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A Winning Combination: Software-as-Services Plus Business Consulting and Process Services
By Laurie McCabe
January 30, 2004

By Chris Costello and Tracy Van Brakle, AT&T

With intranet and extranet applications so widely used by businesses today, the management of these complex applications grows all the more critical to how successful companies are in communicating with their employees, partners, suppliers and customers. As managed services providers survey their customers’ use of networked communications, they’re finding major corporations are driving the evolutionary engine. The more Web-advanced are using technologies to build complex interfaces across their different businesses and developing ‘communities of interest’ within their respective industries. Other customers are simply trying to improve the performance of critical end-to-end business processes by better managing existing applications.

One such survey by AT&T reveals that the Web strategies of many customers are already well established. Not only have they worked out Business-to-Consumer processes and applications, but for the most part they have enabled their business processes and are building complex Web-based applications to support the processes.

Hosting providers play a critical role in effectively monitoring, managing and anticipating the performance of the aggregate components of these applications. And as AT&T has found, it is equally important that providers represent the information in a meaningful, end-to-end view so that clients can see the impact to their applications in real time. This is where businesses need specialized support, not just to make their Web strategies work, but to manage and control the performance of their applications’.

It comes down to a basic business imperative. The ‘performance pieces’ of any monitoring system must fit together intelligently and depict the behavior and performance of the business application overall. This not only takes specialized technical knowledge, it also requires an innovative approach to communicating performance issues in a way that business people can comprehend. It takes an equal focus on ‘people, systems and processes’.

Take a payroll system, for example. Let’s say Company A has developed a web-based payroll application that interfaces with rostering applications, an HR application that handles leave requests a system providing automated recording of actual shift hours worked from several remote worksites, and allows complex interfaces into an enterprise accounting system, such as SAP.

Naturally, such a system requires significant integration at the application and interface level – we’ll assume that work has been done. If we look ‘under’ the application at all the enabling software and hardware, however, we’re likely to find network equipment, servers, operating systems, database metrics and printers. The success of the whole business application depends on each of these components performing to certain standards, not only on their own but in conjunction with the others. A failure of any component has an effect on the whole application, and ultimately, the entire business operation. A network failure at one site, for example, may mean that actual hours worked do not reach the payroll system.

The challenge for company A is to find a way to monitor the whole application as a ‘circuit’ so that the impacts of a router failure, for example, can be seen on the rest of the application, and measures are in place to deal with it. The challenge is two-pronged; not only must the components be managed as a circuit, but from a business perspective, the circuit must be represented in meaningful ways so that non-technical people can quickly assess the business impact of a specific component’s failure.

AT&T’s approach
This is where AT&T sees it can add substantially to enterprise hosting services,” commented Carmen Grago, a Solution Architect from Pepperweed Consulting. “They’ve astutely recognized that it is no longer good enough to track the pieces and ignore the whole. Nor is it enough to present disjointed measuring and monitoring data that customers find hard to interpret into business implications or meaningful action.”

For this reason, AT&T has given careful thought to the challenges involved in managing the performance of an entire application from the network, through server, through application and the way performance issues are represented to the business.

The AT&T approach includes:

  • The use of transaction simulators, which enable business processes, systems and applications to be viewed and managed as a circuit, and
  • As recognized by Tier-1 Research, an industry-leading Managed Services Portal, reports performance issues to both technical and non-technical staff in meaningful ways.


iGEMS
The AT&T solution for Enterprise Hosting is a multi-vendor, multi-protocol platform dubbed “iGEMS” (Integrated Global Enterprise Management System). The platform comprises numerous components developed by AT&T’s technology partners, e.g., BMC, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Sun, that are ‘glued’ together by thousands of lines of code developed in-house at AT&T. One of these components is a configurable transaction simulator to provide an integrated monitoring, management, and reporting solution for a complex web-based service.

Transaction simulators are external processes configured to mimic the steps in a transaction and to detect the successful completion of each step. As the name suggests, these enable clients to simulate key processes within their application’s ‘circuit’ and see what happens when faults occur within the circuit.

The underlying technology for all of AT&T’s transaction simulators is what AT&T calls its integrated Global Enterprise Management System (iGEMS). This multi-vendor, multi-protocol system combines a range of commercially available transaction simulators and tools and represents a careful and thorough collaboration between various proprietary network management tools. As a combination of tools, iGEMS is a sophisticated proactive, reactive and predictive management system designed to predict faults within networks, servers and web-based applications and correlate across the 3 domains to quickly detect the root cause of the problem and fix it.

