Windows NT is not an end unto itself—it's a tool. Combine it with third-party products and in-house development in an enterprise environment, and NT can make the lives of your networkd users much easier, which makes your life easier.
For the third annual NT Innovators awards, the editorial staff of Windows NT Magazine asked readers to share their innovative and unique approaches to using NT. We accepted nominations on our Web site and selected the most exciting users of NT and third-party products in 1998. Read on to find out how people from around the globe, from Canberra to Columbus and Stockholm to San Jose, are using NT in innovative ways.
COMBINING A RELATIONAL DATABASE, DHTML, AND CAD TO HELP EMPLOYEES FIND EACH OTHER
If you work for a large company, you probably don't know everyone by sight or necessarily know where they sit. What happens when you need to work with another employee you've never met? Wandering down rows of cubicles, peering in at people, and asking, "Are you Ron?" as if you were meeting a blind date can be embarrassing.
Don Franke, a software engineer at 3Com's Rolling Meadows, Illinois, office, is using an online graphical database of employees and their cubicle locations to help more than 500 people in a three-story building find each other more easily. Franke's database lets users know who they're looking for and the employee's location before the user walks down the corridor. Using a Web browser, a user can search for another employee by name and view a page with a photograph of the employee the user plans to meet, the employee's full name and department, and the section of the floor showing the location of the employee's cubicle. The page also gives the user a sense of the employee's location by highlighting the appropriate section of a map of the building floor. The database runs on the company intranet from a Windows NT Server 4.0 machine running Internet Information Server (IIS) 4.0 and using Active Server Pages (ASP).
Franke's solution works well, but it took some preparation and a few months to realize. First, he studied Dynamic HTML (DHTML) to ensure that his idea would work as he envisioned. After some initial testing, he developed the interface and began adding the personal data. Franke extracted information from a Human Resources Excel spreadsheet and imported it into an Access 97 database because he prefers to work with databases. He added the personal information into the relational database and used one table to hold employee information and cubicle locations and another table to map the cubicle locations to X and Y coordinates in the building. Franke developed this approach anticipating that employees might have to move to another cubicle at some point.
Creating the images for the database involved a lot of cutting and pasting. Franke obtained a CAD drawing of each building floor, cut each drawing into six sections, and used Adobe Photoshop to create a clean .gif file of each section. To show users where each section is in relation to the other sections, he also made a clean .gif file of the entire floor, color-coding each section like the maps in a shopping mall.
Finally, he put the pieces together and added support to let local department administrators edit the table that maps their employees to cubicle locations and add pictures of their employees. The final step in creating the online database was designing a drag-and-drop tool that let Franke edit cubicle locations graphically, rather than typing in X and Y coordinates.
The initial version of the graphical employee-locator tool includes only one of the three floors in the building, but Franke suggests that future plans might include adding support for the other two floors. Future enhancements might also include a 3D image of the entire building using Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) technology and touch-screen support. However, for the moment, the project is complete. "It was a short-term project, and it's basically done," Franke said.
Franke didn't have any problems importing the data into the database or creating the images he needed. Rather, his main problem resulted from browser compatibility on the clients. "Even though Netscape is the corporate standard, not everyone uses the same version," he said. "Even Netscape 4.04 and 4.05 don't react in the same way to DHTML object positioning in response to the system display and font settings." Franke developed a solution to this problem, but said, "It was starting to get convoluted. I wanted to keep it simple." He decided to make the site compatible with Netscape 4.05 and later versions. Earlier versions of the Web browser simply pointed to a non-DHTML page that included only a directory listing without graphics. All in all, Franke's innovation solves a problem many large companies face. The solution is flexible enough to support changes in the employee database, floor plan, or both.
