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Networking

Switches

PortTracker

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PortTracker is an appliance that allows you to monitor what is, and what has been, connected to your network. So as well as seeing basic stuff like what’s connected to what switch, it also lets you investigate when a device was last seen, find quickly where a particular device (for example, something you think ought not to be connected) is, figure out your spare port capacity, and analyse your VLAN set-up.

The interface to the unit is a clean and fast web GUI. You’ll probably start at the Configure menu, which lets you define the fundamentals. The two important bits here are SNMP credentials and retry settings (so that the system can communicate with the networked devices) and the configuration of “pollers.” A poller is basically a PortTracker that interrogates network devices and then passes what it finds back to a central “master” unit; you can define which poller(s) handle which IP range(s).

Once you’ve configured the system, you can define the schedule upon which it goes out to find devices on the network and interrogate them, and also the schedule for PortTracker to sync its data with other management systems. At the moment, the only option for the latter is Alcatel/Lucent’s VitalQIP, but the plan is to add more over time.

Once you’ve finished setting the unit up (which is really pretty straightforward), and once it’s discovered (or you’ve told it about) the devices on the network, you can go ahead and view what it knows. There are two basic views: the Device View, which is oriented around looking at individual endpoint devices, and the Switch View, which shows you stuff by switch. So in the former view you have a line per device showing things like what switch and port it’s connected to, what VLAN it’s in, and so on; and in the latter you have a line per switch showing things like the number or ports in use, and the number of free ports. In both views you can customise what parameters are shown via a simple customisation screen.

In terms of the capabilities of PortTracker, that’s about it. The hyperlinking between sections in the GUI is sensible, and the online help is fine; I’d have liked to see more historical reporting, though – so in addition to seeing that device X was last seen connected to port Y of switch Z on 14 March, I’d like to be able to click on a history for that device, maybe get a clue as to what make it is via a lookup of the vendor’s Ethernet address header, and perhaps have a bit of interrogation of that device to see if there’s anything we can glean about what it is.

The main problem, though, is that PortTracker only currently supports Cisco networks for its interrogation. This is a sensible place to start, but the problem with being a single-vendor device is that you can probably do everything that PortTracker does using the tools that you get with your Cisco kit (after all, if you can afford enough Cisco kit to need a tool like PortTracker, you can probably afford Cisco’s management suite too).

So in its current form, PortTracker is limited and it’s difficult to justify buying one. But the vendors are in a classic Catch-22: do they launch with limited support and get their name known, or do they wait until they’ve got multi-vendor support but thereby delay getting out there for some months?

They’ve clearly gone for the first of these two options, and so they now have to pull their fingers out and bang in support for as many vendors’ kit as they possibly can, as quickly as they possibly can. They also need to talk to some system managers out there in the real world and ask them what ought to be added from the GUI and historical reporting perspectives.

And you know, if they do both of these in a sensibly short time, and they maybe consider whether they can bring the price down a bit (for example, by shipping as a software product that’ll sit on any old PC), PortTracker stands a chance of being a really rather useful bit of kit in a future version.



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