Tech Success: NCI shows Transcom the bigger picture

IT Solutions in action

Project: Service performance monitoring

Agency: The U.S. Transportation Command

PartnersBMC Software Inc., Houston, and NCI Information Systems Inc., McLean, Va.

Goal:The Transportation Command wanted to improve the performance of its Global Transportation Network, a data warehouse-based system that can pinpoint the locations of personnel and equipment in transit. The command hired NCI to come up with a way to more closely monitor network performance in order to anticipate potential problems.

Obstacle: Most network monitoring solutions watch how individual components, such as servers, are performing. Problems still could occur that would hamper service delivery and would not be picked up by these monitors.

Solution: BMC's Patrol software monitors how well applications respond to simulated user queries. As a result, NCI is alerted when the Global Transportation Network is performing sluggishly.

Payoff: Performance problems with the Global Transportation Network are captured more quickly. NCI has expanded its monitoring support to other command services, such as e-mail and Web access for command service members.

Craig Harper is director of federal operations for BMC.

Olivier Douliery

BMC software helps integrator monitor system performance

The U.S. Transportation Command sets a high performance bar for its IT services: It wants problems fixed before users call to complain.

In supporting the command, NCI Information Systems Inc., McLean, Va., found an application monitoring solution from BMC Software Inc., Houston, helped the company meet the command's stringent needs.

While NCI uses network-monitoring tools, BMC's Patrol product adds an extra safeguard. Patrol checks how quickly the network's services, such as e-mail or databases, are responding.

Other integrators also could use Patrol to offer their government clients better quality of service, said Craig Harper, director of federal operations for BMC.

As part of a larger support contract, NCI was hired in 1999 by the Transportation Command to help improve the performance of the Global Transportation Network, a data warehouse-based system that tracks in-transit personnel and equipment. The command is responsible for moving military supplies and personnel to locations around the world.

According to Frank Barncord, team leader for the command's service assurance section, the command wanted to be proactive in responding to outages. He didn't think the network's users should be responsible for alerting system administrators when something was wrong.

"Why should we make our customer tell us we are not doing our job?" Barncord said. "We should know before the customer calls."

NCI looked at a number of software tools to help, said Douglas Story, the NCI contractor lead for the command's service assurance offer. When the team winnowed down the pool of candidates to those that met the command's requirements, they arrived at two products. BMC offered one product, and Platinum Technology International Inc. offered the other.

Story said NCI chose BMC because it seemed to be the financially stronger of the two companies, which meant it would be better able to support its products for years after the sale. Computer Associates International Inc., Islandia, N.Y., bought Platinum Technology in 1999, after the evaluations were done.

At the time, performance-monitoring software only tested how well equipment, such as servers and routers, on a network was performing. Patrol was unique in that it measures the response time of applications that run on the network. Using Patrol, NCI set up programs that would automatically log into the service and time its response.

"We run actual customer inquiries. We download Web pages, log in and check home directories. We are truly trying to represent the customer experience," Story said.

Using the system's services gives a better picture of how well they are performing, because performance lags can be identified that may not show up under normal testing, Story said.

In one case, Patrol found a database was running slow. The database server was fine, but the database needed to be defragmented. In another case, a server was running at half speed because it was operating at half-duplex mode, in which data cannot be sent and received simultaneously, rather than at full-duplex mode.

Neither problem would have been identified by network monitoring software.

NCI has also expanded its use of Patrol beyond the Global Transportation Network to other command services, such as monitoring e-mail and Web access performance.

"We continue to identify critical services that are not being measured, and we establish the measurements and roll them out," Story said.

The basic version of Patrol runs about $650 on the General Services Administration schedule. The integrator buys the software, along with modules for monitoring specific applications, Harper said. Modules are available for hundreds of applications, from PeopleSoft to Bea Systems Inc.'s WebLogic Web services platform. Integrators can also create customized modules for their own applications.

BMC's modules not only can alert administrators to a problem with application, but actually can prevent some problems from occurring. For instance, the module for Microsoft Corp.'s Exchange server, popular with Defense Department offices, has several scripts that automatically correct server problems, said Scot Susi, a government account manager for BMC.

Northrop Grumman Corp., Los Angeles, uses Patrol to monitor the performance of Web services offered on the Army's Knowledge Online portal. And Electronic Data Systems Corp., Plano, Texas, uses it to watch Web applications for the Treasury Department.

"BMC strives to be partner and integrator friendly," Harper said.

For 2003, the company reported revenue of $1.3 billion. Although BMC sells direct, it has developed a strategy of not underselling resellers and integrators that also offer the product.

"We want to leverage a sale. We may lose some revenue in the short term, but in the long-term we're building relationships with valued partners," Harper said.  

If you have an innovative solution you recently installed in a government agency, contact Staff Writer Joab Jackson at jjackson@postnewsweektech.com.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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