Don Franke * 847-262-2636|
Microsoft * 425-882-8080
Adobe * 408-536-6000
BUILDING A NEW NETWORK FROM THE GROUND UP WITH NETPCS, ATM, AND REDUNDANT SERVERS
What if you could eliminate your existing outdated network and replace it with an entirely new network? Most of us don't have this luxury, but AMF Insurance in Stockholm, Sweden, was able to do just that when the company decided in October 1997 to consolidate the entire company into one building in central Stockholm and redesign its network. Not only did the company vacate its old buildings, but it left behind the old fixtures--OS/2 servers, Windows 3.1 PCs, dumb terminals, and a 4Mbps Token-Ring network.
Jan Westin, network technician, and other AMF technicians had some time to consider what computer hardware and software to use in place of the existing network, but they knew the new network had to be ready for the 500 AMF employees by April 1998. AMF needed to provide a stable client environment suited for network users who were not experienced with computers, speed, and vast amounts of storage space. AMF enlisted the help of Office Data technicians who answered Windows NT-related questions and set up NT servers and related software, and Xtreme Data Consulting technicians who provided support for zero administration, scripting, and unattended setup. With this support, AMF's technical staff implemented an efficient network that requires only three technicians to support 500 users.
The first step of the project was to build the new network. Using 3Com's SuperStack II 3000 and CoreBuilder 7000 switches, the technicians created an asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) 155Mbps backbone running Fast Ethernet to the client desktops.
After AMF installed the network, the technicians installed 12 servers (300MHz Pentium II processors with between 128MB and 512MB of RAM each) to provide application and database support to network clients. The technicians also installed an SNA gateway to an IBM host using IBM's Communications Server for Windows NT software. The 12 servers have no internal hard disks. Instead, each server has an Adaptec 2944 Ultra Wide SCSI adapter that connects to an EMC2 Symmetrix 3330 Enterprise Storage System with 130GB of hard disk space. Each server finds its boot sector on this storage system and boots NT from there.
Many of the 12 servers are redundant and provide network stability so that systems administrators can maintain user logons and provide access to Microsoft SQL Server databases and the SNA gateways to the IBM host in the event a related server fails. Email and print services servers are not redundant, but AMF maintains a standby server for these services in case of failure.
The next step was to decide what equipment to use on the client desktop. AMF considered installing network computers (NCs), but decided that the NC concept wasn't mature enough for the company's networking environment. Ultimately, the company decided to use Siemens Nixdorf SCENIC Pro Net S NetPCs because Siemens Nixdorf had the best NetPC support and could guarantee delivery of the devices within the short time frame that AMF required. This last factor was especially important because AMF was moving from no network to a fully operational network in a matter of a few months. Most users received NetPCs running a mix of local- and server-based applications (all the Net PCs include 64MB of RAM), and a few power users received desktop PCs running NT Workstation 4.0.
Ease of administration was the driving factor behind the network configuration and the reason for using thin-client networking. "Unattended setups, zero administration technology, roaming profiles, system policies, and similarly equipped clients with no 3.5" disk or CD-ROM drives provided a stable platform reminiscent of the good old terminal days," Westin said. Under the new configuration, a technician adds a new NetPC to the network and adds the NetPC's media access control (MAC) address to the BOOTP server (which is also the Primary Domain Controller--PDC). By using this process, the NetPC downloads a fresh copy of the unattended setup parameters (including NT) when the user turns on the new client for the first time. To reinstall a NetPC, the technician simply makes a change in the BOOTP table for that particular NetPC to format the disk and install a new copy of the entire unattended NT Setup. Technicians can also use remote Help desk support with these systems to resolve user problems via the remote control utility in Intel's LANDesk Management Suite software.
Not all users have the same control over their client machines. Instead, AMF has divided users into three groups: Standard, Standard Plus, and Open. Standard users comprise 75 percent of the client population, have limited access to applications, and have no discretion over their desktop settings. Although a NetPC boots from a local hard disk, a Standard NetPC user can't access the local drive and must save everything to a home directory on the server. Standard Plus users comprise 20 percent of the user population and have the same configurations as the standard users, except that they can access more applications. The remaining 5 percent of the users, the Open group, use desktop PCs, can access any application available on the network, and can configure their machines as they like. The only limitation the company places on these users is that they can't install any application the IS department hasn't previously approved.
