To overcome the unique challenges of managing a remote network, network managers are using a variety of tools to help them automate data transmissions, reconfigure remote-location PCs, gain access to troublespots on the network and centrally track performance of networks that span multiple locations.
Chick-fil-A is a fast-growing restaurant chain with more than 700 outlets in the United States and Canada, all of which require remote management. With the company’s first international expansion, its chicken sandwiches, strips and nuggets are now being eaten by residents in far-off Durban, South Africa.
Chick-fil-A’s growing business demanded a better method for communicating with its stores than simply having them mail monthly profit and loss statements and then manually entering the data into the financial system from Oracle Corp.
“We needed something that would allow us to support the business and get changes out quickly,” said Mike Erbrick, manager of restaurant information systems for Chick-fil-A Inc., in Atlanta. At each restaurant, the company installed stand-alone PCs equipped with 28.8K-bps modems, a custom restaurant management program and RemoteWare remote access software from XcelleNet Inc., of Atlanta.
“Through its electronic software distribution, RemoteWare provides guaranteed information delivery from the server to the stores, and from the stores back to here,” said Erbrick. “XcelleNet’s niche is the infrequently connected node.”
The company uses RemoteWare to automate the delivery, retrieval and update of information between corporate offices and restaurant locations. On a monthly basis, the restaurants compile profit-and-loss data and send it in an EDI (electronic data interchange) format to OS/2 servers running RemoteWare. The data is then automatically distributed to the company’s Oracle financial system.
“If any errors occur, people are automatically sent an E-mail or paged,” said Erbrick. “That is a function of the work we’ve done with writing to RemoteWare and its API–it’s totally automated,” he said. A profit-and-loss statement is then generated and reviewed by a corporate accountant. Once approved, an E-mail message containing the statement is sent back to the restaurant.
RemoteWare is also used to handle several daily remote-management functions, including daily reports on sales and deposits. Remote sites also use RemoteWare’s E-mail feature; a mail gateway at the corporate site transfers the RemoteWare messages to and from its cc:Mail E-mail system.
“From the RemoteWare desktop application at their location, we essentially control what our operators see and what they have access to on the computer,” said Erbrick. An area of the desktop interface called Subscriber contains documents sent by the corporate offices to all of the restaurants. Using RemoteWare, Erbrick is also able to remotely control the configuration of each PC by automatically comparing their image files with a master image file.
Erbrick credits RemoteWare with the company’s ability to maintain a lean support staff: six corporate IT personnel support the 700 locations.
By year’s end, Chick-fil-A plans to migrate its corporate offices from NetWare and OS/2 to Windows NT. And in early 1998, restaurant cash registers will feed sales data directly to a PC. “Our goal is to capture transactions at their source to get a better understanding of who our customers are and what they are ordering,” said Erbrick.
A quick remote fix
Another RemoteWare user, Toyota Motor Credit Corp., supplements its remote management functions using pcAnywhere from Symantec Corp. “When there is a problem, and we need to look at what is going on with a remote machine, we use pcAnywhere to dial in, grab control and take a look at the problem,” said Jeff Ly, a senior programmer/analyst with the Toyota Motor Corp. division in Torrance, Calif.
Symantec’s pcAnywhere can also be used to update files, transfer files, check E-mail and access office-based applications. Compressor Controls Corp., a Des Moines, Iowa, manufacturer of control systems for turbomachinery used by Standard Oil Co. and other industrial giants, uses pcAnywhere32 8.0 for remote management across its internal network and modem lines.
Bill Dickerson, the company’s network support technician, can dial into the network from his PC at home to do after-hours maintenance. “Using pcAnywhere, I can play around with log scripts and try new software distribution routines without worrying about people logging in and getting messed up,” said Dickerson.
Once, when its PC-based building security system failed, Dickerson was able to resolve the problem remotely. “One weekend, the doors did not lock, so I dialed in and used pcAnywhere to get to the computer and give it a command,” he said.
Automated scripts allow files on Dickerson’s home and office PCs to be synchronized each night while unattended. “pcAnywhere calls into the office machine and compares the directories and files. Whatever differences there are, it makes the office computer files match the ones set up at home–that could be 50 to 60MB of data,” he said. Similarly, while he travels home for the night, Dickerson’s home computer calls into the office to retrieve new and changed files.
Compressor Controls’ Texas sales office is also remotely managed. The remote users can already dial into the network to transfer files and receive E-mail, and scripting is in the works that will automatically update sales database information, said Dickerson.
In addition, the company uses pcAnywhere to access its internal, heterogeneous network. “pcAnywhere acts as a gateway on the network from Windows 95 to NT to 3.1 and among NetWare and NT file servers running different protocols,” Dickerson said.
Probing for remote trouble spots
While RemoteWare specializes in remote synchronization and pcAnywhere’s forte is remote control, another remote management tool measures network traffic. Network General Corp.’s NetXRay runs under Windows 95 and Windows NT to provide remote network monitoring, troubleshooting and analysis.
The Washington State Children’s Administration, a division of the state’s Department of Social and Health Services, uses NetXRay to remotely monitor the performance of networks at 50 sites. “We use NetXRay to analyze how new applications will affect the network, and to keep track of network utilization,” said Stewart Wood, the department’s network manager in Olympia, Wash.
NetXRay was used in a recent data warehouse buying decision. “We had vendors coming in to demo their product, showing us two- and three-tiered approaches to data warehousing,” said Wood. “While they were giving presentations, I was running NetXRay on the network and capturing traffic to find out what exactly was going on with different packets. I found that certain products did not work the way I was told they worked, and we were able to make a better decision.”
Wood is also in the process of measuring the effect of audio and video from the Internet on the company network. “I have 50 probes statewide that keep track of the errors on the network. We connect to those offices using NetXRay’s Console to run reports and graphs on the errors to try and isolate what is going on,” he said.
The state’s 50 children’s services sites are connected on a WAN with dedicated frame-relay lines running at T-1 and 56K bps. Each office has its own NT-based LAN and file server. NetXRay remotely gathers information from the probes to provide centralized packet analysis. Wood’s 16-person support staff can remotely manage 60 servers and 2,300 workstations.
Prior to using NetXRay, Wood had to send IT staff into the field to analyze problems.
“That could take several days to get set up,” he said. “We were not able to resolve problems in a timely manner. [The NetXRay solution] makes it easier for us to isolate errors and resolve them.”
The NetXRay probes are also used to capture packets and monitor Internet access by employees. While the product does not block user access to certain sites, it “can monitor where they’ve gone and notify a supervisor if there is a problem,” said Wood.