Over the past few years, AT&T invested more than $200 million in iGEMS. Moreover, the aim while developing iGEMS was to identify and combine best-of-breed tools in both predictive and proactive network management. For this reason, AT&T included HP’s OpenView Internet Services toolset in the mix, in addition to numerous other best in class software providers, for the flexibility to build transaction simulators to different client requirements along the hosting continuum.

The notion of a ‘hosting continuum’ of services is something AT&T developed to address the varying needs of a large client base. The continuum necessarily covers a wide spectrum of clients’ individual requirements. Some clients simply need space and connectivity in AT&T’s Internet Data Centers (offered domestically and globally), while others require more advanced monitoring and notification services from AT&T and the client can fix troubles for themselves. other clients need still more advanced management capabilities where AT&T is responsible for fixing components, or even complete, end-to-end application performance management.

At the far left of AT&T’s hosting continuum are clients who require space in an Internet Data Center and network connectivity. At the far right are clients whose core business is something other than IT and, therefore, they let AT&T manage the “e” in eBusiness while they focus on the business. All clients benefit from the superb physical plant and features of AT&T’s IDC and a direct connection to the common backbone. In addition, the fully managed clients — those who let AT&T manage the “e” — benefit from SLAs that are enforced programmatically through iGEMS and visible to customers 24 x 7 through the Managed Services Portal that sits on top of iGEMS.

A flexible approach to defining and enforcing complex SLAs or even those that are not so complex is to configure a transaction simulator.

Managed Services Portal
As indicated, providing customers monitoring and management capabiliies is one thing, representing the information in meaningful, business-focused ways is another. AT&T’s Enterprise Hosting Services responded to this challenge with its ‘Managed Services Portal’ which offers business customers a real-time view into the performance of their e-infrastructure and mission-critical applications.

The Managed Services Portal (MSP) is the customers’ window into iGEMS, providing reporting and notification options customized to the client’s requirements. Using it, clients are offered visibility and control with access to near real time and historical performance and SLA reports, access to ticketing, ordering and billing information, as well as a robust set of collaboration tools enabling the client and AT&T to interact in real time, all personalized to a clients specific business needs.

The portal provides over 50 types interactive reports into the performance of a client’s infrastructure spanning the network, systems and applications The portal is ‘one of few providing real-time topology’ states a recent Tier 1 Research report. ‘It shows attention to detail, for example, by having search tools on such pages as trouble tickets pop up on a separate window’.

What seems to impress observers and clients most, however, is the portal’s usability. On this aspect Tier 1 Research described that the portal is unique in its design, providing a ‘Start Page’ for its users.

This level of practical functionality was the outcome of clear strategy from the start. While most business intelligence initiatives focus on integrating data sources, it often seems they reveal more about the behavior of systems than the behavior of business. We wanted to clearly differentiate ourselves from that approach, and the Managed Services Portal does just that.

AT&T has invested a great deal of resources to ensure the portal is flexible and provides the greatest possible visibility to mission-critical components, responding to the increasing demand for ‘meaningful visibility’.

About the Authors
Christina L. Costello is the Product Director of the Managed Services Portal. Her professional experience ranges from e-business to all aspects of intranets, Internets, extranets, to sales and marketing and operations. She is a contributor to the creation and advancement of IKE, AT&T’s Global Information & Knowledge Exchange intranet and currently leads the e-servicing strategy for Managed Services clients for AT&T.

Chris is has been a contributor for many publications on e-business and knowledge management. Recent publication work includes: Hosting Tech Magazine, Net Economy, WebHosting Magazine, Knowledge Management Review, Best Practices in Knowledge Management and Organizational Learning Handbook, Systems Thinker. Recent industry presentations include: Chief Learning Officer Conference, University of Texas at San Antonio MBA Program, AT&T Labs Innovation Forum, Web Week.

Tracy Van Brakle joined AT&T in 1996, working as a systems engineer on the domestic SONET program before moving over to Managed Services Product Management in 2002. Prior to that, she was with Morgan Stanley from 1992 through 1996, working on distributed systems.

 

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