Where Angels Don’t Fear to Tread: L.A. County’s Information Superhighway Operates Smoothly with Agilent NetMetrix

To monitor and troubleshoot its mission-critical 24x7 network, the IT Service of Los Angeles County employs Agilent Technologies' NetMetrix network performance monitoring solution.

With 9.6 million residents in 88 cities, The County of Los Angeles needs its networking systems running flawlessly. The county employs 90,000 people, representing nearly every trade profession – police officers, firefighters, clerks, drivers, attorneys, psychiatrists, scientists, scuba divers, welfare case workers, helicopter pilots, and so on. These people work in a complex set of agencies that ensure the well-being and safety of the county’s residents, and nearly two-thirds of these employees depend on computer access and the County’s intranet to do their jobs.

An extensive and powerful enterprise intranet, based on Internet technologies, serves L.A. County’s myriad operations. More than 50,000 computer users access the system to perform various daily activities, including looking up a patient’s medical record or providing up-to-date tax information. In addition, on any given day, L.A. County conducts business electronically with some 50 entities outside the county. Any network complications could jeopardize the realtime transfer of critical information.

To monitor and troubleshoot its mission-critical 24x7 network, the Information Technology Service of the Los Angeles County Internal Services Department (ITS) employs Agilent Technologies’ NetMetrix network performance monitoring solution (formerly HP OpenView NetMetrix), among other diagnostic tools. Armed with NetMetrix since 1994, L.A. County’s Network Control Center (NCC) sustains continuous operations through greater network visibility and in-depth analysis. Moreover, the NCC has increased the level and quality of services it provides to its thousands of customers.

"NetMetrix provides us with realtime, up-to-the-moment status on our network," comments Chuck Hollins, NCC Supervisor. "This technology, combined with other software tools, gives us the advantage of moving data expediently through our intranet."

FROM MAINFRAME TO INTRANET

In 1994, L.A. County began moving away from an exclusively host-based mainframe environment to a peer-to-peer network in which individual PCs are connected together via WANs and LANs. "L.A. County management foresaw that this type of computer arrangement was the way of the future," recalls Hollins. "Yet, we also knew that this network would bring new challenges. Thus, the Network Control Center was born to respond to these new needs, with a mission of keeping the lanes of our information superhighway free of traffic jams."

As ITS Network Engineers developed this network, the NCC realized that it did not have the right analysis tools to execute in-depth testing. This meant that they weren’t able to identify and untangle network problems, such as an overactive Novell Server, as quickly as they wanted. A variety of incidents, from excessive broadcasts to Token Ring beacons, can impede the flow of network traffic and increase a network’s response time. Should several of these events happen across L.A. County, users would not be able to access the information they needed, nor could they communicate with each other, thus creating a huge IT headache.

NETWORK PERFORMANCE MONITORING

"NetMetrix was our tool of choice from early on. We continue to use it because it allows us to deeply analyze our network to the benefit of our many users," comments Hollins. "We’ve also found that NetMetrix is easier to use compared with portable protocol analyzers."

The NCC runs NetMetrix/UX Internetwork monitoring and analysis software on its HP-UX operating system. The NCC has also installed more than 20 HP NetMetrix LAN/ WAN Probes to conduct remote analysis and troubleshooting on its intranet. The combination of NetMetrix/UX software and HP LAN/WAN Probes enables the NCC’s 12 network specialists to diagnose and repair network problems efficiently. NetMetrix gives L.A. County the ability to do what Hollins calls a "network blood scan."

"With NetMetrix we can see a lot of things that can cause problems in the network," he explains. "We can analyze packet capture and resource utilization, and we can see what devices are hogging the network."

For example, a person may be trying to transfer a file to another person in a different part of the county but are unsuccessful. "In the old days, we might call the recipient to work through the problem," Hollins says. "But, if they weren’t computer literate, we couldn’t identify, much less fix, the problem over the phone." Now with NetMetrix, the NCC can place a filter on the two computers’ IP addresses and, with data from NetMetrix probes, use NetMetrix to examine the data crossing through the entire chain. "We can filter on packet capture and see that the file request is going out, but that there’s no response."

Alternately, NetMetrix allows the NCC staff to filter the ports to see if an "unreachable" command is coming back. "Using either of those pieces of information, we can then determine what the problem is and fix it."

NetMetrix also helps L.A. County monitor network traffic. "We had big problems with flow response, and diagnosing those kinds of problems is where NetMetrix really excels." The application showed the top ten network resource users. "We saw immediately that one user was hogging 85 percent of the network availability," Hollins says. "And the next largest user needed less than 2 percent." The network was redesigned to isolate that user onto his own segment, correcting the problem and freeing up resources for the rest of the County’s intranet.

– Cymber Quinn is President of Technical Communications Corp. in Boulder, Colo. She can be reached at cymber@inktc.com.