Quick Change

by Angela R. Garber

Justin Knupp knew that his network would never be more at risk than it would be moving across town in the back of a truck. Faced with the prospect of simultaneously relocating, quadrupling the size of the network, and hiring an assistant, the information technology manager for the National Cable Television Co-op knew there was no way he could maintain the company’s systems by hand and still get his day-to-day work done.

Like many IT folks, Knupp was faced with keeping the company’s computer infrastructure in place in the midst of big changes. During “normal” times, IT people are swamped with tasks, ranging from mundane system maintenance to putting out constant fires. Major changes can test the mettle of even the most-experienced IT guru. By planning ahead, however, IT staff can save themselves a lot of aggravation and put out fires before they ignite.

Bryan Curtis, information technology specialist at Rochester, N.Y.-based Simcona Electronics, was armed and ready for a big software upgrade last year. The 95-person company wanted to upgrade to Windows 2000, a task that seems simple enough — walk up to a machine, put in a CD-ROM, press a few buttons, and wait — but in actuality is one big-time nightmare.

Consider that the systems engineer has to first kick off the user, shut down all running applications, and only then can she begin the installation. To compound the issue, Curtis said that there were about 10 additional applications that needed to be protected, reinstalled, or updated at the same time. Curtis estimates that would take about an hour — an hour of his time and usually an hour of another employee’s time — per machine.

Ask any IT person and they will tell you that doing software updates for the whole office at one time is just not feasible. More often than not the upgrades make their way around the office in a more piecemeal fashion. Even if the intention is to do it all at once, installers get called away to attend to one emergency or another. A handful of employees “lucky” enough to get the updated software have to save documents “down” so that their teammates working on older versions can still have access. When they forget, they get calls to save them in an accessible format.

To avoid that nightmare, Curtis purchased an automated software-installation program, Lanovation’s PC Updater. This software-distribution utility allowed him to “package” new software for deployment to multiple PCs simultaneously.

The process is simple. Rather than walking from office to office and doing each upgrade manually, the technician walks through a setup process to create a “package” of only the needed information. The distribution tool will ignore options and values that were present in older versions of the software, but will incorporate new values. The information packet is small enough that it can be e-mailed and quickly downloaded. When the technician is done, he has the option of using remote access to install the information on employees’ computers, or he can send out the file attached to an e-mail or posted on a Web page, so employees can install it themselves.

Curtis says the upgrades took less than 15 minutes per machine, and he is now posting regular software updates to the company intranet for employees to access themselves. It has saved Simcona both time and money.

Justin Knupp’s dilemma — moving an entire network to a new location — was even more complex than the one Curtis had faced. The 50-employee National Cable Television Co-op, located just outside Kansas City, Kan., is a purchasing co-op for small- to medium-sized cable television providers. NCTC negotiates programming contracts with the networks and then resells blocks to its member stations at much better prices than the Co-op’s 800 member-companies could get on their own. The Co-op also purchases and resells the hardware that the cable providers need to deliver programming to their viewers.

Before NCTC could change locations, Knupp needed to document the network: map out every single program, file, and setting that was stored on the network and each of its peripherals. That way he could put the network back together after the move.

“When we first started talking about moving, I was most concerned with getting a good set of documentation so the system could be redesigned if anything happened,” says Knupp. “We were looking at doing it by hand, and I just knew that wouldn’t be feasible.”

Every NCTC employee has a desktop computer and most have their own desktop printers as well. In addition, the company has computers in file room stations, networked printers, networked photo copiers, scanners, color printers, Outlook Exchange, a FoxPro database, Great Plains accounting software, and in-house Web site management. That’s a lot of hardware and information to be documented.

It is vital for a company to document this information in the event that disaster strikes and wipes out information or takes out a machine. In these days of high staff turnover rates, catastrophes come in other forms, as well. If the configuration map lives inside someone’s head, it walks out the door when she does.

But documenting that much information by hand can take hours. Knupp knew that if he were to have any hopes of designing the new network, keeping the old facility running, and training a new staff member all at the same time, he would have to purchase an automated systems-documentation tool.

Knupp licensed the My Ecora Appliance in late 1999, and says the step-by-step installation and setup was easy. He took a few minutes to fill out a form on a Web interface that told the appliance which servers and domains he wanted documented. He then sat back and watched.

“I was able to get a snapshot of four servers and all the files in 10 minutes,” he says. “It would have taken us at least 12 to 16 hours to do it by hand. But even then it’s hard to put a time on how long it would have taken us because it pulled things we never would have thought of.”

The appliance not only inventories all of the hardware and software installed on the system, but also documents and explains the system’s configuration, including servers, domains, settings, and file shares. It also locates conflicts and inconsistencies, identifies possible security risks, and makes recommendations for increasing performance. Knupp runs the documentation once a week to cover any changes made during normal operations and immediately after any major change.

“It lets us make sure the network is running well, not just running,” he says. “What it did was allow me to be a lot more productive and concentrate on the design of the new network and keep the old facility up and running during the rollover.”

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.
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