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1.3. Managers and Agents

In the previous sections we've vaguely referred to SNMP-capable devices and network-management stations. Now it's time to describe what these two things really are. In the world of SNMP there are two kind of entities: managers and agents. A manager is a server running some kind of software system that can handle management tasks for a network. Managers are often referred to as Network Management Stations (NMSs).[1] An NMS is responsible for polling and receiving traps from agents in the network. A poll, in the context of network management, is the act of querying an agent (router, switch, Unix server, etc.) for some piece of information. This information can later be used to determine if some sort of catastrophic event has occurred. A trap is a way for the agent to tell the NMS that something has happened. Traps are sent asynchronously, not in response to queries from the NMS. The NMS is further responsible for performing an action[2] based upon the information it receives from the agent. For example, when your T1 circuit to the Internet goes down, your router can send a trap to your NMS. In turn, the NMS can take some action, perhaps paging you to let you know that something has happened.

[1]See Chapter 5, "Network-Management Software" for a pro-and-con discussion of some popular NMS applications.

[2]Note that the NMS is preconfigured to perform this action.

The second entity, the agent, is a piece of software that runs on the network devices you are managing. It can be a separate program (a daemon, in Unix language), or it can be incorporated into the operating system (for example, Cisco's IOS on a router, or the low-level operating system that controls a UPS). Today, most IP devices come with some kind of SNMP agent built in. The fact that vendors are willing to implement agents in many of their products makes the system administrator's or network manager's job easier. The agent provides management information to the NMS by keeping track of various operational aspects of the device. For example, the agent on a router is able to keep track of the state of each of its interfaces: which ones are up, which ones are down, etc. The NMS can query the status of each interface on a router, and take appropriate action if any of them are down. When the agent notices that something bad has happened, it can send a trap to the NMS. This trap originates from the agent and is sent to the NMS, where it is handled appropriately. Some devices will send a corresponding "all clear" trap when there is a transition from a bad state to a good state. This can be useful in determining when a problem situation has been resolved. Figure 1-1 shows the relationship between the NMS and an agent.

Figure 1-1

Figure 1-1. Relationship between an NMS and an agent

It's important to keep in mind that polls and traps can happen at the same time. There are no restrictions on when the NMS can query the agent or when the agent can send a trap.

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