Finance company nixes application failures

When Tony DeVoto's applications worked one day but not the next, he knew something was up. This article documents the NT administrator's search for a product to help him diagnose and fix the errors, usually caused by configuration changes.

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Constant application malfunctions on Volvo Finance North America's Windows network drove administrator Tony DeVoto nuts last year. His company's proprietary applications usually worked one day and failed the next. Almost every day, DeVoto spent hours physically searching servers to find root causes of failures.

DeVoto's workload is heavy enough without the application failures. He manages 275 end-user workstations at Volvo Finance North America, Inc.'s Montvale, NJ- and Richardson, TX-based locations. As NT systems administrator at the Montvale office, he also manages 50 Windows servers, which run a mix of NT 4.0 and 2000.

DeVoto's troubleshooting experience revealed that configuration flaws caused most of his application failures. He read about configuration-tracking products in Clearwater, FL-based Sunbelt Software's e-mail newsletter. One of the products described, Configuresoft's Enterprise Configuration Manager, promised to solve the problems his network was experiencing.

Devoto evaluated ECM and other products with similar capabilities. After attending a seminar held by Configuresoft, he decided that ECM outshone others by providing the most information about a network.

ECM lets IT managers see the configurations on their networks via a central console. Its daily audits, which are essentially SQL queries, show configuration changes. ECM collects the changes in a log. Usually, "people know what configurations they want. They don't know what they've got," said Alex Goldstein, CEO of Configuresoft, based in Woodland Park, CO. With daily audits, however, IT managers can see what they've got. They can also pinpoint trouble spots. For example, they can see "very clearly and quickly what a virus has done," said Goldstein.

DeVoto set up ECM 3.6 on Volvo Financials' SQL Server database and deployed the ECM agent to all the machines that he manages. With ECM in place, he can now run audits at several times throughout the day. The data collection is done quickly without significantly slowing server performance, he said.

From the ECM console, DeVoto either views specific machines' configurations or gets a general overview of all machines via a read-only, Web-based interface. When application performance changes from day to day, he can literally sees what caused the changes.

The Reports function of the console view allows DeVoto to read documents automatically created by ECM. For example, a report called Account Summary summarizes the information from all Volvo's NT accounts. The last user password change is documented. Logon information -- such as failures, total logon counts and whether logons were to an administrator account -- are also identified.

DeVoto finds the ECM Reports format easy to read. Also, the daily reports help him make sure everything is running smoothly. He cautioned, however, that, "the wealth of information ECM provides can be overwhelming initially." After using ECM for a couple of months, he's learned how to get as much data as he needs, but not more.

Before using ECM, DeVoto had no way to ensure 100% compliance for his network of 325 machines in two locations. After ECM implementation, he wasn't surprised to find that many machines were not in compliance with Volvo's service pack, hot fix, and driver version standards. Now, 100% compliance isn't a pipe dream, he said.

The ability to ensure machine compliance and troubleshoot more effectively are the biggest benefits to running ECM, said DeVoto. "I rely on it." Now, he spends his time preventing problems, rather than diagnosing them.

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