NetFlow: Tips on How to Analyze Your Network’s Bandwidth

Guest Post by Daniel Cawrey:

Though it is still a relatively new concept to network monitoring, NetFlow is often times unheard of by many IT professionals, having not even had the experience of working with it. But it’s such an interesting technology that I’m convinced that there are other applications for flow concepts in IT, perhaps on the web in terms of social media or some other yet-unknown element of personal computing. Regardless, here is an intro on what you need to know to analyzing bandwidth.

So, what is NetFlow? It was developed by Cisco, one of the stalwarts of the networking industry. Cisco decided to integrate NetFlow into many of its networking devices such as switches and routers. Today, many other networking companies have adopted NetFlow, and it has become somewhat of a defacto standard. There are other versions of flow on the market, but for the most part networking professionals use NetFlow.

A flow itself can be best defined as a sequence of packets that travel in a network. What makes this type of analysis unique is the fact that by using flow, you are able to distinctly recognize how your network’s bandwidth is being utilized.

From looking at the above diagram that depicts a network’s flow mapping, you instantly recognize that some network traffic is taking precedence over the rest. In many cases, this is something that networking professionals want to try and limit, and that’s what makes this such an effective tool.

More often than not there are more elements to IP-based networks that require solid bandwidth. The emergence of cost-saving technologies such as Voice over Internet Protocol and videoconference are fantastic ways to reduce the bottom line by leveraging new digital solutions. However, both of these systems require a network architecture that demands a certain degree of bandwidth. In some cases the only solution to generating more bandwidth “space” is to use flow analysis in order to being prioritizing network traffic protocols. This is often referred to as network performance management, or NPM.

When the option to implement new physical networking infrastructure versus NPM in order to make technology like VoIP or videoconferencing work, network managers will almost always utilize NPM. Why? Simply because it is a cheaper alternative. Consider the fact that implementing flow analysis coupled with NPM is a much more cost effective solution that building out a physical system. Plugging in NetFlow with network performance management is an intuitive step that most networking systems engineers would have no qualms in understanding.

Using NetFlow doesn’t necessarily mean you need to start with a full-blown NPM. You can get free easy to use NetFlow tools to try out and see if this solution would work for you. More often than not, you’ll be surprised to see how your network bandwidth is really utilized. If you’re looking to implement new physical equipment or a bandwidth intensive technical solution, you may want to try this out to get an excellent overview of your system’s capabilities as well as possible problems.

Daniel Cawrey is a freelance technology writer. In addition to writing about network monitoring topics, he also runs a blog about Google Chrome.

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