Considering the heightened state of security that exists in the post-9/11 world, few people would relish the prospect of getting unusual-looking electronic equipment to pass through customs unimpeded on a regular basis. Gary Bales, a senior programmer and analyst for the investment group of The Hague, Netherlands-based life insurer AEGON, certainly doesn’t.
However, to keep file transfers running smoothly on AEGON’s globally dispersed network, Bales would often need to do just that, and send people, and testing equipment that bears little resemblance to an ordinary server or PC, to every point on the map. “We have a huge number of servers, all across North America, Europe and Asia,” says Bales, who works out of AEGON’s Cedar Rapids, Iowa, office.
Yet, the hassle of getting his gizmos through customs was not the primary problem facing Bales. AEGON also was having significant issues with the speed of its file transfers, which was impacting the service level agreements (SLAs) company has in place. The cost to troubleshoot and correct the issues was also a consideration. Thus, Bales was tasked with figuring out a remote, cost effective way to distribute data, test far-flung networks and meet the SLAs.
“The question became, ‘How do you do a test without putting a person on a plane to the U.K. and setting up a test with a stopwatch?’” he says. “That’s costing $15,000 just to make sure you can meet your SLAs. It just wasn’t feasible.”
CHOOSING A SOLUTION
Bales began to investigate different ways to address the problem. He looked into purchasing four dedicated file servers to place in locations across Europe, which, at the time, cost $15,000 each. He also considered appliance-based solutions to help speed transfers. “The problem I ran into with appliance-based systems, was that they were clunky,” he says.
Eventually, Bales says he came across a reference to Bethesda, Md.-based OPNET Technologies Inc. in a trade magazine. OPNET’s ACE is a software-based solution designed to enable network administrators to capture packets off a network, which allows them to troubleshoot for any application performance problems. “I read about them and decided to throw them into the mix as well,” Bales recalls.
As with any large corporate environment, AEGON has both an integration process and an architectural review process.
Bales admits he was anxious to put ACE through some demos. “I was coming up on my own deadline,” he says. “We ran the tests as fast we could, once we got ACE in house.”
Bales says that ACE gave him quick, accurate numbers about the speed of the networks, which gave him the confidence to forego the hardware-based solution. “This allowed us to say we can meet the SLAs based on the application choices that I’ve made, and not have to purchase these wide-area file servers,” he says, adding that the time between AEGON getting the product in house and their decision to buy it was only two weeks.
“In our virtual software environment, AEGON planned a rollout of a new application,” recalls Eric Nudelman senior VP applications, engineering and training, OPNET.
“What they were going to do would be very costly, and would not have solved their problems. So they changed their course of rollout.”
Thus, by mitigating the need to buy the dedicated file servers, Bales feels ACE paid for itself in its first project.
Often, IT departments tend to view a paucity of resources as the cause of all their problems. Nudelman says that, unlike AEGON, some of the companies OPNET works with have already upgraded their hardware or upgraded their bandwidth only to see their file transfer and application problems persist.
“Many times you can tweak things within the application itself, and you can solve your problem and not have to do an expensive rollout,” he says. “AEGON was going to add four servers in various European locations to get things to run fast. We we’re able to prove that the hardware upgrades were not necessary and wouldn’t have met the service levels that they wanted to meet. Sometimes brute force doesn’t work.”
Nudelman says that one of the strengths of ACE is that it enables IT staff to easily understand what performance problems they are having with their application.
ACE embeds knowledge about how applications, servers and networks interact, providing a comprehensive view of how networked applications are performing. In addition to its troubleshooting functionality, ACE has pre-deployment tools that enable application pre-deployment certification and validate planned changes in production applications.
Bales says the benefits of the ACE deployment have been manifold. “It freed me up a lot,” he says. One benefit is that, despite the software-based nature of ACE, he is not restricted to testing completely in a virtual world. Bales has developed a scenario in which he puts the ACE agent on two non-nefarious laptops and then ships them to the remote location, where they are connected to the remote networks he runs the console from Cedar Rapids.
Furthermore, Bales likes the ease of deployment and the modest system requirements of the product. “In my analysis, you’re looking at less than a 1% processor and memory footprint when it’s running,” he says. “When you’re not calling it, it’s dormant.”
Another thing Bales appreciates is the ongoing support he receives from OPNET. Perhaps most indicative of this proclivity for customer service is the fact that OPNET retains their first customer, who came on board more than 20 years ago.
“I was blown away by the fact that they still have their first customer,” Bales says. “That’s unheard of in the software industry.”
What’s more, Bales says, the vendor made the effort to incorporate changes he suggested into future versions of the product. “When ACE didn’t have something I wanted, I picked up my phone and called my sales rep and said ‘I want it to do this.’ Or I sat down with members of the ACE group and said this is what I’m trying to do,” he says.
Bales was thankful that the ACE team took time to learn the unique requirements of his team’s business. “Them taking the time to learn that we are a slightly different egg than the rest of the dozen was important,” he says. “I’ve been in the business for 14 years and worked for software vendors. I can’t think of anybody else who comes to that level of involvement and learning what we do.”
Nudelman, too, is quick to stress the collaborative nature of the partnership. “We’re providing the software, AEGON did all the work,” he says.
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