Restricting client flexibility simplified the lives of Westin and the other AMF technicians, but led to another hurdle in implementing the network--user acceptance. Former PC users didn't like the idea of using a machine without a 3.5" disk or CD-ROM drive that they couldn't customize. "For some reason, users want to redecorate the PC as soon as they get it," said Westin. "How many users change the curtains or hang new wallpaper in their office?" AMF made the loss of PCs more acceptable to employees who missed the more powerful computers by offering employees a rental machine for home use. This approach let employees become familiar with the Windows environment, Microsoft Office, and the Internet. These employees had to pass a test to keep the equipment. (These arrangements are common in Sweden because the government often subsidizes companies that provide employees with home PCs.)
Gaining management support of the new network was more important to the project's success than gaining user acceptance. "When you make a decision like this, you need management behind you," said Westin. "You have to hope that they've read a lot about total cost of ownership and can appreciate the concept of moving from total lost in ownership to total control of ownership." As Westin pointed out, this configuration is suitable to any company with a large number of PCs to support.
The new network is in place in its final form, and AMF has cleared the hurdle of gaining user acceptance. Since the network went live in April 1998, network users have been pleased with the results. Former PC users like the new system because it's more stable (i.e., fewer crashes) and faster than the old network, and former terminal users are pleased with the responsiveness of the new system. To keep the new network running smoothly, representatives from all AMF departments meet every 2 weeks to discuss possible improvements, problems, and solutions.
Jan Westin *|
+47 8 6964503, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
+46 8 7344700, Web: http://www.stockholm.office.se
Xtreme Data Consulting
+46 8 556 50 500, Web: http://www.x3m.se
Adaptec 2944 Ultra Wide SCSI adapter
Adaptec * 408-945-8600, Web: http://http://www.adaptec.com
Communications Server for Windows NT
IBM * 770-863-1234, Web: http://www.ibm.com
LANDesk Management Suite
Intel * 408-765-8080, Web: http://www.intel.com
Microsoft * 425-882-8080, Web: http://www.microsoft.com
SuperStack II 3000 and CoreBuilder 7000 switches
3Com * 408-326-5000, Web: http://www.3com.com
Symmetrix 3330 Enterprise Storage System
EMC2 * 508-435-1000, Web: http://www.emc.com
SCENIC Pro Net S NetPC
Siemens Nixdorf * 781-273-0480, Web: http://www.siemens.com
AUSTRALIAN CAPITAL TERRITORY GOVERNMENT
ACCESSING ANDSHARING HOSPITAL PATIENT INFORMATION WITH BIOMETRIC DEVICES AND X.509 CERTIFICATES
Setting up a secure, centralized database for people who aren't necessarily technically oriented can be challenging for any organization, but one Windows NT Innovator this year showed that it's not impossible. With the help of Internet Dynamics and Terry Aulich, chairman of Aulich & Company, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) government implemented a solution to let medical professionals securely access patient records without using passwords and without compromising patient privacy. Although this secure network is presently confined to ACT, its designers expect the network will spread throughout the other Australian states as a means of providing nontechnical users easy, but secure, access to sensitive data.
The ACT government's innovation grew out of a need to share available medical resources between public and private hospitals as well as other health providers in the community. In turn, sharing these resources generated a need to provide a more easy-to-use, secure system for remote access to sensitive patient records.
Seven public and private hospitals in and around the capital of Canberra service 350,000 ACT residents. When a person goes to a hospital other than the one where his or her medical records are on file, the doctor in charge must request the appropriate medical records from the patient's primary hospital. In the past, the doctor had to call the patient's hospital to have someone fax over the patient's records. As you can imagine, this system was cumbersome and insecure. The ACT government needed a new system to prevent unauthorized individuals from calling hospitals and ordering faxed information and to help hospitals administer appropriate treatment to patients who couldn't recall or couldn't say which hospital was storing their records.
