O Improving Network Visibility

Numerous methods exist for providing network visibility. Some provide greater stability and reduced packet loss. Other methods take a significant toll on the network and can possibly cause a complete lack of functionality.

The first place to start is to assess the network architecture and determine the capabilities of the switches and traffic monitoring devices. This involves identifying any switches incapable of spanning or lacking sufficient resources to perform spanning without adversely affecting network performance and packet loss. (Spanning is a functionality that involves funneling all traffic from one or more ports to another single port for inspection via an IDS, monitoring tool, or other mechanism.)

Next you want to verify that the interface performing the spanning is actually capable of the load that will traverse it. For instance, if you have a switch with twenty 10/100 interfaces and nineteen of the interfaces are spanned to one 10/100 interface, data will be lost because the switch is not able to funnel that much traffic to a single interface during times of high bandwidth utilization. The result is poor visibility on that switch. A better configuration would be to use a switch that has two gigabit interfaces in addition to the 10/100 interfaces. Use the 10/100 interfaces for workstations and use one of the two gigabit interfaces for spanning. Depending upon the size and configuration of your environment, the other gigabit interface would probably be used for trunking (switch-to-switch communication allowing proper treatment of Virtual Local Area Networks or VLANs), particularly if your environment utilizes VLANs, which are used to create multiple broadcast domains and segment groups of network traffic.

It is advisable to limit workstations and low-use servers to 10/100 interfaces (or set the mode to 10/100 if all interfaces are gigabit) and reserve gigabit traffic for spanning, trunking, or high-use servers.

Furthermore, spanning should not include gigabit interfaces, such as to high-use servers, because the results can be unreliable. High-use servers should have their own dedicated Ethernet taps monitoring traffic. Ethernet taps are devices that connect to and intercept traffic on a network segment by being plugged directly into the network cable that joins the two network segments. An Ethernet tap looks like a hub and essentially takes one input and converts it to two or more outputs. One of the outputs makes a connection to the originally intended destination and the other connects to one or more monitoring devices. This allows traffic to the remote node or network to be captured and inspected without having any impact whatsoever on the network itself, such as would be caused by port spanning or rspanning.

Spanning is a great technology and a very useful tool but has its limitations. It is essential that the maximum aggregate bandwidth of all interfaces not exceed the maximum usable bandwidth of the spanning interface and/or the backplane of the device, in order to maintain the integrity of the network as well as the quality of the monitoring.

Other forms of spanning, such as RSPAN, have even greater limitations and should be used with extreme caution in only very low-bandwidth utilization situations and preferably not at all. RSPAN is a functionality provided by Cisco switches that allows spanning traffic from remote switches to another switch, such as a core switch. In theory, all network traffic could be spanned from all switches in an environment to a single IDS on a single port.

While this may seem like an innovative idea, it can have a profoundly negative effect on network stability. Using RSPAN even under a light/medium load can cause both the remote and core switches to malfunction or drop packets or network connectivity to be intermittent or fail altogether. In practice, it has the undocumented functionality of potentially creating a distributed denial of service situation. If this feature is enabled and a network has a moderate amount of traffic, network administrators might have to walk from switch to switch with a laptop and a console cable disabling RSPAN.

Figure 5-1 shows some of the issues discussed thus far. Note that RSPAN is spanning all ports on the satellite switches to the core switch, which is spanning all interfaces (even those for high-use servers) and RSPAN traffic to a single interface being fed to the IDS.

At the very least, RSPAN is a recipe for very poor network visibility. But as mentioned earlier, it also creates a potential denial of service situation on the network. The probability that all traffic intended for the IDS will arrive without loss in this configuration is very low.

desktops

desktops

Low-use file server

desktops

Figure 5-1 Low visibility network

Low-use file server

desktops

Figure 5-1 Low visibility network

Figure 5-2 shows a completely different setup. It shows the above network reconfigured using the preferred methodologies for optimizing visibility discussed earlier. Each satellite switch has its own link from the gigabit spanned port to the IDS. The core switch only spans low-use servers and workstations to a single gigabit port, which directly connects to the IDS. Also, each high-use server has a dedicated Ethernet tap that is used to splice into traffic to the server and is connected separately to the IDS. Configuring the network this way is more robust, increases performance, and reduces packet loss.

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