Techniques: Microcases


Problem: Stalled Web site, crashing E-mail
Solution: Software that monitors an entire network
Payoff: Faster troubleshooting, less downtime

When the network goes down even briefly at, CEO David Clark considers it a disaster -- for his customers and his employees. Homebytes, a $2.5-million start-up in Richmond, Va., provides a portal for homeowners to list their for-sale properties on various real estate Web sites. The 150-employee organization maintains a wide area network linking more than 100 machines in Texas, Washington, D.C., and California, as well as Richmond.

Since Homebytes' site is the primary way customers come to the company, hiccups in the site's service can drive away potential business. And if the E-mail system fails, Clark's employees feel hamstrung, unable to do their work. At one point during the company's two-year existence, it wasn't unusual for the Web site to crash more than once a week. In recent months, a bigger problem has been keeping the company's E-mail system up and running.

"About two months ago our E-mail went down for an afternoon," recalls Clark. "Not only was I frustrated by my own inability to get things done, but I was presented with employees' wanting to take the rest of the day off because they felt they were spinning their wheels sitting at their desks without E-mail. I told my tech people that in the future I wanted to know that a problem was going to happen before it happened."

The person who fielded Clark's directive was Rich Mulrain, a network engineer. A friend suggested that Mulrain take a look at a new software application designed to monitor network performance. The software, which sells under the clunky name WhatsUp Gold, is made by Ipswitch Inc., in Lexington, Mass. Every 60 seconds the software polls all the machines that make up a company's network. If a server or a router fails to respond adequately, the software alerts network administrators to the location and nature of the problem. The warning can come by E-mail or beeper, depending on which systems are functioning. "WhatsUp paints a picture of what my network looks like," Mulrain explains. "I can use that picture to monitor everything, and when something goes down, our response is faster."

When Mulrain installed the software, in July, his grandest desire was to arrange an E-mail-notification protocol that would prioritize which information-systems staffers would be notified -- and in what order -- if part of the network failed. Using this system, he assigned a point person for each device. When trouble occurs in a particular device, the system quickly alerts the point person assigned to it as well as the company's help desk, so they can anticipate incoming complaints. The system also warns other technicians that the network is malfunctioning. "When we know where problems are minute by minute, we can call up the person who owns that device and say, 'We see that you have this situation over there," Mulrain says. "It gives us control."

Mulrain can also track mishaps that occur on the off-site servers that host some of the company's data. "We know if our Web site is down before our ISP does," he says. "In fact, we can call them and tell them when there's something wrong in their building." That remote-monitoring functionality is particularly helpful in documenting the level of service Homebytes receives from its vendors. "We can verify if they're complying with service-level agreements or not," he says.

CEO Clark is very relieved that Mulrain's research turned up the Ipswitch software. And he's especially happy that the program cost only about $1,000 -- significantly less than other, older network-monitoring software sold by the likes of Computer Associates and Hewlett-Packard.

But for Clark the most important thing is that his IS team can now respond much faster to potential problems. "We can't afford to lose any network time," he explains. "If our Web site is down for only a few minutes while customers are inputting their personal information into our site, their confidence in us wavers. That can create the reputation that your technology is not so solid -- and that's my greatest concern."

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