Keep a Watchful Eye on Your Tech Partners

NOCpulse lets you monitor your Web servers — even if they belong to your outsourcer.

The Web has never been easy, and much to the chagrin of managers everywhere, it only seems to get thornier. Costs are nearly impossible to gauge, personnel is hard to lure and keep, and training is a perpetual migraine. So it’s no real surprise that savvy Web executives have flung open the doors to an army of outsourcers who can help with everything from writing code to maintaining servers. The trend has gone up like a hockey stick.

In the world of Web geekdom, the outsourcers are referred to most often as application service providers (ASPs) or managed service providers (MSPs). These varied companies let you replace capricious spending with reliable, fixed monthly costs. Instead of sinking cash into a Web server, you pay Exodus or AboveNet a monthly fee to host and maintain servers for you. Instead of building your own e-commerce application, hire LoudCloud or SiteSmith to build an application to your specifications and make sure the thing stays up and running.

For many executives, however, the outsourcing trend is just as nerve-racking as keeping the technology in-house. If the site goes down, who do you call on the carpet? Besides, once you’ve picked one ASP or MSP, it’s not easy to switch to another one — often applications will run only on the platform for which they’ve been developed. So there’s a looming question: Once you’ve off-loaded that major thorn that’s been sticking in your company’s side, how do you make sure your partners are holding up their end of the bargain?

To help assuage executives’ fears, most outsourcing contracts include a service level agreement (SLA), which guarantees a certain quality of service and specifies penalties if that quality isn’t met. If your SLA states that your site will be online 99.99 percent of the time, and it turns out to be live only 99.1 percent of the time, your outsourcer may owe you money.

But that still doesn’t guarantee that you’ll always be abreast of network problems. And what do you do if something needs to be fixed? That’s where NOCpulse, a startup in Sunnyvale, Calif., wants to help.

The name comes from network operations center (NOC), the term for the big, server-filled rooms with massive data connections where most major websites are now located. (If your company manages its own website, you probably have a NOC; otherwise your servers are likely located in a NOC operated by an outsourcer.) NOCpulse’s Command Center service gives companies a way to monitor and manage Web servers, regardless of where they are.

NOCpulse installs “satellite” servers in the NOC, next to your own Web servers. These satellite computers monitor network traffic to and from your servers and also collect technical data from the servers themselves. The data is then encrypted and sent to NOCpulse’s central data center.

The system essentially lets you snoop on yourself — or your outsourcer — to make sure that your data is moving smoothly and your customers are happy. So when your IT folks want to check up on the health of your company’s website, they can log on to NOCpulse and pull up detailed status reports on all your servers. They can also do basic maintenance from NOCpulse’s Web interface, rebooting servers or allocating resources. NOCpulse can send notifications via e-mail, pager, or phone to key network administrators whenever something goes wrong, even escalating the notification to more senior managers if the first contacts don’t respond immediately.

But of greatest interest to business managers will be NOCpulse’s historical reports, including summaries of how often your servers have been down in the past 24 hours, week, or month. Such reports should prove invaluable to managers who want to enforce an SLA.

Of course, network management utilities like Hewlett-Packard’s OpenView and BMC Software’s products have been around awhile. But, NOCpulse executives say, such tools were developed for managing client-server applications and aren’t suited to the Internet. Other site-monitoring services, such as Keynote, have tended to focus on overall website availability but not on specific problems. Keynote can tell you that your homepage takes 14.2 seconds to download in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., which is valuable information to know, but if you have 20 Web servers and one of them goes down, Keynote won’t help you find the problem.

NOCpulse charges $5,000 per month to monitor eight servers; customers can have more servers monitored at the rate of $3,500 for each additional block of eight servers. For companies with big websites to keep an eye on, this may prove to be a smart bit of insurance to buy.

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Posted by on November 9, 2000