May 00 NetManage
Volume Number: 16 (2000)
Issue Number: 5
Column Tag: Network Management
By John C. Welch
A Network Administrator's Eye View of Seybold Boston
Seybold is an interesting show for a network administrator. Considering the main focus of the show is publishing and graphics, both online and print, initially it seems that there is not much for the IS-type other than free demos and other souvenirs. But, also consider that many of the products shown at Seybold are designed to be on a network, or function as servers, and an admin's need to be there is suddenly a little more obvious. I had two main purposes at Seybold Boston 2000. The first was to see how many vendors were really making products that fit well into a network, as opposed to those that merely work on one. The second was to look for products that would make my life as an admin, and by extension the professional lives of you readers easier in some way.
Seybold in General
Comparing Seybold to MacWorld, the most obvious difference is size. Seybold tends to be much smaller, but this is to be expected, it's a more focused conference. Another difference is in the booth personnel. I found much more of a delay at Seybold in getting the technical experts for a company or booth than at MacWorld. In one case, getting my question answered required finding a different company on a different floor. This gets tiring quickly, literally as well as figuratively. Another issue for first - time Seybold attendees is floor organization. Seybold is smaller, but, (to me at least), seems not as well organized as MacWorld, and I find that keeping the program is an absolute necessity to find specific booths without walking both floors.
Other than those few admittedly picayune issues, Seybold is like any other trade show, big, colorful, and loud. There are a good number of vendors there, and if it deals with publishing in any remote way, it's probably at Seybold. Much has been made of Apple's absence from this year's Seybold Boston. From a floor point of view, it wasn't as big a deal as some made it out to be. The space that Apple would have used was taken over by other vendors quite well, and Adobe seemed to be pleased with its undisputed status as the Big Vendor of the show.
There are a lot of servers, and network enabled products at Seybold. From print servers to document control, to security, the publishing industry is well-networked. But this is only from the user viewpoint. As an administrator, I was consistently disappointed in the almost total lack of administrative support in these server products. With few exceptions, when I would ask, "How does the server let me, the administrator, know that it is having a problem?", there would be a few minutes of huddled discussion, and then I would get variations of "The users will call you", or "It's very reliable, that shouldn't be a problem". Well, unfortunately, waiting for someone to notice a critical piece of software is no longer functional is not a option in a networked environment. Especially in the case of multiple sites, waiting for user input can delay problem resolution by hours, and days.
One of the rods that IS managers get applied to their backs is the proactive rod. It is no longer enough to respond to trouble reports. Nowadays, we need to be notified of problems the very microsecond it occurs. Whether via SNMP1 or email, or instant message, network administrators need to know before the user that a server is down. As well, if a given piece of hardware is running multiple server applications, administrators need to know that server application A is dead, but B and C are fine. These are not minor issues to administrators, but they are almost unknown to many of these vendors.
This is not to say that none of the vendors are aware of this. Quite a few are at least including email notification abilities of errors. This is a good start, but I would still push for SNMP inclusion. The reason is, SNMP operates at a lower level than the application. Therefore, it can catch errors that the application may be unaware of, or take a while to notice. As well, via the trap mechanism, you can set up the app to notify a given management server of an error, and the server can then decide if it needs to notify anyone based on the error severity. The SNMP standard is well documented, and used by many vendors including Oracle, Microsoft, Apple, and Sun, as a way of improving the network fit of their products. I would close this section by pointing out that if I have a choice between two similar server/networkable applications, of similar quality and feature set, but one has good error notification support, and the other doesn't, the one that makes my job easier will win, even at a substantially higher cost.
Products of Note
Again, although most of Seybold is not specifically targeted to the network administrator, there were some products that made me perk up a little. The first one isn't a product as much as it is a service. Sprockets, <http://www.sprockets.com> is a company providing online project management services. The service is based on Oracle, and uses a per project and a traffic pricing model for charges. What caught my eye about sprockets though, was how much potential it has. By basing charges on bandwidth utilization, instead of the number of users, Sprockets allows a project to be limited by use, instead of users. For a multi-company/multi-national project, since there is no physical location to a Sprocket - based project, other than the Web, the traditional problems of distribution and allocation of resources are greatly reduced, possibly eliminated. There is also less reliance on a particular piece of equipment or location, as the Sprockets site handles storage and maintenance. Since Sprockets is based on Oracle on Solaris, not only is it scalable to as high a degree as you need, but it is also highly flexible, and can handle almost any user requirements. Interviews with the Sprockets staff also showed that they are very aware of security issues, and understand the need to be proactive in protecting user data. They also went out of their way to inform me that they are sensitive to the confidentiality of user data, and under no circumstances would they use that data as a marketing tool. Considering the confidentiality debacles that have arisen on other web sites, this is an excellent attitude. I see Sprockets as being on the leading edge of what I call RSPs, or Resource Solution Providers. They really aren't providing you with an application, but rather with the infrastructure and resources you need to use the applications and capabilities you already have. To my mind, this is more along the lines of what the Web should be.
Another product that impressed me was MassTransit, from Group Logic Inc., <http://www.grouplogic.com>. MassTransit is basically a combination of intelligent file routing and AppleScript Folder Actions. The whole purpose of MassTransit is to make getting files from a to z, with all stops in between a process with intelligence behind it, rather than relying on users to manually do it. The MassTransit server, creates drop folders that users can mount on their desktops as remote drives. Files placed in that folder are then acted on by a number of rules, based on the needs for the task that file relates to. What makes this better than folder actions is two - fold. First off, the folder can be closed, and still have intelligence behind it, unlike folder actions that require the folder to be open to function. This is due to the rules being processed on the server, not the end station(s). Secondly, the actions are a combination of choices from a list and AppleScript, rather than solely AppleScript like Folder Actions are. Since the rules are processed on the server, you only need to create them once, rather than replicating AppleScripts to possibly hundreds of machines. This also means the client machines don't need to be acting as servers, so your resource usage is more efficient. By creating canned actions, such as "Email on copy error", "Email files from x to z", and combining them with AppleScripts, you get quick initial functionality with as much flexibility as you would ever need. For companies trying to deal with the problems of document routing and approval, MassTransit is a worthwhile look.
There were also many other useful admin products, and trend towards making security a part of document control, especially with Acrobat PDFs that should make an administrator quite happy.
As with any other show, Seybold is exactly as useful as you make it. Even though it sometimes took longer than I would have liked, I was always able to get the answers I needed. Unfortunately, the publishing industry is only just starting to comprehend the need for communicating status in ways that don't involve having users on the phone screaming at tech support. I am hoping that next year, Seybold Boston will have more products that are administratively as friendly as they are user friendly.
John Welch <firstname.lastname@example.org> is the Mac and PC Administrator for AER Inc., a weather and atmospheric science company in Cambridge, Mass. He has over fifteen years of experience at making computers work. His specialties are figuring out ways to make the Mac do what nobody thinks it can, and showing that the Mac is the superior administrative platform.