This chapter covers the following topics:
- Troubleshooting principles
- Common troubleshooting approaches
- Troubleshooting example using six different approaches
Most modern enterprises depend heavily on the smooth operation of their network infrastructure. Network downtime usually translates to loss of productivity, revenue, and reputation. Network troubleshooting is therefore one of the essential responsibilities of the network support group. The more efficiently and effectively the network support personnel diagnose and resolve problems, the lower impact and damages will be to business. In complex environments, troubleshooting can be a daunting task, and the recommended way to diagnose and resolve problems quickly and effectively is by following a structured approach. Structured network troubleshooting requires well-defined and documented troubleshooting procedures.
This chapter defines troubleshooting and troubleshooting principles. Next, six different troubleshooting approaches are described. The third section of this chapter presents a troubleshooting example based on each of the six troubleshooting approaches.
Troubleshooting is the process that leads to the diagnosis and, if possible, resolution of a problem. Troubleshooting is usually triggered when a person reports a problem. In modern and sophisticated environments that deploy proactive network monitoring tools and techniques, a failure/problem may be discovered and even fixed/resolved before end users notice or business applications get affected by it.
Some people say that a problem does not exist until it is noticed, perceived as a problem, and reported as a problem. This implies that you need to differentiate between a problem, as experienced by the user, and the actual cause of that problem. The time a problem is reported is not necessarily the same time at which the event causing the problem happened. Also, the reporting user generally equates the problem to the symptoms, whereas the troubleshooter often equates the problem to the root cause. For example, if the Internet connection fails on Saturday in a small company, it is usually not a problem, but you can be sure that it will turn into a problem on Monday morning if it is not fixed before then. Although this distinction between symptoms and cause of a problem might seem philosophical, you need to be aware of the potential communication issues that might arise from it.
Generally, reporting of a problem triggers the troubleshooting process. Troubleshooting starts by defining the problem. The second step is diagnosing the problem, during which information is gathered, the problem definition is refined, and possible causes for the problem are proposed. Eventually, this process should lead to a hypothesis for the root cause of the problem. At this time, possible solutions need to be proposed and evaluated. Next, the best solution is selected and implemented. Figure 1-1 illustrates the main elements of a structured troubleshooting approach and the transition possibilities from one step to the next.
Figure 1-1 Flow Chart of a Structured Troubleshooting Approach
Although problem reporting and resolution are definitely essential elements of the troubleshooting process, most of the time is spent in the diagnostic phase. One might even believe that diagnosis is all troubleshooting is about. Nevertheless, within the context of network maintenance, problem reporting and resolution are indeed essential parts of troubleshooting. Diagnosis is the process of identifying the nature and cause of a problem. The main elements of this process are as follows:
- Gathering information: Gathering information happens after the problem has been reported by the user (or anyone). This might include interviewing all parties (user) involved, plus any other means to gather relevant information. Usually, the problem report does not contain enough information to formulate a good hypothesis without first gathering more information. Information and symptoms can be gathered directly, by observing processes, or indirectly, by executing tests.
- Analyzing information: After the gathered information has been analyzed, the troubleshooter compares the symptoms against his knowledge of the system, processes, and baselines to separate normal behavior from abnormal behavior.
- Eliminating possible causes: By comparing the observed behavior against expected behavior, some of the possible problem causes are eliminated.
- Formulating/proposing a hypothesis: After gathering and analyzing information and eliminating the possible causes, one or more potential problem causes remain. The probability of each of these causes will have to be assessed and the most likely cause proposed as the hypothetical cause of the problem.
- Testing the hypothesis: The hypothesis must be tested to confirm or deny that it is the actual cause of the problem. The simplest way to do this is by proposing a solution based on this hypothesis, implementing that solution, and verifying whether this solved the problem. If this method is impossible or disruptive, the hypothesis can be strengthened or invalidated by gathering and analyzing more information.
All troubleshooting methods include the elements of gathering and analyzing information, eliminating possible causes, and formulating and testing hypotheses. Each of these steps has its merits and requires some time and effort; how and when one moves from one step to the next is a key factor in the success level of a troubleshooting exercise. In a scenario where you are troubleshooting a complex problem, you might go back and forth between different stages of troubleshooting: Gather some information, analyze the information, eliminate some of the possibilities, gather more information, analyze again, formulate a hypothesis, test it, reject it, eliminate some more possibilities, gather more information, and so on.
If you do not take a structured approach to troubleshooting and do troubleshooting in an ad hoc fashion, you might eventually find the solution; however, the process in general will be very inefficient. Another drawback of ad hoc troubleshooting is that handing the job over to someone else is very hard to do; the progress results are mainly lost. This can happen even if the troubleshooter wants to resume his own task after he has stopped for a while, perhaps to take care of another matter. A structured approach to troubleshooting, regardless of the exact method adopted, yields more predictable results in the long run. It also makes it easier to pick up where you left off or hand the job over to someone else without losing any effort or results.
A troubleshooting approach that is commonly deployed both by inexperienced and experienced troubleshooters is called shoot-from-the-hip. After a very short period of gathering information, taking this approach, the troubleshooter quickly makes a change to see if it solves the problem. Even though it may seem like random troubleshooting on the surface, it is not. The reason is that the guiding principle for this method is prior and usually vast knowledge of common symptoms and their corresponding causes, or simply extensive relevant experience in a particular environment or application. This technique might be quite effective for the experienced troubleshooter most times, but it usually does not yield the same results for the inexperienced troubleshooter. Figure 1-2 shows how the “shoot-from-the-hip” approach goes about solving a problem, spending almost no effort in analyzing the gathered information and eliminating possibilities.
Figure 1-2 Shoot-from-the-Hip
Assume that a user reports a LAN performance problem and in 90 percent of the past cases with similar symptoms, the problem has been caused by duplex mismatch between users’ workstations (PC or laptop) and the corresponding access switch port. The solution has been to configure the switch port for 100-Mbps full duplex. Therefore, it sounds reasonable to quickly verify the duplex setting of the switch port to which the user connects and change it to 100-Mbps full duplex to see whether that fixes the problem. When it works, this method can be very effective because it takes very little time. Unfortunately, the downside of this method is that if it does not work, you have not come any closer to a possible solution, you have wasted some time (both yours and users’), and you might possibly have caused a bit of frustration. Experienced troubleshooters use this method to great effect. The key factor in using this method effectively is knowing when to stop and switch to a more methodical (structured) approach.