Staples automates configuration management

FRAMINGHAM (03/19/2004) - This is the last in a special Fusion series spotlighting enterprise network managers' innovative use of management products to automate processes, prevent outages and save money.

With 1,500 multi-vendor routers to manage and maintain, Sally Jo Bernard says she knew there had to be a better way than putting her top engineers to work for more than a week on a single IT chore.

Like many enterprises, retail office supply giant Staples Inc. has policies that call for periodic changes to device access settings to conform to internal standards. The director of network operations for Staples, Bernard says that to keep the Nortel Networks Corp. and other gear at the company's corporate data center up to date and properly configured she needed to put two top-tier engineers on the task -- a job which could take them up to six man-days to complete.

Because the job consumed so much time, Bernard only performed scheduled backups and updates on a quarterly basis, which wasn't adequate, in her opinion.

"We didn't feel it was a good use of their time or that we could perform the updates and backups frequently enough with our manual procedures," she says. "We wanted to eliminate the manual administration work that was taking days to do."

Bernard started looking for ways to automate the "onerous and tedious" tasks last year. She reviewed multiple vendors to address her configuration management needs. Configuration management involves managing and monitoring these configuration standards. With centralized access to this critical information, companies can gain control over their networks. And Bernard realized she needed a vendor that could address the heterogeneity in her data center.

"We wanted a vendor that would include all the equipment we had, and if they didn't support it, we wanted to see how quickly they could respond to a request," she says.

Adding technology

Bernard reviewed Gold Wire Technology Inc.'s Formulator appliance and performed a 60-day pilot last summer. She says the product worked well enough for her to request it support all of the vendor gear in her data center.

"We had one device that requires 11 layers of passwords, so it doesn't do me any good if the software can only manage one layer," she explains.

The Formulator appliance includes hardware, a database, a Web application server and custom-developed software. It can be plugged in to a network port and identify all nodes on a network, such as routers, switches, VPN gateways, firewalls and Unix servers.

The box can be used in proxy mode, where all access to the configuration consoles is gained through the Formulator. This lets managers use single sign-on to access different types of equipment from various companies, instead of accessing boxes individually.

For Bernard, the installation was straightforward. She said locating the appliance, loading the software and setting the network parameters for it to manage took a few hours. And now updating device configurations across the data center can take up to a few hours, and the engineers don't even need to be involved.

'They kick off the process and check it in a few hours to see if there were any exceptions to the configuration updates. They don't have to monitor it the entire time. It's for the most part automated," she says.

Still to come

Bernard's recent success with Gold Wire's Formulator has her thinking in the near future they will use the product to push out software to multiple devices as well.

"With 1,500 routers, the idea of being able to push software out on a one-to-many basis is very appealing," she says. "We haven't done it yet, but we believe Formulator will be very useful for that task."

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