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.
New Security, More Time
Other problems had also cropped up. Mountain West used a Cisco Systems Inc. router as a firewall (also configured poorly, Gardarsson said) plus other software-based firewalls. None had sufficient strength or flexibility to fend off spam and spyware effectively.
After evaluating Mountain Wests systems in detail, Alvaka decided to build its solution around a hardware-based firewall from SonicWall Inc.
SonicWalls Pro 2040 firewall has several policy options administrators can impose on data packets zipping around a network, and that ability to impose security policies “gave us a lot more control over the traffic,” Gardarsson said.
Alvaka also implemented a gaggle of content management applications it had developed in-house to handle tasks such as installing security patches or hunting for spam. The entire project took about a month, Gardarsson said.
Technical challenges were few with the project, Gardarsson said. Instead, his team struggled with a simple lack of documentation for Mountain Wests self-made, often-tweaked IT system.
“There was a lot of guesswork. When we put the firewall in the middle of the night, I had nothing to go by and had to discover the specifics for their server farms on my own,” Gardarsson said. “But, all in all, I dont think it was that bumpy.”
Hartsock described the implementation as “fairly straightforward and simple,” although some stress occurred when Mountain West moved the mail records for every domain it hosts to Alvakas mail servers. The improved system went live in August.
Alvaka now monitors tedious chores that consumed Hartsocks time, such as patch management (“which means no more weekends spent around here,” Hartsock quipped), monitoring the networks encryption key system, blocking spam, double-checking backup tapes and the like. Alvaka also researched and helped negotiate a deal with a new telecommunications carrier for Mountain West, cutting the bill for a T-1 connection.
Mountain West pays Alvaka $2,200 per month for its services, Hartsock said. The return on that investment: placated customers who get a more reliable experience without session timeouts, missing e-mail messages or failed connection attempts.
“We are their network, and we are their IT staff,” Hartsock said. “Knowing that someone else is watching [the network] does give us a sense of security. We have to be up 24-by-7.”
Next up for Mountain West are new offerings such as Web-enabled applications so that mortgage officers can draw up papers online or review other documents in electronic rather than printed format. The company plans to roll out those services in the coming months, Hartsock said. “Weve been able to focus on that versus troubleshooting problems.”
Gardarsson frames the benefits more succinctly: “Theyll be able to work a lot faster. Efficiencies should go up, and once that goes up, then the bottom line goes up too, right?”
Matt Kelly is a free-lance writer based in Somerville, Mass. He can be contacted at [email protected].
- Customer Mountain West Financial
- Location Redlands, Calif.
- Organizational snapshot Mountain West, an ASP, delivers complex software services to small businesses in the mortgage banking industry
- Business need After five years as an ASP, Mountain West found that its custom-built IT system could no longer meet customer needs; maintenance tasks overwhelmed its IT staff; the business had no time to roll out new services, while customers complained about slow network speeds, faulty spam filters and similar problems
- Technology partner Alvaka Networks, a service provider for companies that cannot manage sophisticated networks alone
- Recommended solution Mountain West turned over management of its network to Alvaka; Alvaka installed a new security system and a suite of content management applications, leaving Mountain Wests IT staff to spend its time developing new client services
- Lessons learned Stick with what you know; Mountain West had numerous ideas for new software its mortgage banking customers would like but spent all its time on basic maintenance; by handing those chores to Alvaka, Mountain West improved its customers IT experience and gave itself more time for strategic improvements
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