Fair Trading upgrade beats stability quandry

The NSW Department of Fair Trading is using the services of Com Tech's Enterprise Management Centre (EMC) to guarantee timely delivery of up-to-date information at 28 sites throughout the state.

The implementation is part of a departmental strategy that encompasses a significant network and applications upgrade, year 2000 compliancy measures and the provision of electronic services.

The head office in Parramatta is linked via 64Kbit/sec ISDN lines to 28 sites and 1200 PCs on a Banyan Vines network using a range of Cisco routers, from 2500 to 7000 series.

"Changing client needs in all our areas of operation tends to mean the goalposts are being moved all the time and we have to be able to keep up with that," said Debra March, the department's technology services manager. "A stable network is absolutely crucial.

"On the other hand, we are not in a position to hire people 24 hours a day to run our infrastructure. The EMC allows me to leave here at a reasonable hour with the security of knowing there is that 'silent network officer' on duty at all times who will immediately notify us of any potential problems. I don't want to be running around at three in the morning unless I have to, or even worse -- to not know about it until the next day!"

Among the best known business units in the Department of Fair Trading are consumer services such as the Rental Bond Board, Consumer Claims Tribunal, Business Registration and Licensing, and the Register of Encumbered Vehicles (REVs).

"We are currently redeveloping an application which provides consumer and trader information to every Fair Trading centre," said March. "This is a knowledge-based system that contains large amounts of information, particularly relating to consumer advice, which is used to improve our services to the public."

Earlier this year the department had identified the need for a system that could proactively identify problem areas in the network, report on the status of the network, and quickly address any problems that did occur.

"The existing infrastructure potetially could have let us down, and in a department like ours, where high- quality service delivery is paramount, we cannot afford to have information unavailable when it is needed," March said.

"All of our systems have slightly different needs but run on similar platforms, sharing a common network operating system and desktop platform. Staff at the Fair Trading centres could spend more than 90 per cent of their day online to a relevant application. The network is mission-critical for us."

The department negotiated an enterprise agreement with Com Tech that included an upgrade to an existing maintenance agreement.

"The EMC implementation back-ended into a Com Tech maintenance agreement that includes firewalls, and at the same time we upgraded the maintenance on some of the equipment. Com Tech now takes care of fault identification, mobilisation of engineers, and fault rectification, providing us with a means to provide better service to our clients. However, just because we had maintenance agreements in place didn't mean we had to use Com Tech -- we could easily have arranged maintenance with another vendor if they had come up on top. ComTech's reputation in the industry was a major selling point and its offering was the perfect fit for our requirements."

March has built a fair degree of redundancy into the network, using UPS units in all branches and taking the option of dual power supplies on critical servers and routers. The Web site is hosted on a Compaq file server incorporating hardware based fail-over, and it does work -- "I've tested it by kicking the plug out and the backup server cut in as advertised", said March. "We're also moving to RAID in all the branch servers -- about half have had the upgrade done so far."

One of the biggest challenges facing March is the Y2K issue, which can manifest itself in unusual ways. "We recently ordered a batch of new PCs and then a magazine article appeared claiming that the brand we had chosen wasn't Y2K-compliant. Of course we had to investigate, even though it turned out to be a rumour," she said. The other perennial challenge is deciding what is core and what is non core, figuring out what she and her staff are experts at, or need to become expert at, and then applying a careful balance of "insourcing" and "outsourcing".

"We are constantly making sure that our business needs drive the technology and not the other way around -- we've been fortunate that we can concentrate on customer service rather than politics," she said.

When dealing with the ongoing calls from hopeful sales people, March finds honesty is the best policy to avoid wasting her time or theirs. "If they are offering me some new gee-whiz toy, I simply tell them if it doesn't fit into our current strategy. We've seen a transition from 'sales people' to 'account managers' over the last two years, and this new breed is better at delivering what we want rather than what they want to sell. They are prepared to listen and stay around for the long term rather than chasing a fast commission on some new product. We're now able to get the best deal, not just the best price. And we've trained our suppliers not to offer us bleeding-edge solutions," she said.

March keeps a constant eye on the trade press and research reports from Gartner and IDC, but increasingly finds the Internet a valuable first port of call. "I've spent most of the whole morning on the Net researching a few issues, and now I know enough to start asking about solutions from our suppliers," she explained. "We're looking at outsourcing the hardware support of the department's file servers, as all my staff are based at head office and have to travel to fix problems."

In regard to keeping things running smoothly, March is a strong believer in user education. "It's paramount in keeping things going properly. If users are told why things are a certain way, they don't try and change it to see what might happen. We try and make sure that everyone knows how to use the applications and why they are set up the way they are."

March said that the recent move to outsourcing the WAN management had already saved weeks of possible frustration in trying to find the cause of network incidents. "In one case, we had a packet storm at a regional office. Normally it could take days and days to sort out the cause of that. Com Tech was on to it immediately and could tell us where it was originating and found the offending pieces of equipment.

"The EMC provides a snapshot in time of what is happening on the network. Apart from maximising uptime, more importantly it allows us to identify exactly what went wrong where and when and put in place preventive measures," March said.

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