Reaching Out to Users Is a Hands-on Job

Service providers turn to hardware devices to solve customers' problems

Even in the hands-off world of outsourced IT management, sometimes, theres just no substitute for being there. In an effort to better reach out and touch their users, a number of MSPs (management service providers) are turning to a variety of proprietary hardware devices that live with a customers infrastructure. The tools, service providers said, are giving MSPs new and better ways to find and solve network and server problems by remote control.

Collective Technologies Inc., of Austin, Texas, last week introduced its Ramp Box appliance to give engineers in its NOC (network operations center) a better view and more control of the behavior of devices the service provider and its partners manage for customers.

"It isnt just a monitoring machine. It gives access to the clients equipment to make modifications and really find out what the problem is," said Justin Peavey, director of technology at Collective.

The device improves security and efficiency, according to Dave Lilly, president and chief operating officer at SiteRock Corp. The Emeryville, Calif., service provider signed on last week as a Collective Infrastructure OEM to provide first-level problem identification and resolution.

"When all that youre transmitting from this device is basically an alarm signal, you arent sending much data across the Web—its just an on/off signal," Lilly said. "Try to monitor across the Web, and that becomes vulnerable to security issues. So you get faster alarms and better security of the monitoring system."

"Because you have a device on-site, you can have intelligent thresholding, so the [data] being transmitted across expensive WAN links is intelligent information," said Martha Young, an analyst at Enterprise Management Associates Inc., in Boulder, Colo. "It lets you treat it like a local application, but you can still maintain it, upgrade it, patch it [remotely]."

SilverBack Technologies Inc. last week announced new Secure Sockets Layer encryption support in its management appliance, allowing management data to be encrypted between a customers site and SilverBacks InfoCare Center NOC. The efficiency benefits of the device stem from its ability to intelligently process network alarms and alerts so that redundant information is eliminated.

"It sends a much more accurate picture back, and it allows the NOC operators to do a better level of prioritization," said SilverBack customer David Wither, manager of corporate telecommunications at Marconi Medical Systems Inc., in Cleveland. "If every device in the network is SNMP-manageable, I have a tremendous amount of information to deal with. With SilverBack, it understands theres too much information and at the box level does extrapolation to send specific alerts."

SilverBack in Version 2.5 of its NOCPulse added monitoring for Windows NT and Solaris servers and Oracle Corp. databases running on Solaris.

Like other MSPs, Collective and SilverBack offer their services on a monthly subscription basis. In addition, they work with partners in a tiered service arrangement, where partners provide a first level of problem identification and resolution. Collective, whose origins are in the professional services arena, also provides on-site services when required.

The Ramp Box provides two ways to monitor a customers networks and servers, including those such as Windows NT, Windows 2000, and all major flavors of Unix and Linux.

"It can be configured to natively monitor the environment or take input from any standard monitoring tool the client is using," said Collectives founder and CEO, Ed Taylor.

Other MSPs use software agents installed on the managed systems to monitor a customers servers or networks. In some cases, the agents can be downloaded from the Web, obviating the need for a technician to go on-site for installation. While that can lower the cost of the service, it also limits how far the service can go. Many MSPs provide monitoring only, while others provide monitoring and a limited amount of trouble-shooting.

Collectives Ramp Box is designed to allow experienced network or system administrators to use their talents as efficiently as possible, said Steve Bilotta, vice president of infrastructure services at Collectives Boston office.

"We have a design on what needs to be captured in the Ramp Box from 450 administrators whove done nothing but that," Bilotta said.

For SilverBack customers, having access to the data collected by its management appliance on-site means that they retain greater control over their infrastructure.

"It gives you the impression that you have some presence in the whole process," said SilverBack user Jeffrey Nelson, network manager at Cleveland Motion Controls Inc., in Cleveland.