The university's 50-person IT organization supports a patchwork of departmental applications, as well as web-based services such as email; the university's portal for students, faculty, and applicants; and a Blackboard online learning management system.
Nearly every service and application at the school ties back into a central administrative system based on Banner software, which stores student, alumni, financial, and personnel data in an Oracle database. If one application uses that database inefficiently, such as with poorly written queries, it can impact the performance of other applications that also rely on the database. But understanding how applications interacted with the Banner system was a major challenge for their IT team.
"Over the years, we had tried to install monitoring software for Banner, but none of them ever made it past the testing stage because either the agent caused an issue or there was a fear that they could cause an issue in production," says their senior manager of network infrastructure services.
When this manager heard about ExtraHop, he jumped at the opportunity to gain visibility into the Banner application without invasive agents. "The big selling point for me was that ExtraHop did not require any agents," he said. "We installed the ExtraHop appliance and within 30 minutes I was able to show the DBAs which tables were being used, by which applications, and which ones performed most slowly. Getting deep visibility that quickly was phenomenal."
Correlated Visibility Across Tiers
With ExtraHop, application support teams at the university have real-time visibility into all wire data—that is, all L2 to L7 communications between systems—so they can see how their applications are using the Banner database, as well as network services such as DNS and the network itself at the TCP layer.
"ExtraHop provides value to multiple groups at the school. I have developers who are using it, I have email administrators, the Blackboard administrator, the database administrator," explains the manager. "Equipped with ExtraHop, these constituencies know how well their applications are performing across all tiers and they can troubleshoot problems themselves, without immediately blaming the network."
In addition to dramatically increasing troubleshooting efficiency, ExtraHop is helping the wider IT team become more effective and ensure better use of university resources.
Troubleshooting Reduced by Half
ExtraHop has been able to cut the time IT staff spend troubleshooting complex problems by 50 percent. IT has the context and insight to quickly identify and resolve problems in the school's interconnected environment.
"The first week we had ExtraHop running, we saw there were over half a million database errors between Blackboard and Banner. Blackboard was making a call to a database table that didn't exist, and I'm sure this was going on for years and no one had any idea. With that insight, we had a fix in minutes. ExtraHop helps us to identify and clear out the 'white noise' in our environment so that when serious problems or anomalies occur, they are easier to diagnose."
Proactive IT Support
"We had an issue with the Blackboard where the system would crash if uploads were too large," says the manager. "I set an alert in ExtraHop to identify uploads above the threshold by file and by user. Then the Blackboard administrator can talk to that professor or whomever it may be, and help them do what they're trying to do without bringing everything down."
Support for Diverse Application Types
"One unique thing in higher education is that while you have to ensure that everything's running smoothly and efficiently, you also have to let the user population run everything and anything they want. So it's kind of a free for all; we don't have the control that a regular company would."
ExtraHop helps the IT team support departments that want to quickly deploy new applications.
"We're more intelligent with ExtraHop. People can learn how to fine-tune their applications to work well within our environment and tackle issues proactively."
How many students does it take to crash a registration system?
The university has to be prepared for frequent, high-traffic events, such as ticket sales for student activities and intense class registration periods. Recently, the online registration was crashing every time a certain number of students tried to register simultaneously. Troubleshooting the complex system manually was extremely difficult and took months.