The obvious solution to this problem was to create a virtual warehouse of all user data that let hospitals search records by patient name. The ACT government used two hospitals in a pilot project, and each hospital placed its patient records on a central server to share with the other hospital. Both hospitals virtually combined the patient records on the server so that end users didn't have to know where to look for a particular record; users simply entered a request for that record.
Creating a virtual warehouse of user data had its problems, however. The ACT government needed a way to secure the centralized data, but security often consists of a series of passwords. Not everybody can remember passwords, especially when someone needs immediate access to medical records. To provide easy access to patient records without compromising patient privacy, the ACT government used a two-tiered system of biometrics and packet filtering. This security system restricts both logon access and access to patient information without requiring users to remember passwords, usernames, or the like.
How does the system work? Logon terminals throughout each hospital use NT-based Conclave software and a Web-based interface to provide access to the centralized patient information database. Each logon terminal scans the user's fingerprint using a Fingerscan Identity Verification Terminal biometric device and registers and locally stores the fingerprint as a digital certificate (X.509). The scanner reads the digitized fingerprint and interprets it as a password. After the logon terminal authenticates the doctor or administrator by fingerprint, the system activates the appropriate certificate.
After the doctor or administrator has successfully logged on, the system prompts the user for a patient name. The system verifies the user's access permission not with a password but with source identification in the certificate that the Conclave client passes to the Conclave server. Thus, only authorized personnel can use the system to request patient information, and only from an authorized location.
The biggest problem the ACT government encountered while developing this secure, yet simple, network design was determining how to integrate the Conclave client to work with the Fingerscan biometric device. At first, the Conclave client didn't have a predefined API to address the Fingerscan fingerprint authenticator. Now the Con-clave client has an API to solve this problem.
The innovation doesn't stop with the two pilot hospitals. After the ACT government finishes the pilot program, it plans to extend the secure patient information system to the remaining hospitals in the state and more than 30 government agencies to create a sizable Virtual Private Network (VPN). Each hospital will connect to the Internet to create the VPN that securely connects the servers without requiring a direct connection between all of the hospitals. This simple approach makes the network infinitely expandable. Each hospital in the VPN will maintain database servers (using various database server types) of patient records at its location--no physical central location will exist for patient data.
|AUSTRALIAN CAPITAL TERRITORY GOVERNMENT|
Terry Aulich * +61 2 6295 7544|
Internet Dynamics * 805-370-2200
Fingerscan Identity Verification Terminal
Identix Australia * +61 2 9904 7744
UPDATING AND VIEWING DRILLING INFORMATION WITH REMOTE DIAL-IN, IIS, AND ACROBAT FILES
Thanks to an innovation that emerged from the combined efforts of Cynthia Balusek, Windows NT admin/project staff member for Schlumberger/GeoQuest; Randall Reinhardt, staff engineer for Conoco; and Angela Youngman, drilling product consulting engineer for Landmark Graphics, Conoco drilling engineers can access the daily drilling operations information they need quickly and efficiently. This information includes drilling depth, progress reports, hours spent drilling, mud properties, and total costs.
For the moment, the pilot program is confined to 6 engineers and 28 foremen for 14 rigs in the Laredo area of south Texas, but it's working well to date. Each drilling foreman can use a Windows 95-based system to dial in to an Ascend MAX 4000 WAN access switch and connect to an NT domain. After the remote machine at the drilling rig connects to the network via this dial-up connection, the system uses a script that Balusek developed to extract the drilling data from the remote machine. Landmark Graphics' Remote Appender software running on an NT workstation appends the data to an Oracle 7.3 database running on a UNIX system.
