"People have been asking us to help make sense of information," says Mike Pope, the man charged with turning around Network General, the company behind the venerable Sniffer network analyser. He took the role of president after Network General was demerged from Network Associates last year, and has since revitalised the company with big increases in both staffing and R&D spend.
Last week, he oversaw the release a swath of new software at Network General's very first user conference - and he says much of it really is new, even though it's not version 1. Key among the introductions was Sniffer Visualizer 4.0, which enables Sniffer data to be converted into the sort of graphical material that makes sense to non-technical managers.
"Visualizer 4.0 is something customers asked for a decade ago," Pope claims. "It's new code - we had an earlier Visualizer product and we threw it out with this release, it was that bad. It's a very good example of how we've let the competition build businesses around our weak points.
"For example, companies use Network General with NetScout because NetScout produces pretty graphs to show the high level stuff. But when managers ask for more information, administrators have to go back and query Sniffer again."
He adds, "We wanted to line up and integrate our product releases. It was obvious to align Administrator and Visualizer as 4.0 because they work together. MultiSegment is the same - it's a completely new product, but the previous equivalent had three revisions."
Net management becoming a business issue
The drive towards visualisation is part of a giant shift within network management towards a more proactive and less reactive role, and a recognition that network managers need to communicate better with business managers, Pope says - it's what the analysts describe as aligning IT with the business.
"The reality is that, until Visualizer 4.0 was announced, most of our past spend was around troubleshooting," he explains. "I think Visualizer 4.0 will make the network manager more visible in the organisation."
He points out, for example, that Visualizer's preconfigured reports include the sort of detail that business managers understand when it comes to capacity planning, such as confidence levels to show the reliability of a forecast.
Network General has also updated its Sniffer University curriculum, created a consultancy arm, and cut its prices, he says - although pricing for the new software won't be announced until it becomes available next month.
TiVo for the LAN
Now he wants to take Sniffer onwards. It has already evolved from the portable network analyser familiar to many network managers and technicians to a distributed network reporting system, and then with the addition of technology called Infinistream, to a sort of TiVo for the network, capable of recording and replaying network activity over hours or even days to help with long term analysis.
"Customers are driving us to take more feeds - the biggest one is NetFlow, because they aren't getting value today from the Cisco products," he says. "We are looking to take it into Infinistream and Visualizer so people can do NetFlow decodes- it's going to the next level of complexity."
Pope points out that it doesn't make sense to collect all this data, but use it only for diagnostics - there is lots more that it could be done with it.
"We took a huge step forward with management and reporting, but there's more we can do to align that to business objectives," he says. "We do not want to be in IDS or IPS, that's not our space. But the customer needs forensics to prove there wasn't an intrusion, for instance, or if there was, that no damage was done, so we think we're sitting on a gold-mine."
Of course, there are already a lot of software tools taking data from Sniffer and other sources, and using it to do application performance management and other tasks, but as Pope observes, they come from his competitors - and he sees clawing back that market share as an important way for Network General to grow.
"More investment coming
I think there is definitely an opportunity to take that market-share back by investing," he says. "But we need to extend that upper layer - VoIP, mobile, wireless, application intelligence. Business isn't about selling product, it's about capturing mindshare - getting the customer with a complete range. We don't want to turn customers away to open source or WildPackets."
The company was approaching $300 million in sales within Network Associates but it was declining, Pope says. "We're starting to see a return on our R&D investment," he adds. "We've stopped the decline and grown for the last three quarters - we're growing faster than the overall market.
"Part of the spend was to simplify the code-bases - when we took over there were probably five different code-bases, there were three for Sniffer Distributed alone. No wonder they didn't do new releases! We collapsed those code-bases, that was a 12 month effort, and the releases you're seeing now are the result.
"Network Associates didn't look at it holistically, it just wanted products to market fast. To give an example, decodes weren't shared across Sniffer Distributed and Sniffer Portable - it sounds basic, but it couldn't be done until we simplified the code-base.
"We are looking at acquisitions. There are a lot of scalable technologies out there in start-ups that aren't going anywhere. I wouldn't say the company is lacking today for its core markets, but we want to extend our position."
He adds though that, even as Network General adds functionality, there is still much to be done when it comes to the basics of network monitoring and management.
"Customers are frustrated with having to have five different consoles open, and want to pull all together," he says. "Networks today don't generally go 100 percent down - even if wounded badly, they keep going. We want to collect historical information to give those warnings - if usage is down, it could be the sales force is off at a conference, in which case, great! Or a segment could be down."