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Wholesaler enlists monitoring tool for Windows, Cisco overhaul

In the course of a major Windows and Cisco infrastructure upgrade, apparel company Union Bay added monitoring capabilities to improve IT operations.

Even in good economic times, the apparel business is competitive. Now that the economy has cooled -- particularly in terms of consumer spending -- the clothing business is more cutthroat than ever. For Union Bay, a Seattle-based wholesaler of sportswear for teens, a new IT infrastructure, and monitoring tools help the company keep operations efficient.

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About a year and a half ago, Union Bay embarked on a project to overhaul its infrastructure. "We were doing a massive upgrade," said Will Schoentrup, Union Bay's director of IT. "As a wholesaler that sells to the likes of Kohl's and J.C. Penney, we needed to use technology to make the organization more efficient." With six locations – two in Washington State, two in California and two in New York – the company had no monitoring or infrastructure management tools in place. Its only performance monitoring capabilities were those included in the company's main packaged applications, including financials from Oracle Corp., business intelligence from Business Objects (now part of SAP), and warehouse management from Manhattan Associates.

We had no monitoring, and we weren't very proactive.
Will Schoentrup,
CTOUnion Bay

The overhaul included desktop applications as well as network and data center infrastructure. "We upgraded everything," Schoentrup said. "We migrated to Office 2007, Exchange 2007 and Active Directory, and we upgraded our WANs [wide area networks] and LANs [local area networks] at six locations." The company also ditched Windows NT in favor of Windows Server 2003. (The company is now evaluating Windows Server 2008.)

Enter server monitoring
As part of the upgrade, Union Bay wanted to add monitoring capabilities for infrastructure devices including servers, Schoentrup said. "We had no monitoring, and we weren't very proactive," Schoentrup explained. Typically, IT would get wind of infrastructure problems as they happened – along with everyone else at the company. "That wasn't the most efficient way to run IT," he added.

As an organization with a "midtier environment," Union Bay didn't need the breadth of functions available in HP OpenView, Schoentrup recalled. And some affordable tools – specifically WhatsUp Gold from Ipswitch Inc., and ipMonitor from SolarWinds Inc., provided basic network monitoring geared more for smaller companies, Schoentrup said.

After evaluating the available tools in light of Union Bay's needs, Schoentrup selected WatchTower, a tool from Cittio Inc., that monitors IP-based devices. "We wanted an affordable tool that can monitor our Cisco switches and routers and our Dell servers," Schoentrup said. With WatchTower , Schoentrup pays on a per-node basis, ensuring that the company does not pay for monitoring capabilities it doesn't need.

Steve Steinke, the research director of networking at the New York-based research firm the 451 Group, said that tools like those from Cittio appeal to medium-sized companies because these technologies offer a level of automation lacking in more basic monitoring tools, plus they don't require plug-ins or professional services, as is the case with many of the monitoring frameworks from large vendors. "The average deployment of basic monitoring tools is from five to 10 servers," Steinke said. 'WatchTower typically has a deployment that's six or eight times those, while an HP OpenView deployment can scale up to 10,000 servers."

Union Bay's upgrade project took about a year to complete and was wrapped up at the end of 2007. Currently, Union Bay monitors about 150 devices with WatchTower, including 60 servers. "While 150 devices may not sound like a lot, two network administrators would have to spend all their time monitoring those devices," Schoentrup said.

Prior to implementing a monitoring tool, network administrators would pore over log files to get to the root of problems, something that contributed to the reactive nature of Union Bay's IT department. "We can put traps into play and monitor and set up thresholds," Schoentrup said. "Our IT group is a lot more proactive than before." In April, Schoentrup upgraded to WatchTower 3.1, the latest version of the tool. "With the new version, we can create the topology of our network and prioritize alerting," Schoentrup said. "If we lose a core device like a router that affects many other devices behind it, we won't get inundated with hundreds of alerts," he added. "That really allows us to focus in on the problem and saves us troubleshooting time."

Reducing time in tracking and fixing problems also helps the 19-member IT group deliver better service and improve uptime. "There are so many technologies the network managers have to deal with, that we used to spend so time on Cisco issues that we'd fall behind on Microsoft updates," Schoentrup said. "Now we get the right information about our infrastructure, and we have more uptime for all our systems."

Let us know what you think about the story email Megan Santosus, Features Writer .

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