After the drilling foreman enters the data in the database, the Landmark Graphics' Drilling Information Management Software (DIMS), which Youngman fine-tuned to Conoco's needs, creates a report from the Oracle database. DIMS pulls the information that the drilling engineers need to know about each drilling rig and automatically creates a report as an Adobe Acrobat .pdf file. This report is available on the company intranet for engineers, managers, and other personnel who need to check the status of a particular drilling rig. To view the report, the engineer simply runs a Web browser (Internet Explorer 4.0--IE 4.0--is the Conoco standard) set up to work with Adobe Acrobat. All in all, the new remote reporting system is a big step up from faxing in the reports from the drilling rigs every day.
To use the new system, drilling engineers select the drilling rig they want to review and select a particular day, and the Internet Information Server (IIS) 4.0 system uses that information to pull up the appropriate .pdf file. Because these .pdf files can become quite large and the drilling engineers generally need only recent information, the system saves only a week's worth of reports for all drilling rigs. However, the drilling engineers can still run an ordinary DIMS report to access additional information about the drilling rigs. Not only is this system preferable to sorting through a pile of faxes, but it's mobile--the drilling engineers can pull up the necessary information from anywhere they can use a laptop and a telephone line or cellular telephone connection.
This project took most of 1998 to get off the ground. Reinhardt envisioned the project as a team-building effort. "We wanted to make communicating operations occurring at various drilling sites easy for drilling engineers and drilling rigs," he said. "Having the drilling information on the Web should promote this communication." Conoco had already decided to use the DIMS software throughout the company, so the new project was a matter of tweaking DIMS to produce the required reports and getting the NT server and scripts running. To help the project consultants understand the needs of the drilling engineers and drilling rig foremen, Reinhardt also prepared a class titled Drilling for the Layman to teach Balusek and other Conoco personnel the basics of drilling. According to Balusek, the consultants needed to understand that the engineers and foreman get easily upset when their computers don't work.
Oddly enough, one of the biggest headaches in the system wasn't related to the scripting or the creating of the reports, or to any other piece of the software. Rather, the team was plagued with communications difficulties. All the drilling rigs taking part in the project are in a remote area of south Texas. As a result, the drilling foreman must dial in to the Conoco network with radio telephones. This method works, but it's slow and not always reliable because of the paucity of relay stations, particularly around Laredo when the sun is high. Cellular communications don't provide any improvement in speed, so GeoQuest is in the process of evaluating satellite communications. For now, though, the company will continue to use the radio links.
Although the project is limited to the drilling rigs around the Laredo area, Conoco expects to expand the project to other Conoco sites worldwide. The project is complete aside from the expansion. But as Youngman said, "The team is always looking for ways to improve."
Landmark Graphics |
Angela Youngman * 281-560-1000
Cynthia Balusek * 713-513-2000
Adobe * 408-536-6000
Ascend MAX 4000 WAN Access Switch
Ascend Communications * 510-769-6001
Internet Explorer 4.0 and Internet Information Server 4.0
Microsoft * 425-882-8080
Oracle * 650-506-7000
MIDWEST HEART SPECIALISTS
THIN CLIENTS, T1 CONNECTIONS, AND CITRIX WINFRAME COLLECT AND DELIVER PATIENT INFORMATION
Midwest Heart Specialists (MHS) is a private practice of about 30 cardiologists and interventional radiologists who attend to patients at four clinical locations in the western Chicago, Illinois, suburbs. These professionals and 130 other employees see tens of thousands of critical-care patients each year.
Accurate data is important in any medical practice, and MHS is no different. The cardiologists and interventional radiologists need to be able to compare a patient's condition with the patient's history and access relevant information that can help the doctor decide how to help the patient. On the business side, accurate information is also important for determining appropriate patient billing and insurance coverage.
Before 1997, MHS sought to collect and distribute this important information using paper-based patient records, five standalone PCs, and an IBM System 36 with about 30 dumb terminals that MHS purchased in 1988. This system initially met patient and doctor requirements, but it became increasingly unable to meet the necessary demands over time. According to Dan Schreiber, MHS' director of IS, "Any change in the system, such as reports and new features, required custom programming by consultants who had no experience in our application. At the same time, the core system was becoming unreliable. The hardware or software would fail and require a 7-hour reboot sequence to restart the system after unscheduled power outages."
