If you are interested in network-wide visibility it is easy to be confused by the different types of traffic monitoring available. Technologies such as sFlow, Cisco NetFlow®, Juniper J-Flow, NetStream and IPFIX all appear to perform similar functions, but are supported by different network equipment vendors.
The situation is simpler than it appears, in reality there are only two basic types of traffic monitoring available:
- Layer-2 (L2) packet, sFlow is designed to provide network-wide visibility. Monitoring all the way to the layer-2 access ports requires a protocol that scales well and can easily be implemented on a layer-2 switch. Because sFlow is packet-based, it is able to report in detail on all types of traffic on the network.
- Layer-3 (L3) flow, NetFlow, J-Flow, NetStream and IPFIX are all very similar technologies. Flow monitoring is typically implemented on routers and provide information about TCP/IP connections with limited visibility into other types of traffic.
The diagrams show three typical scenarios based on the type of equipment in the network:
- All the switches and routers support sFlow and a central sFlow analyzer provides network-wide visibility. Most vendors support sFlow, so it is possible to build an sFlow capable network to meet almost any requirement.
- The switches support sFlow and the routers support L3 flow monitoring. In this case a traffic analyzer that supports sFlow and L3 flow monitoring will also be able to provide network-wide visibility. This situation typically occurs in multi-vendor environments where sFlow is supported by the switch vendor and flow monitoring is supported by the router vendor.
- The routers support L3 flow monitoring and the switches have no built-in traffic monitoring capability. In this case, only traffic through the routers is monitored providing very limited visibility into the data center and campus. This situation is typical of single vendor networks where the vendor exclusively supports L3 flow monitoring.
Making traffic monitoring a selection requirement for future network upgrades will allow you to increase network visibility over time. Selecting network equipment from one of the many vendors that support sFlow does not add to the network cost. Adding traffic monitoring later is likely to be prohibitively expensive.