Intranet management made easier: Page 2

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Automating management

While software applications such as SiteScope help ensure that intranet servers are doing their jobs, a variety of management tools exist to assist in other areas. Richard Sturm, president of management consulting firm Enterprise Management Associates in Boulder, Colo., points to application-management and service-level tools as valuable assets in the job of automating the management of intranets.

For example, NetScout Systems Inc. makes a tool, WebCast 2.1, that monitors application activity across the intranet. The network reporting software aims to make the task of generating Java interactive reports on end-to-end Web-based network performance more extensive, faster, and easier.

Another tool, Hewlett-Packard Co.'s HP OpenView Observer for e-services, puts a cookie on a user's desktop in order to measure the user's experience, monitoring such things as long waiting periods during search efforts. The goal of the tool is to isolate bottlenecks related to Internet access.

ProactiveNet Inc.'s Watch 3.0 monitors service levels for mission-critical application transactions and lets network managers associate service problems with abnormalities in the network, server, firewall, or application.

Products from companies such as RADware Inc. and Resonate Inc. fall into the niche of server-load balancing, a critical issue for most IT organizations trying to keep a Web site up and running.

RADware's FireProof 1.3 distributes traffic among an array of firewalls, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), and routers to help ensure that firewall performance is uninterrupted. Resonate's Central Dispatch enables multiple Web servers to act as a single, scalable, and more easily managed service by balancing the traffic load across multiple servers. The company also offers a tool called Commander, which is an event-based management system that heads off server slowdowns or site outages by diagnosing a problem and automatically triggering corrective actions.

Keep the presses running

Despite an array of off-the-shelf management choices, users frequently rely on home-brewed monitoring applications to ensure their intranet sites are running smoothly. The Boston Globe, for example, uses a custom-developed utility to automatically call pages on the intranet to make sure that the application is up and running. If the system is down, this utility can contact the IS staff member on call--via e-mail, telephone, page, or all three--to resolve the problem at hand. To perform a page census or to view usage patterns The Globe uses ISV Dimensional Insight's DI-Diver tool, according to Cynthia Stanton, project manager for The Boston Globe, a wholly owned subsidiary of the New York Times Corp.

The Globe also uses e-mail management for customer service. Deployed solely on the Web, this management technique requires users to log into the server behind the firewall and then gives routing capability to different business units, filters spam, and customizes responses. When problems arise, this system takes note of it. If multiple people are working on the problem, it archives a response so that other employees can learn about the answer being discussed.

Available to more than 2,000 working groups spread over three separate buildings in Boston and two suburban areas, the health of The Globe's intranet is considered critical. As a daily newspaper, each department has a time-sensitive function that is now being enhanced by the newspaper's Web-based information network because The Globe's intranet serves as a collaborative tool.

"The intranet took a cue from The Globe's strong organizational structure and organized the information in terms of existing departments and work groups," says Stanton. The intranet, she explains, is addressing issues such as complex vertical reporting structures where there is an overlap between groups and a need to minimize the spread of redundant information.

The Globe's intranet runs on a combination of servers, including a Digital Equipment Corp. UNIX server, a Sun Microsystems Inc. Solaris server, and Windows NT servers that support SQL Server and Lotus Development Corp. Notes. Now in its second redesign, The Globe is in the process of developing more business-related activities on its intranet, an evolution from its initial purpose of serving as a content dump site. For example, users can customize their tool bars with job-related items such as budget or reporting tool links.

"Our intranet is about five years old; it's very robust and there's a lot of information on there, but we found when redesigning it that… a lot of content wasn't being used, even though it was still valid," says Stanton.

Healthy intranets

The Globe's content-centric intranet deployment philosophy follows that of at least one systems integrator familiar in the ways of intranets. No matter what tools IT managers look to for managing their intranets, the key to a healthy and happy Web infrastructure is careful planning from the outset and keeping content fresh, according to Susan Crinnian, president of CCI Networks Inc.

The job of designing a customer's intranet includes plans for how the user will manage the infrastructure and the content going forward, says Crinnian, whose Phoenix, Ariz.-based firm specializes in Internet and intranet technology. Crinnian designs a customer's intranet with enough forethought in planning and strategizing that users will be able to easily keep information updated with just a couple simple tasks that will ensure the intranet remains free of dead links, redundant content, and under-used pages. For example, document usage tools, such as that deployed by The Globe, help determine which pages receive heavy traffic and which do not. Rolled out any other way and an intranet will quickly become outdated, and therefore a failure.

"The key thing is… MIS doesn't want the burden of having a support person constantly coming over to each department," says Crinnian. "All the users have to do is perform a couple of keystrokes to keep information updated."

Promoting the idea that maintenance should occur easily, management for the National Information Center for Educational Media (NICEM) comes in the form of keeping the contents of its intranet-based database in pristine condition. The organization's well thought out intranet is the centerpiece of its job of maintaining a comprehensive database of bibliographic records. The records describe educational, nonprint media such as video, CD-ROM, audio, and film that are used in an educational setting. While the information is collected from the companies that either produce or distribute the materials in the database, NICEM uses the Data Harmony suite of document management tools from Data Harmony Inc. to edit database records. These records are displayed through Netscape 4.5 while standard Windows copying and pasting tools are also used in the process for record editing.

Data Harmony XIS data management system enters and edits the bibliographic records in the NICEM database.

The database design is complex and in need of a specialized management tool. Each record representing a videotape, for example, may be distributed by more than one company. "The database structure allows for subfields for each distributor; and even though within each distributor there may be the same title on more than one format, such as VHS or DVD, the database structure allows for that amount of complexity," says Roy Morgan, director of NICEM in Albuquerque, N.M.

NICEM's database has been electronic for 20 years, but it only transitioned to its freeware, intranet-based form about a year ago to replace a DOS-based system. The database runs on a Linux server, while the Web server is an Apache platform. Its firewall is based on Trusted Information Systems Inc. (TIS), a Firewall Toolkit program designed to help users build a network firewall.

With the Data Harmony tool, NICEM can generate such management items as production reports to see how well each editor is producing. It's also possible to view the numbers of records that are available for a particular distributor.

Whether intranet management means finding a particular tool like Data Harmony or following a particular philosophy, intranets are here to stay and users need to find ways to keep them in good shape, says CCI Networks' Crinnian.

"The reality is that maintaining the intranet is 70% of the intranet, so users need to plan on the front end for how they are going to continue to manage their environments." IJ

About the author:

Amanda Mitchell Henry, a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area, can be reached at amandamh@pacbell.net.


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