Tap into the open source community for Cisco-specific administration tools

After a couple members mentioned in a discussion how useful open source tools had been with their Cisco administration tasks, David Davis decided to investigate the issue. Find out why he says the Cisco-centric Open Source Community (COSI) is a great place to start, and get his picks for some helpful (and free) Cisco tools.

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A few weeks ago, I wrote an article to share the top three Cisco administration tools I use on a daily basis, and I asked TechRepublic members to chime in with their own favorites ("Learn which three tools no Cisco admin should be without"). In response, two TechRepublic members, Cstone and EjayHire, mentioned how open source tools have been a great help with administering their networks.

I decided to look into some of these free tools and found several worth sharing with TechRepublic readers. After you check out my recommendations, post to this article's discussion with your own.

Familiarize yourself with COSI

A great place to start is the Cisco-centric Open Source Community (COSI). COSI is an Internet-based community that develops free Cisco tools and makes them available for download from its Web site. Currently available for download from this Web site are six Web-based tools and almost 50 scripts and utilities. The scripts and utilities all include documentation, and the community has developed all of these tools to work with Cisco IOS routers, switches, firewalls, or CiscoWorks management software.

In addition to providing all of these great tools for free, COSI's Web site also offers other benefits. Clicking the link to download a script takes you to a community download page, which also features discussion forums for questions and support of these tools. It's important to remember that Cisco's Technical Assistance Center (TAC) doesn't support these tools, so you must count on your own skills and the help of others in the community.

Of course, the basic idea behind open source development and these types of communities is that, by working together, users can share and enhance software to provide free and powerful software for everyone. More specifically, COSI's efforts hope to create tools that can ease some of the management burden for Cisco administrators.

Before we delve deeper into COSI's offerings, I have one caveat: These tools aren't ideal for new Cisco IOS users or anyone who doesn't have some Linux experience. Many of these tools help automate more advanced Cisco admin tasks when administering a midsize to large Cisco network.

Tools that made the short list

As I mentioned, many of these tools are advanced. Designed to fit specific needs, most of them don't fall into the category of a tool that "every Cisco administrator must have."

After perusing COSI's Web site, I came up with a list of some of the tools that I think could be particularly useful to Cisco administrators.

  • ARPTrack: This Perl script maintains a history of MAC/IP pairs in a Cisco router's ARP table.
  • Ciscocmd: This script sends commands to a large number of Cisco routers.
  • CiscoConf: This program fetches Cisco configurations anytime syslog indicates that a router's configuration has changed. This could serve as a "poor man's system integrity verifier," similar to a very basic Rancid or Tripwire.
  • cosi-ciscotool: This tool executes configuration changes on Cisco routers.
  • GrotG: Also known as Gary's real-time on-demand traffic grapher, this script lets you monitor an interface (inbound, outbound, or both) in real-time.
  • MRTG: Also known as Multi-Router Traffic Grapher, this tool helps monitor traffic patterns. (For more information on MRTG, check out "Configure IT Quick: Use MRTG to monitor Linux routers and firewalls.")
  • RouteCheck: These Perl scripts check a router's routing table for stability.
  • Show CPU load: This Perl script offers a quick look at the CPU load on a Cisco router.

While some of these tools' functionality may seem less than extraordinary at first glance, the important thing to remember with these scripts is not just what they can do by themselves but what you can do by combining their functionality with other scripts or your own scripts.

In addition, keep in mind that the benefits of such scripts often don't become evident until you have implemented several Cisco devices. When you have to individually work with every router to make a single configuration change, you'll start seeing the advantages of such automation.

Possible uses

I've been working with a UNIX administrator at my company to use some of these scripts to automate Cisco IOS troubleshooting commands for a level-one support desk. We want the support desk to be able to access a menu of troubleshooting choices from a UNIX server.

For example, one of the choices might be to go to the routers and issue a show logging | inc {today's date} command to return all of the log entries for the specified day. It could then use UNIX tools such as arp and grep to parse the output further—for example, to show if the serial interface bounced that day.

Another possible use is to schedule a copy running-configuration startup-configuration and copy startup-configuration tftp to run every night. This process would save any configuration changes that occurred during the day, which could help prevent further problems if an administrator forgets to save and copy the configuration to a TFTP server.

While larger enterprise shops more than likely already have scripts and tools like these, many companies that have grown from small shops don't have such tools at their disposal. It's important to develop automated tools like these by combining the help of free Internet communities and commercial software products.

David Davis has worked in the IT industry for 12 years and holds several certifications, including CCIE, MCSE+I, CISSP, CCNA, CCDA, and CCNP. He currently manages a group of systems/network administrators for a privately owned retail company and performs networking/systems consulting on a part-time basis.

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