UK academic shows US IT giant how to improve flagship network monitoring tool

Manchester lecturer improves on Hewlett-Packard's Openview.

Manchester lecturer improves on Hewlett-Packard's Openview

It is not often UK users get the chance to show large US IT firms such as Hewlett-Packard how things should be done. But after Manchester University encountered problems with HP's Openview, it created its own network management software.

In 1996 Dave McClenaghan, a lecturer in network administration at Manchester University, had the unenviable task of implementing a network management system for Superjanet, the UK's academic network. The tool of choice was HP Openview, still regarded by many network engineers as the premier network monitoring tool.

McClenaghan believed there were huge limitations to Openview. He was unhappy with the way it collected the statistics required to monitor equipment (or nodes) connected to Superjanet. He also thought Openview took far too long to produce these reports and that the files could not be archived as they were too large.

His first foray into improving Openview was Murt (Manchester University Reporting Tool), a tool written in the Perl scripting language to speed up the reporting. Murt took McClenaghan about four months to develop and he said it would be able to reduce the time taken to produce reports by a factor of 100. "It used to take 18 hours, but with Murt, reports could be analysed in a matter of minutes," he said.

The second problem with Openview was highlighted at the University of Nottingham in 1997. McClenaghan was contacted by frantic network administrators at the university, concerned that the network was running incredibly slowly.

An analysis of the problem revealed Openview was polling each of the 6,000 PCs at the university, creating a huge amount of network traffic.

Clearly, polling every device on the network was not the answer for Superjanet. Rather than retrieve all the statistics from every device connected to the network, McClenaghan wanted to retrieve only certain statistics. With a subset of network data it should be possible to determine the root of any network problem, according to McClenaghan.

These problems with Openview were compounded by the complexity of the software. McClenaghan recalled presenting a paper on monitoring Superjanet with Openview to a technology policy forum for academics at the University of Belfast in March 1997, where, he said, there were many puzzled faces. "I found Openview very difficult to teach. It was so abstract and cryptic."

Given these limitations, McClenaghan was set to embark on a radical rethink of how Superjanet should be managed, challenging the status quo with regards to using Openview as the network manager's tool of choice.

"Nobody ever got fired for buying Openview," McClenaghan said. "But our experience at the University of Nottingham showed us its limitations." To resolve these problems, McClenaghan was asked to write a program to poll the network and check if a device failed to respond after a minute - essentially, a network event monitor.

McClenaghan had found two of the constituents of network management: Murt, as a reporting tool, and network event monitoring. McClenaghan then set himself the challenge of creating an Openview replacement for Superjanet. "I told my line manager I could write something better than Openview," he said. Having gained permission from the university, he worked 60-hour weeks for three years to build it.

Early in its development, the project received a funding boost when McClenaghan was asked to adapt Murt for the Trans-European Research Network that links academic institutes in Holland, Germany and France.

Further funding came when Manchester University was awarded the contract to manage the National Web Caching Service, a web cache for UK academic institutes holding terabytes of web pages from around the world.

During a networking conference held at Herriot Watt University in 2000, a chance meeting with Andy Murray, a past academic contact of McClenaghan's, gave the opportunity to use the tool commercially. At the time, Murray was working as an independent IT consultant. Murray saw McClenaghan's presentation and realised that the networking concepts McClenaghan discussed could be developed for one of his customers.

Working with Manchester Innovation, the arm of the university set up to commercialise its research, Murray and McClen-aghan, along with another Manchester alumnus, George Neisser, set up network tools firm Mutiny.

Using McClenaghan's software as the basis, Murray, McClenaghan and Neisser worked with the Manchester Visualisation Centre at the university to create a browser-based graphical user interface.

Mutiny has now been redeveloped in C and Java and is being sold as a network management system which runs on a Linux-powered server appliance supplied and distributed by Toshiba.

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