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Sniffing Out Network Spikes

Crop insurer Rain and Hail uses Palisade Software's PacketHound appliance to ensure network availability for agents and customers.

The first step in providing ease of business to producers is to keep access to applications wide open. That's why, at the end of the 1990s, Johnston, IA-based Rain and Hail Insurance Services, Inc., the parent company of AGRI General Insurance Co. ($194 million in admitted assets), moved to reduce paper-driven processes and position itself to provide superior service through a strong Internet presence to its customers and independent agents, according to Andy Van Weelden, systems analyst.

Optimum Availability

Since those relationships relied on around-the-clock access to Rain and Hail, the firm wanted to ensure optimum availability. However, while running on a single T1 line, the company received usage reports from its Internet service provider that indicated spikes were occurring. Determined to act before service to customers was interrupted, the carrier sought a tool that would enable it to determine the sources of usage spikes. "We decided to shop around for a product that could 'sniff' that traffic," Van Weelden says.

In October 2000, a Rain and Hail network administrator (who has since left the firm) met Tammy Neff, a Palisade Systems (Ames, IA) representative, at a trade show. Having listened to a description of the network slowdowns, Neff recommended the firm's free download, PacketPup.

The PacketPup software "was installed on a server, and put in a network driver in promiscuous mode, typed over on our Cisco San Jose, CA switch," Van Weelden explains. The software sets up "a port monitor to mirror traffic over to the server running PacketPup, then generates a graphic representation of protocols on use on your network, and which are more prevalent." PacketPup showed that 90percent of the spikes were due to Internet browsing and streaming media use.

Having used PacketPup to diagnose the network problem, R&H acquired another Palisade product in November 2000: PacketHound, a rack-mounted, "plug-and-play" hardware and software appliance used to monitor and manage network traffic. R&H bought two PacketHound units—each at a cost of $5,000, plus an annual license fee of $1,000—intending for one unit to provide redundancy, according to Palisade's Neff.

PacketHound performs basic bandwidth throttling and monitoring through customizable rules. If the solution detects "illicit" packets, "it will reset the connection so that the transmission 'errors out,' and no file transfer takes place," Van Weelden says. Rules are also configurable per user. PacketHound comes with an administrative GUI console to configure the solution.

The benefits of PacketHound were felt immediately following the installation—the net result being, in effect, an expansion of available bandwidth, and an improved ability to project usage growth, according to Van Weelden.

Enables Scalability

R&H has since installed a new T1 line, and has placed the second PacketHound to manage traffic on it. The firm "would need to increase Internet activity 10 times its current levels before there would be a need to evaluate for another PacketHound," asserts Palisade's Neff.

The carrier is happy with the product. "I've never seen anything fail on it," Van Weelden asserts. This means not only does it perform an instrumental function well, but it provides the important benefit of "being able to take care of any problems before your customers are affected," he adds.



Rain and Hail Insurance Service, Inc., Johnston, IA, parent of AGRI General Insurance Co., $194 million in admitted assets.


Crop insurance.


Palisade Systems' (Ames, IA) PacketHound network appliance.


Manage network traffic to prevent service interruptions.

Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek Financial Services of TechWeb he has written on all areas of information ... View Full Bio

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