VAR's Solution Is A Gem

What Langway has discovered in his work with midmarket customers is that the increasing complexity of networks and the increasing traffic they're required to withstand aren't the only issues network administrators have to keep their eyes on. Applications can misbehave, too.

"What we're finding is that network engineers are getting calls that the network is slow, or the network has problems. It's not sufficient to say that; they have to dig deeper, and that means they have to get involved in the applications," Langway said.

About 60 percent of PVP's revenue comes from consulting projects, many of which stem from referrals from software vendor Network Instruments, Minnetonka, Minn., whose Observer product Langway uses to analyze customer networks.

"The medium-size companies don't have the staff that you'll find at ESPN or CitiCorp—where they'll have 20 or 30 people on staff. These smaller ones don't have the expertise in a lot of these areas," Langway said.

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One such referral was the Gem Group, Lawrence, Mass., maker of the Gemline promotional apparel and office accessory product line. With 400 employees in the United States and 120 in China, the Gem Group was experiencing slow server response time. Users of the company's Exchange server were receiving popups notifying them that the server was busy and was going to try again to connect. Employees accessing the server through the company's VPN were also experiencing slowdowns.

The Gem Group's IT staff was busy trying to eliminate possible causes of the slow service.

"We weren't sure if it was our mail server, our storage area network, the Exchange configuration, Active Directory or something on the network, so basically we did an all-out blitz. We contacted Network Instruments and they referred us to Paul Langway and the Observer protocol analysis [tool]," said Brian Smith, technology manager at the Gem Group.

Having Langway on hand made the process of analyzing the system's snags much easier for Smith and his team, and the Gem Group purchased the Observer analyzer through PVP, generating additional revenue for the reseller.

"Unless you work with the protocol analysis filters, there's a lot of information in there, and you don't really know what's meaningful," Smith said. "He came in and gave us a morning training session and an afternoon of analysis, helping us drill into the problem."

The Gem Group discovered that traffic on its SAN was too high, as the company had tripled the number of servers on its network within 18 months. Every time a remote user logged on, Outlook would attempt to contact Active Directory every minute, causing a backup in the network.

"The more users that come up, the harder Active Directory has to work if you've got 20 or 30 people logging on simultaneously, it's going to use more of that processing [power], and it's going to slow things down," Langway said.

Added Smith: "We found that 80 percent of our e-mail traffic was written [e-mail] vs. read. Because of the nature of our business and the way people are using it here for at-work file transfers, we saw that [there] was a lot of write activity going on. That was creating even more traffic on the SAN."

The Gem Group's system couldn't service the number of requests it was getting on Exchange, but an Active Directory upgrade and a few other modifications were made to get things working smoothly again. The Exchange server was operating on a 100-Mbyte switch, and the Active Directory was communicating to the network through a 10-Mbyte switch. Equalizing the bandwidth available to each switch also kept the e-mail flowing.

For Langway, application snags such as the Gem Group's are commonplace among his midmarket customers. "Immediately they think it's the network, but it [usually] isn't the network—nine times out of 10, that's what we're finding," he said.

"You need to take it to the next level, especially in the medium-size companies. They need tools and they need expertise to be able to look at the whole picture," Langway added. "Applications are getting more and more complicated, which is great for our business, but bad for the users. The more things we throw in the network right now—spam appliances, antivirus and so on—all these things are complicating how these applications behave. You have to be able to look at the whole as opposed to the parts."