Support diary: Heather H. (Tuesday)

This week we're publishing the diary of an American network administrator living in the United Kingdom. Find out what happened to Heather on Tuesday.


Read Monday’s entry.

Tuesday, 5:20 A.M.
I realized last night that I made a mistake with yesterday’s entry. I didn’t actually get up at 4:45 in the morning; I got up at 3:45. I wondered how I got ready and to the airport so quickly.

This morning was more my normal time to get up, but I didn’t hear the alarm go off at 4:55, so I slept until 5:20. Time to get ready to go up to a big demo in Birmingham.

7:00 A.M.
I’m in the car and ready to roll. I’ve a full tank of petrol so I don’t have to stop off, and I know where I’m going. My appointment is 110 miles away, so I want to leave early enough to drive until rush hour traffic gets bad, take a break, and then set off again when it clears. Today this was definitely a good idea, as I was sleepy enough to take two breaks, one of which was prompted by one of the “Tiredness Kills—Take a Break” signs that are common before rest stops.

U.K. traffic is manic. The speed limit is 70, but everyone does either 90 or sits jammed in traffic. I hate both extremes as they eat petrol, and filling up my 12 gallon tank here costs me around $55.

9:38 A.M.
I’ve arrived at our appointment, which is just outside of the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. It’s with a very large computer manufacturer that is looking to add network health checks to its repertoire, using Sniffer. I call the salesperson to find out when he will arrive (he’s always late) and what we’ll be concentrating on (usually a bit vague). He says he’ll be there soon, and we’ll discuss it then.

10:03 A.M.
Salesperson shows up, three minutes late. Not bad, actually, as they’re not quite ready for us. He informs me that we’ll have a reseller with us, and we’ll be doing a Sniffer Pro demonstration. He’ll do a quick PowerPoint, and then over to me. We go to get set up, and talk with our contact.

There is some debate between the reseller and myself about how the demo should be done, and I resolve to agree to everything he says and then do what the customer wants. I’m a bit stubborn, me, but I try to interact with the customer on their level. Usually that means no PowerPoint, no bull—just product and what it will do in their environment.

11:00 A.M.
I love punctuality, and the customer lives up to my every wish. Somehow he has almost 30 people sitting down on the dot. It’s obvious that he’s respected.

Our salesperson begins his spiel. Unfortunately, I can tell he’s a little nervous in dealing with what must be a large crowd for him. Still, he gets the relevant points across and hands over to the reseller. The reseller shares his opinions on the product with them, and while I can tell that he’s been working with the product for a while and is quite technical, I spot some mistakes. Plus, he’s talking down to the customer, much as he did with me earlier. I hate going on after this sort of talk. The customer is naturally resentful of how they’ve been spoken to, and it’s up to me to make it up.

11:20 A.M.
Sudden change of plan. It turns out that the customer has seen Sniffer, and wants to see two other products—Reporter and Network Informant. This makes things interesting, as I do not have Reporter installed on my laptop and do not have a CD with me. Network Informant I have, but only as a canned demo.

Luckily for me, one of the people attending has a copy of Reporter, which he gets for me. I take my laptop off the projection screen and pop the CD into the drive. It’s a forehead install—just put the CD in, smack the keyboard with your forehead, and it’s away. The program queried me as to whether or not I had MDAC version 2.1 or later installed and offered to install it for me, which I said yes to. Then a reboot, and I’d have to configure it.

Sniffer Reporter is a great tool. It allows automated graphing of some lovely values gathered from the network. To give a basic idea of how it works, the Sniffer has a database feature that allows it to save values to a .csv file on the fly. This file is then imported into Reporter, which can utilize the information in creating reports. The reports can then be published to Excel file formats, Word, or straight to HTML.

Unfortunately, you need to tell the Sniffer to start saving this data and tell Reporter to start importing it. This is done by going to the Database menu on the Sniffer and selecting what values you want saved. I think I chose Utilization, Top Hosts, and a few others. To avoid disappointment, you must also tell the Sniffer how often to save these values. I chose to save every one minute, then opened up a trace file that we use to demonstrate the product. I went into the packet generator, choosing to send the buffer (i.e., the entire trace file) on a continuous basis. The data might not be particularly meaningful, but it would be there.

