Managing your client's network

Managing your client's network

So, your network integration business is going gang-busters and you're installing networks for the rich and famous and you need a dump truck to take your earnings to the bank. After about six months, you seem to have no new customers, and your existing customers aren't installing more networks - but they keep your phones running hot. Now you only need a glomesh purse to take your earnings to the bank.

What went wrong?

Perhaps you didn't sell your customers any network management tools. You figured if you sell them those tools, they'll fix their own problems and not hire you to get their systems back on the air. Bzzzt. Wrong answer. Thanks for coming.

If you'd sold them the right net management tools, they would still call you to fix things that break, but you'd arrive knowing what to fix, instead of wasting time staring at the tangle of wires in what used to be a neat wiring closet. Well, it was neat when you installed it, wasn't it?

Drawing a road map

You might not even have a diagram of the network. And without any tools, the customer sure as hell didn't add the moves and changes to the network pictorial, even if you gave them one as part of your proposal.

The last thing you want is to turn your business into the Sherlock Holmes Network Detective Agency. Your customers won't keep paying you to figure out how their networks operate before you figure out why it's stopped. They expect you to walk in, grab the broken part by the throat, rip it out and install a shiny new toy and leave them humming along finishing the month-end processing. You already know that networks never crash unless you make them do month-end processing.

If you don't already have a network drawing program, head on over to and take a look at Visio Technical. Unlike AutoCAD and similar technical drawing programs, Visio really was meant for dummies like us. The problem with AutoCAD and its siblings is that you are already supposed to be the sort of person who can draw straight lines without a ruler, using both hands at once. Visio is so easy to use that you really can offer three different network layout options that can be easily followed, and you can do it in less than an hour, first time at the keyboard.

If you want to take things even further in the drawing department, scoot over to www.netviz.comand download their demo code. This package is nearly as easy to use as Visio, but works on the layer-upon-layer-upon-layer concept so popular with Sara Lee pastries. You start with a building plan then drill down to a floor plan, then drill down to a closet and so on. And this can be sold to your client for their own use in keeping things up-to-date. You might even be able to sell them some training, but if your clients are that thick, you might want to move straight to the next site and forget the whole thing.

Now you've installed a network based on a nice network schematic and the customer has bought their own copy of this fabulous software. Next time you go on site, you take a fresh copy of their diagrams before you begin. If you're really on the ball, you dial-up their site before you leave the office, on the modem link that you also sold them.

What to do if the client just plain forgot to update the drawings, and heaven forbid, hired some other turkeys to make network changes before calling you in after the whole thing crashed? Well, a bit of forward planning here would have helped.

You obviously sold them a network management package when you did the install, so using the console you can quickly see what is now on the network that wasn't there before. And you can also see that Shirley's PC in accounts has magically reduced its RAM to 8Mb since you set the thing up. Of course, you could have found out all this information by dialling up their management console over the modem link you sold them. Right about now, you are thinking "this bozo expects me to sell HP Open View to people whose entire network costs less than the management package". What? You don't like a challenge?

If your customer is installing a network of Unix servers from IBM, Sun or HP, they probably have pockets deep enough for a copy of NetView, SunNet Manager or Open View. You knew that. But nowadays everyone wants to run their network on Windows NT, and some still keep installing Netware. Don't despair, there are seriously good network management tools for these budget network platforms.

Staying informed

You should take a good look at the offerings from the vendors themselves, Systems Manage-ment Server from Microsoft, and ManageWise from Novell. Both these products integrate seriously well with their parents' operating environments, and will tell you all sorts of things you didn't know about the network they are plugged into. They can also automate the installation of new programs on all the attached workstations. Now you know how your opposition can promise to install Office 97 on every PC in the building with a quote for two hours of labour. They get the network management system to do the work after hours, while they lay back at the pub counting their cash.

If you sell one of these products to your customer, you'll both be better informed about what is happening on their network, often in advance of the disaster waiting to happen. There's nothing quite as impressive as the sight of a network consultant walking through the door with a solution before the customer has picked up the phone to report the problem. Of course, you figured this out using the modem link that you sold them when you installed the network management software.

Other vendors worthy of consideration for managing networks are Intel, McAfee and Seagate. Intel's LANdesk product is a nice fit across both Microsoft and Novell platforms, and McAfee's recent acquisition of the old Sabre group has seen a collection of useful stand-alone tools merged into a single console management system using a common interface. Seagate has been on a similar acquisition trail, buying up smaller network management utility companies and rolling out the Seagate Desktop Management Suite as their integrated end product. None of these products will cost your customer more than the operating system they manage.

When the going gets tough, the tough get sniffing. When the network starts to do really interesting things with your customer's data, Network General is the name to remember and the product is the Sniffer. If you've got little orange collision lights glowing on every hub, and users rebooting at random, it's time to call in the big guns. But if you can't afford to own one of these babies, you probably can't convince your customer to buy one either.

But don't despair - the folks at Network General will rent you one, a day at a time, and the Sniffer will tell you stuff you didn't know networks did even when they were healthy. You might need their distributed Sniffer if you want to know what's going on across the other side of the routers, but customers with networks that span multiple routers might be convinced to own a Sniffer outright.

A relatively new offering from Network General is their Service Level Manager. This software is a real no-brainer to operate and it can save big money over buying all the other toys and trying to figure out which toy to use to find which fault. The basic philosophy is that you get the network running properly, then tell the software that you are happy. From that point on, the monitoring tool compares now with then and presents the data as a health indicator. So rather than being told that throughput has exceeded 38 mega whatsits per fortnight, you are politely advised that "performance is 98 per cent". I can understand that. If things become "unhealthy" then your customer calls you in to fix the problem. No need to make a packet frame analyst out of everyone.

It's been said before, but it needs saying again. 70 per cent of network downtime is due to bad cable days. So, step one in network management is making sure the cable plant is in good order before you install a single hub or server. If your cabling contractor doesn't give you the results from their scanners for every single wiring run, get yourself a new cabler. Although you probably don't pull your own cable, (does Austel know you're doing that?) you should buy yourself a cable scanner. See the folks at Microtest or Fluke, to name just two. You might be able to sell one of these to a big customer. Don't forget to buy the cable management software that is an optional extra with these scanners.

The cable management software makes it trivial to download the results from these scanners, produce reports, and store the information so that you can decide later whether the cable will handle gigabit ethernet. Sure, you can download from these things into hyper terminal but why do it the hard way? At around $400 for the software, you might well be able to convince the customer to own their own cable database.

If you start out with a plan to have every network you sell properly managed by the customer, using network management software installed by you, then the problems you get asked to solve will be real rather than imaginary. And you can get back to more serious things like winning the tender for the WAN link to the Hunter Valley wineries.

Useful web sites to visit:

The Network Management Resources Home Page has been established to provide a comprehensive link to the latest developments in network management products, technology and standards. This web page is dedicated to the LAN/WAN administrator and the quest for a proactively managed server functions as the archive base for, as well as for a place to bring together references to other applications and servers. In addition, this site acts as a mirror site for applications, utilities and FAQs pertinent to network management.www.ddx.comThe Strategic Information Resources site run by the amazing Nathan J Mullar. This dude has written over 1000 articles and 12 books on network management. His site has reprints of large numbers of his words of wisdom, reviews of network management software and links to just about everywhere else that deals with the topic.

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