Boost your network productivity for free with 'lost things'

Like Tinker Bell, network engineers can work magic by sprinkling fairy dust on formerly dormant equipment. And it doesn't cost a cent.

Parents who have raised girls over the last decade no doubt have experience with the Disney Fairies franchise and its star, Tinker Bell. More than just reveling in her Genesis story, it reveals the daily lives of Tinker Fairies and their particular preoccupation with collecting lost things -- objects gone missing from the human world. Tinker Bell is basically MacGyver in tights, a handy genius who saves the day with her natural powers of technical creation. She is clearly an engineer. She is one of us.

Tinker Bell is basically MacGyver in tights, a handy genius who saves the day with her natural powers of technical creation. She is clearly an engineer. She is one of us.

During a reluctant 39th viewing this past weekend, it occurred to me that Tinker Bell's daily struggle closely parallels that of just about every modern IT pro. She is often urged to do things the way they've always been done: to follow serviceable patterns that keep the seasons changing but offer no real innovation. Worse, there's no investment in network productivity enhancements designed to increase free time for whatever Tinker Fairies do on the weekends.

But like all of us in IT, breakthroughs occasionally spring from the knowledge and tools collected along the way -- though often with no particular applicability at the moment they are discovered. Tinker Bell finds lost watch parts. We find surplus routers still under license.

A network teems with lost things

How many times as a network engineer have you saved your own bacon with something you forgot was there -- supposedly decommissioned -- but something that still has power with an IP on the wire? For example, I recently found a co-worker transfixed with head tilted while looking at a dusty stack of retired Cisco 800 branch routers. Overlooked for years, they stopped him in his tracks when he realized they supported Cisco's Internet protocol service-level agreement (IPSLA).

The net admin realized the 800s were in essence free WAN service delivery probes for composite Salesforce Software as a Service application availability monitoring, VoIP assurance and more. They were his lost things. In a single afternoon, he used his Network Configuration Manager tools to blast out a common image then scattered them to the winds, shipping them to branch offices and asking local admins to plug them into switches behind their Cisco ASAs. The genius of this solution was that the cost was nearly zero. Tinker Bell would be proud.

IPSLA is really just the tip of the network iceberg of lost things. How many of your existing boxes support traffic flow monitoring right now without an image upgrade? If your routers and switches aren't completely ancient, the answer is many. Think of the possibilities. You can turn on the taps and start shipping NetFlow, sFlow and J-Flow to a collector. You can create simple network management protocol traps to catch configuration changes made locally outside of policy. You can grab your Address resolution protocol tables and visualize topology, routing, device-port-IP reporting and thus make infrastructure searching and discovery easy. You already scoop up your configurations with nightly backups, so why not run policy scans to expose security problems as well? All these capabilities and more are out there on your networks today, using technology that is already baked into the gear you have now. And it's paid for.

Fairy dust to the rescue

Tinker Bell and her associates routinely use fairy dust, the magical deus ex machina of swashbuckling Disney storytelling -- although if the Force turns out to be fairy dust rather than midi-chlorians, we'll be better for it. As network engineers, our magic to ensure everything works out is more practical, though no less powerful: third-party, vendor-agnostic monitoring applications. Whether free or commercial, these products combine output from all your scattered, embedded monitoring sources into coherent dashboards. Vendors often suggest the only way to light up a NOC view is to rip and replace, but you know better because you're an engineer, a master of lost things. 

As long as you have the curiosity to explore not just tomorrow's technology, but to also do a little digging into hardware already onsite, you'll always be able to make the most of your network productivity resources. You might even save the day. Remember, we are Tinkers. It's our calling. We routinely solve problems quickly with less fuss and on budget. Now, if we could only fly.

About the author:
Patrick Hubbard is a head geek and senior technical product marketing manager at SolarWinds. With 20 years of technical expertise and IT customer perspective, his networking management experience includes work with campus, data center, storage networks, VoIP and virtualization, with a focus on application and service delivery in both Fortune 500 companies and startups in high tech, transportation, financial services and telecom industries. He can be reached at [email protected].

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