Then I had to configure the reporter agent. This meant opening it up and choosing the import interval for the product. I chose the minimum (one minute) again, in the hopes that by the time I had to show them the product it would have data. I then kicked off forced imports until suddenly I heard my hard drive paging frantically—the import had worked!

This process had taken about five minutes, from the time of putting the CD in. The salesperson tried to make eye contact with me, but I needed at least 20 seconds to test drive the product. After all, I was about to present it to a customer, and I had never actually seen it before or read about it. The salespeople continued to make small talk. I ran two reports, and then went for it.

11:25 A.M.
Deep breath. I looked up and nodded at the salesperson. Conversation trailed off, and I sent the CD back down the table to the gentleman who provided it. Time to make up for not having the product installed.

I decided to start off by showing them Sniffer anyway, just to “get everyone on the same page.” It turned out to be a reasonable thing to do, as some of them had only seen the old DOS versions of the product, and the GUI was a new thing for them.

Still, I did the world’s fastest demo of the product, showing the Expert Analysis tool and its improved troubleshooting of application layer issues. I also demonstrated the ability to determine visually what protocols were running on the network and which devices were responsible for the majority of traffic. Then I dove quickly into the visual filter function, which allows you to select a protocol or device, click a button, and separate out all devices running that protocol or talking to that device. Quickly again into the decodes, and then we were done.

They were starting to warm up a bit but were still intimidating. I had put on my broadest American accent and was busy pretending to be simple country folk with a "purty" tool, but it was taking a while. Normally they’d think I was totally guileless by now, but this group… Anyway, I still had to show them Reporter and Network Informant.

11:45 A.M.
Time to demo Reporter. It was freshly installed, and I had less than a minute's worth of exposure to the product; all I knew about it was what I had read in a memo a few weeks ago. This was my own fault, mind you. I could have set aside time to learn the product earlier. Maybe I’ve learned a lesson.

Or perhaps not. I opened up the product, told it to show us what data it had available for what dates, ran reports on utilization, protocols and a few other things, and it all worked brilliantly. Now they were interested, especially when I explained that it could all be automated. Even if they wanted Friday off, their Friday reports could be produced without needing their input. Ears perked up. I had hit the level of the room.

12:10 P.M.
I asked if there were any questions and there weren’t any. The benefits of telling people to just yell out their questions are many. ;-) I shut down my computer and whipped out my other hard drive, swapping and booting as fast as NT would carry me. Normally this particular hard drive is just for my use only, but I had put the product demo I needed on it so that I could study it while on the office network (my other hard drive is supposed to be quarantined.) This led to a minor embarrassment later, as I’ll explain.

12:12 P.M.
I opened my canned Network Informant demo. Luckily, Network Informant lends itself to the pre-made demo environment as the product displays itself via Web pages and has lots of pretty graphs.

The idea behind Network Informant is simple. There are two types of devices: the poller agent and the reporting agent. The poller agent is a device that sits on a network and interrogates your chosen SNMP-enabled devices for information about themselves. For instance, it might ask a Cisco router about its utilization, error counts, interface specifications, protocols passing through it, etc. It then uploads this information to a centralized database—the reporting agent. The reporting agent receives this information from a number of polling agents and saves it all to a SQL 7 database, which it then converts into graphs and displays in several Web-ready formats. The reporting agent also runs IIS, so that you can dynamically choose what data to view and create the report using a Web front end. The Web pages of data can then be copied to an intranet site, or viewed from the reporting agent. Clever!

I showed them some Cisco specific information, PVC congestion graphs, server utilization statistics, and how to drill down on the information to view things like interfaces. They seemed quite keen on that, and I was pleased that when they broke for lunch, one gentleman came over to talk to me. We discussed the product for a bit, and then looked down at my laptop where I had just minimized the product. My desktop was now visible.

He laughed, and pointed at an item on the desktop. Oh dear. The item he was pointing at was a .jpg file titled “Great Tits.” Unfortunately for me, I had saved this file to my desktop before sending it out to some colleagues. Working in an all-male department as I do, I get to enjoy the manly side of humor. One friend, Jason, had sent us all an e-mail simply entitled “Nice Pair of Jugs.” When we opened the .jpg, it was indeed a nice pair of jugs. Porcelain, I think.

