Big Brother Network Monitoring System

Installing and hacking Big Brother, a web-based Unix network monitoring and notification system.
Future Enhancements of Big Brother

Sean MacGuire is the primary author of Big Brother. In the finest tradition of decentralized shared software development, Sean solicits improvements, suggestions and enhancements from all. He then skillfully incorporates them as appropriate into the Big Brother distribution. Thus, like Linux, Big Brother is in a dynamic state of positive evolution with contributions from a cast of thousands (at least dozens). This constrained anarchy produces interesting results with an international flavor.

Jacob Lundqvist of Sweden is actively improving the paging interface. He has done a superb job of enhancing the paging portion, adding support for alphanumeric and SMS pagers. Darren Henderson (Maine, US) added AIX support. David Brandon (Texas, US) added proper IRIX support and Jeff Matson (Minnesota, US) made some IRIX fixes. Richard Dansereau (Canada) ported Big Brother to SCO3 and provided support for other df's. Doug White (Oregon, US) made some paging script bug fixes. Ron Nelson (Minnesota, US) adapted BB to Red Hat Linux. Jac Kersing (Netherlands) made some security enhancements to bbd.c. Alan Cox (Wales) suggested some shell script security modifications. Douwe Dijkstra (Netherlands) provided SCO 5 support. Erik Johannessen (Minnesota, US) survived SunOS 4.1.4 installation. Curtis Olson (Minnesota, US) survived IRIX, Linux and SunOS installations. Gunnar Helliesen (Norway) ported Big Brother to Ultrix, OSF and NetBSD. Josh Wilmes (Missouri, US) added Solaris changes for new ping stuff.

Many other unsung heroes around the world are undoubtedly working to enhance BB at this very moment.

I am (ab)using Big Brother in ways not originally envisioned by its creator, Sean MacGuire. Texas Agricultural Extension's networks are wildly heterogeneous mixtures of different operating systems and protocols, rather than a homogeneous Unix-based network. I would like to see Big Brother learn about IPX/SPX protocols for Novell connectivity monitoring. I would also like to see Big Brother data collection modules for Macintosh, Novell, OS/2, Windows 3.1x, Windows'95 and Windows NT. Rewriting Big Brother in Perl might better serve these disparate platforms, if I could only find the time.

Big Brother's Impact at Texas Agricultural Extension Service

We now monitor around 122 hosts. Only 20 are actually Unix-based hosts that run Big Brother's bb program internally. Some 28 are Novell servers, 39 are routers, and the rest are a mixture of Macintosh, OS/2, Windows 3.1x, Windows'95 and Windows NT machines running one or more types of servers (34 FTP or 26 HTTP). We also find it useful to monitor our 31 PopMail post offices and 43 mail hosts and gateways. We are checking connectivity on three DNS servers as well, since they are mission critical.

Big Brother (or, as I now affectionately refer to it, “Big Bother”) is now alerting us to outages five or more times daily. Typically, the system administrator receives a page. BB's display is checked and the info file is used to traceroute and ping the offending machine to validate the outage. Many connection outages involve routers, DSU/CSUs and multiplexors as well as the actual host. BB's display allows us to quickly see a pattern that aids in diagnosis. The ability to dynamically traceroute and ping the host from the html info page also helps to rapidly determine the actual point of failure. If the administrator paged cannot correct the problem, he relays it to the responsible person or agency.

Before we installed Big Brother, we were frequently notified of these failures by frustrated users telephoning us. Now, we are often aware of what has failed before they call. The users are also becoming aware that they can monitor the network through the WWW interface. In many instances, we are able to actually correct the problem before it disturbs our users. It is difficult to accurately measure the time saved, but we estimate that Big Brother has had a net positive effect overall.

We have a machine in a publicly visible area displaying the brief view of Big Brother. The green, yellow, red and blue screen splashes are clearly visible far down the hall, helping our network team to be more aware of problems as they occur. The accessibility of the WWW page has made Big Brother useful even to people at the far ends of our network. Thus, Big Brother has become a helpful member of our network team. Maybe now I'll have time to be bored.

Paul Sittler (p-sittler@tamu.edu) is a human being in the service of Texas Agricultural Extension, a part of the Texas A&M University System. As a human being he is, of course, a skilled tool-maker. He enjoys playing with technology and tries to make it useful to others of his species. He is a shy man of simple tastes, who still has a discriminating palate with respect to German wine. He is multilingual, being at least marginally conversant in several human languages and competent in several computer dialects as well. He was born with a peculiar genetic defect that requires him to disassemble and reassemble things rather than merely use them.

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