Whats an application service provider to do when its staff is overworked, its network strained and its ability to deliver promised services endangered? Call an ASP, of course.
Susan Hartsock found herself in that predicament earlier this year. As IT manager of Mountain West Financial Inc., her job is to ensure that the Redlands, Calif., company can provide quality software services to dozens of mortgage bankers that cannot afford complex IT systems themselves.
Unfortunately, by 2005, Mountain Wests network was floundering. Customers complained of applications that ran too slowly or that kicked them off the network entirely. Mountain West needed a better way to reach its customers, pronto.
"We knew we needed another plan," Hartsock said. "We needed someone with expertise in this."
Mountain West had started with a good premise. In 1990, it began as a mortgage bank with several branches in four states.
At that time, each branch had its own network; information shared among branches was distributed via fax, sneakernet or other real-world means.
In the late 1990s, the bank restructured its network to a Citrix Systems Inc. system, where users across the company shared access to a single loan-origination application.
"Mortgage software at that time was not very evolved," said Hartsock. "There was a ton of paperwork involved in the transaction."
So Mountain West painstakingly crafted several client/server applications that would let users communicate with the panoply of lawyers, insurers, appraisers and others who participate in mortgage origination.
Hartsock said that by 1999, "we thought that since it had been such a huge endeavor, we could save other mortgage companies some of that headache." So, Mountain West, ASP (application service provider) to the mortgage industry, was born.
Five years later, Mountain West hosted more than 20 customers ranging from independent loan originators to small mortgage banks with scores of users. Hartsocks department (a staff of five) acted as the companys customers de facto IT department. "It was a great vehicle [for them] because they could just call us to add another user, and off you go," she said.
Life as an ASP, however, was not a bed of roses for Mountain West. The challenges that confront any network manager—spam, spyware, viruses, traffic management—began to overwhelm Hartsock and her staff.
Spam control alone, for example, "was almost a full-time endeavor," said Hartsock. "It quickly went [from 30 to 40 percent to 70 percent] of somebodys time here."
Mountain West runs a Citrix farm of more than 15 servers, including seven application servers and two that manage an Oracle Corp. SQL database, plus servers for e-mail and BlackBerry devices. "For a medium-sized operation, we have an industrial-strength network," Hartsock said. But, she admitted, "weve kind of been going by the seat of our pants as far as growth goes."
How exasperating did things get? Mountain West installed anti-spam software, which quickly started flagging legitimate e-mail messages that Hartsock and her staff had to rescue and send on their proper way. Even farming the chore out to users left Hartsock fielding as many as 20 calls per day from customers wondering where some expected e-mail messages had gone.
All the while, plans to roll out new services to customers languished. Hartsock had visions of migrating to an improved Microsoft Corp. operating environment, an electronic imaging system and more but never had time to make those strategic improvements.
"We had a lot of projects we wanted to put on our plate, if we werent busy troubleshooting the cluster," Hartsock said.
Seeking professional help
Last spring, mountain west finally turned to Alvaka Networks, a systems integrator in Huntington Beach, Calif., that specializes in network management issues. Hartsock had endured a cluster crash in May that forced customers off the network for 2 hours. The crash left her working all weekend to fix it, and a consultant who helped Mountain West build the original system recommended Alvaka to help resolve the problem.
"There was a real stability issue," said Unnar Gardarsson, Alvakas director of managed services. "They basically had some customers yelling and screaming at them."
Alvaka dispatched a team of engineers to analyze Mountain Wests network. They soon identified poor management of network traffic as the problem.
Mountain West had installed a traffic management device from Packeteer Inc. but configured it poorly, Gardarsson said. As a result, Mountain Wests network did not know that, say, a Citrix user originating a mortgage should get higher priority than someone surfing the Web—so performance would slow down for both tasks.