs these days. For example in the Public Sector, many regional councils share some of the higher end networked resources making the burden on each organisation smaller. This can however mean that the new network  must be far more capable than any of the incumbents.

Police Scotland, following its recent merger has to build regional backup emergency operations facilities, so if disaster strikes and one goes down, another can take over. The investment requires new network equipment to build the WAN. It is speculated at this time that they are also negotiating with infrastructure providers to build a proprietary fibre ring.

Upgrade Advice

1. Plan for future needs. When deciding how much bandwidth you need and what equipment to buy, don’t assess for your current needs. Spec it out for five years from now. A good rule of thumb is to plan for a 50 percent increase in bandwidth usage and a 30 percent increase in the number of employees.

2. Pair a network upgrade with a larger technology project. It’s often easier to prove return on investment and get a network upgrade funded if it’s tied to a bigger project. When IT administrators propose a private-cloud deployment, for example, they can argue that a network upgrade is critical for good cloud performance.

3. Purchase maintenance contracts only on the most critical equipment, such as main routers and switches. Purchasing contracts on all equipment can be cost-prohibitive. It can be cheaper to purchase one backup wiring closet switch and use that if a switch fails instead of purchasing contracts for each switch.

Environmentals

479817It’s not uncommon for small businesses to begin operation by stacking server hardware and network appliances on a desk or shelf. Though such a deployment is inexpensive, the pile of equipment invariably expands into an unmanageable mess with the growth of the company. Exposed equipment is also completely open to physical tampering and is a ticking time bomb for accidents such as coffee spills, dust or even workers tripping over wires.

However, rack-mount equipment is designed specifically to properly house this type of hardware. While these tend to be pricier than their non-rack mount equivalents, it’s arguable that being easier to manage far exceeds the cost premium. In addition, shelves and drawers designed for mounting onto the server rack are widely available; these let racks work with non-rack mount appliances as necessary.

Setting up a server rack is more than just twisting a few screws to secure the equipment into place. Proper cable management can’t be overstated, as just about every piece of equipment in the rack is linked with Ethernet cables. Intra-cabinet wiring aside, it makes sense to terminate cable runs for Ethernet LAN points for desktop computers, IP cameras and other network appliances at the rack.

Finally, don’t skimp on labeling and documenting your setup, even for relatively simple deployments. What may be obvious to the employer setting it up could be missed by a new IT staffer or a vendor contracted to work on certain aspects of the system. Time savings aside, proper labeling reduces the likelihood of catastrophic mistakes such as a mission-critical system getting unplugged or restarted without adequate warning.

The simplest way to properly label your infrastructure? Purchase a label printer from a hardware shop. Servers and network appliances should be labeled with unique descriptive names and their IP addresses. Ditto for other equipment such as keyboard, video and mouse switches, NAS appliances, routers, data backup devices and redundant hardware.

Detailed notes describing important procedures relating to your on-premises hardware should be printed out and attached to the server cabinet with tape or refrigerator magnets. These notes should contain important operating instructions relating to networking, data backup or shutting down (or starting up) the equipment in the event of a power outage.

Can we really make Autonomic Network systems succeed?

The real world is uncertain. Thats a given. Our networks, at their most fundamental, carry the real world from one point to another and therefore by definition carry that uncertainty during every moment they operate. Any autonomic system which seeks to properly manage our networks faces this challenge of pervasive uncertainty. They will always be constructed around that dichotomy of bringing order to chaos by applying their adaptive techniques to create order from chaos. If we map too much of that adaptation into the systems, they become cumbersome and unwieldy. We therefore need to smooth the chaos curve in order to drive autonomic systems design in a direction that will maintain their efficacy. How might we do this? Read on for our thoughts.

We are currently engaged in a conflict with the increasingly complex systems we seek to create which we are losing. Things may have become easier for the end user(arguably), but these systems which provide the end user more simplicity mask a corresponding increase in the the complexity of the underlying systems which support them. This affects the economics of viability of new developments in the marketplace and actually makes some of them non-viable. This situation forces us into choices that we cannot make on an informed basis and our decisions may end up fossilising parts of the network so that future development becomes uneconomic or infeasible.

In principle, autonomic network systems are founded on the principle that we need to reduce the variability that passes from the environment to the network and its applications. In latter years, many companies including Rustyice Solutions have brought products to the market that simplify the management of networks by offering levels of abstraction which make configuration easier and allow the network to heal itself  on occasion. These products tend to smooth the chaos curve and increase the reliability of the systems without the involvement of a low level re-inspection of the systems themselves. They do this by integrating the available information from different semantic levels and leveraging it to give the systems a more holistic view from which to consider the operational status of themselves.

Lets consider what we expect of an autonomic system. It can be defined in terms of a simple feedback loop which comprises information gathering, analysis, decision making and taking action. If the system is working properly then this feedback loop will achieve and maintain balance. Examining these elements one by one, information gathering can come from network management platforms which talk to the discrete nework components on many levels as well as environmental and application based alerts. Analysis can mean such activities as applying rules and policies to the gathered information. Decision making is the application of the analysis against the rules and policies to determine whether or not they meet the conditions set out in the policies and taking action could involve adjusting network loads on managed elements and potentially informing humans who need to take some form of action. These are the fundamental terms with which we seek to understand any requirement from any of our own customers.

This sounds fine in theory but what do we need to understand in order to make it work? The network is currently modelled on a layer based concept where each of the layers has a distinct job to do and talks only to its neighbour layers as well as its corresponding layer at the distant end of the communications link. This model has served us well and brings many distinct advantages including hardware and software compatibility and interoperability, international compatibility, inter layer independence and error containment. It does however carry some disadvantages with it too and most significant of those in terms of this discussion is that of the lack of awareness at any point in the system of the metadata which is why we have the networked systems in the first place. The question of whether the network is doing what it is needed to do at the holistic level is something which no discrete layer ever asks, nor should it. It almost comes down to a division between the analogue concerns of the real world versus the digital, yes/no, abilities of the systems themselves.

Taking this discussion a step further we need to improve our ability to ascribe the real world requirements which are the reasons these networks exist and why we build them to the systems which we intend should be capable of making decisions about whether the systems are working or not. Can these systems really know whether or not the loss of a certain percentage of the packets in a data-stream originating on the netflix servers will impact the enjoyability of somebody watching the on demand movie they have paid for. From a higher perspective, the question becomes whether we can really design autonomic decision making systems that could understand the criteria the real world applies to the efficacy of the network and base their decisions on that finding. They also need to be aware of the impact any decisions they make will have on the efficacy of any other concurrent real world requirements.

There are many mathematical abstractions which seek to model this scenario in order to predict and design the autonomic behaviours we require of our systems and you will be relieved to read that we do not propose to go into those here. In principle however we need to move towards a universal theory of autonomic behaviour. We need to find an analytic framework that facilitates a conceptual decision making model relating to what we actually want from the network. We need to couple this with an open decision making mechanism along the lines of UML in order for us to fold in the benefits of new techniques as they develop and ultimately we need to be able to build these ideas directly into programming languages such that they better reflect the real world systems we want on a higher level of abstraction.

In conclusion, we can say that autonomics is a multi level subject and we need to take account of these different semantic levels. We need to build an assumed level of uncertainty into our programming in order to maximise our ability to engineer autonomic systems and we need to develop standards in order to further enable the capability of our systems in this area. These are the fundamental points which we at Rustyice Solutions begin any discussion with respect to network management and more especially autonomic networking such as WAN acceleration. If you or your business are interested in examining this topic in more detail with a view to enhancing the value which your network brings to the table why not give us a call. We look forward to hearing from you.