Not to be outdone, I went online and searched for a picture of birds, specifically a picture of two blue tits. I found a picture of two great tits perched on a tree instead, which I used. I should have deleted the file.

As you might be able to tell, the U.K. is less PC than the U.S. But I blushed nonetheless.

12:55 P.M.
We’re done with the customer. They’ve all gone to lunch, and the next presenter is setting up, so we clear the room and head towards the lobby. The salesperson says that the demos went well, but I’m slightly less convinced. Still, I can’t improve on what has happened, only learn from it. I’m more or less happy, though, having just presented to about 30 people, all of whom were male, over the age of 45, and very senior. I think that the product speaks well for itself—I’m just there to provide the comic relief.

1:15 P.M.
Sitting in my car, I’ve just finished checking in with the office. I left messages for two colleagues with whom I was tentatively going to meet this evening. Hopefully they will be able to give me a call for the information they need, and I can work the rest of the day from home.

3:35 P.M.
The skies opened up outside of Birmingham, and I drove for about 50 miles before having to pull over. I’ve made it through Stratford and Warwick, but can’t make it to Oxford without letting the rain ease up a bit. Good time for a bit of lunch, which I eat in the comfort of my car. I’ve got the stereo turned up a bit, as singing along with the music helps keep me awake. Today it’s been Massive Attack, Natalie Merchant, and Dave Matthews Band for me, and splitting headaches, ruptured eardrums, and sonic violations for anyone within earshot. I feel sorry for the farm animals that hear me go by.

Ah, that reminds me! I love looking at the livestock in the fields. Lambing time is pretty much done now, and there are hundreds of cute little lambs trotting around in the fields. Then there are cows walking around, pretty enough themselves. So I keep an eye on the fields as I go by because I enjoy watching them. But today one field held a surprise. Bordered on both sides by sheep and cows, I saw fast moving figures galloping over a hill. Not horses, oh no. Ostriches. I’ll be dipped.

4:45 P.M.
I’ve made it home and am expecting my two colleagues to call me shortly to discuss where distributed Sniffers and Network Informant polling agents should be placed on a customer’s network. While waiting for them to call, I get in touch with Debbie, the nice salesperson I’m going on a call with tomorrow to demonstrate the Help desk product, Magic.

As luck would have it, she tells me that the demo tomorrow is being rescheduled so that more people can attend. Huzzah! This means I can get a lot of work done in the office tomorrow, such as looking after the Systems Engineer Web/FTP server, which I’ve sadly neglected. This definitely takes a load off my mind.

5:45 P.M.
The phone rings, and it’s my two expected callers. One of the gentlemen is Stuart, the guy who got me the interview with Network Associates. I’m forever in his debt. The other fellow is one of my favorite salespeople, Graham. Stuart is a heck of a lot more au fait with all aspects of Sniffer than I am (this is a good thing, as he’s the other Sniffer product manager), so all he needs to confirm is that Graham has described the customer’s network correctly.

It appears that he has, so I just confirm that they need to place the Distributed Sniffer between the firewall and the router to ensure that all outgoing and incoming traffic is inspected. I also remind them that as the sites are secure and only a few ports are kept open in the firewall, they will need to configure any remotely placed Distributed Sniffers to connect over port 80, instead of the standard port 2001.

Feeling noble, I offer to go to the appointment with them tomorrow as mine is cancelled, but they already have three people attending, and it’s never good to have more people from the supplier than the customer. So I’m off the hook. Expect tomorrow’s entry to be full of office-related gossip and the even more mundane aspects of my job!
To comment on this diary entry, please post a comment below or follow this link to write to Heather .

Heather Herbert is employed by Network Associates as a Systems Engineer working with their Sniffer Technologies and Magic Solutions product lines. She is MCSE, MCP+I, and CNA certified and working on her Cisco certifications. Born in New York and transplanted to the UK after meeting her husband online, she lives in a true geek household where Nirvana will be achieved as soon as the coffee pot is fully networked.

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