Clearly, MHS needed a better solution. That solution turned out to be a multiserver Windows NT network. MHS uses five Compaq ProLiant 800 servers for email and file sharing, one ProLiant 2500 server for electronic patient record (EPR) and Microsoft SQL Server software, and one ProLiant 1600 to provide Citrix WinFrame 1.7 connectivity. The cardiovascular practice combined these servers with 60 NT Workstation 4.0 machines and Wyse Winterm 2930 wireless thin clients on the desktop. MHS uses T1 lines to connect the network across the four clinical sites in a 15-mile area of suburban Chicago.
Beginning in March 1997, the MHS technical staff began evaluating options to find a solution that supported the EPR and created a basic infrastructure to serve any network. Between March and June 1997, MHS trained employees to use Office 97 on the NT workstations in the network to form the background of operations.
Starting in September 1997, MHS began deploying MedInformatix (formerly MedWorks) software to supply the necessary clinic-specific capabilities and begin implementing the functionality to support the EPR. This new service immediately replaced the IBM System 36 for billing and scheduling. MHS has since modified this service to create CardioWorks, a cardiovascular-specific product that includes customized patient records and testing necessary in the evaluation and treatment of patients with cardiovascular problems.
The development of CardioWorks was one of the most difficult challenges MHS faced while implementing this data system. Although fine-tuning the application to provide cardiovascular-specific information (an ongoing process) hasn't been easy, the larger problem was teaching physicians and other medical staff how to incorporate the new network into their habits without changing the core clinician and patient interaction. To offer the medical staff the same kind of physical mobility they were used to before they began to use the new software, MHS began to use wireless Wyse thin clients. To further expedite the transition to the new practices, office managers led training efforts to help the technical staff. The team also got some end users involved early in the process to help these users learn the system and assist their colleagues in learning how to use the new network.
Thin-client support is an important part of this innovative approach to collecting data. Most hospital employees don't need to access the network from every location, so they use one of the NT Workstation PCs that provides a front-end to the physician network. However, the medical staff members need to be able to access the network wherever they go in a building, so they use one of 20 Wyse Winterm 2930 wireless, hand-held, touch-screen devices to record and retrieve patient data. Using these wireless devices is similar to using an electronic clipboard. The wireless network supports speeds of up to only 1.5Mbps, which is much slower than the rest of the network running at 10Mbps or 100Mbps. However, these slow speeds don't affect system performance, because the CardioWorks and MedInformatix software run on a server and use Citrix WinFrame 1.7 to download only screen updates to the client.
As of this writing, about half of the MHS doctors and most of the other staff (e.g., nurses, technicians) are using the EPR to record patient data. By the time this article appears in print, the entire clinical staff should be using the new system.
|MIDWEST HEART SPECIALISTS|
Dan Schreiber * 630-719-4799|
CardioWorks * 630-719-4799
MedInformatix * 310-348-7367
Microsoft * 425-882-8080
Compaq * 800-888-0220
Citrix * 954-267-3000
Wyse * 800-438-9973
PROVIDING CENTRAL CD-ROM ACCESS, USING SMS INSTALLER, AND REDUCING USER SUPPORT COSTS
In the highly regulated insurance industry, Nationwide Insurance has to provide its employees with an array of up-to-date information ranging from the latest state tax rates and compliance laws to computer-related data. Obtaining the information isn't the problem. Nationwide subscribes to several data services, similar to Microsoft's subscription-based TechNet CD-ROMs, to give employees updated information each month. However, as Nationwide found out, accessing the information can be more of a challenge.
Kenneth Dorsey, business analyst at the five-building Nationwide
headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, explained that the company recognized the
beginnings of a problem in the mid-1990s. About that time, many forward-thinking
data subscription services began making their information available on CD-ROM,
but not all the computers in the Nationwide offices had CD-ROM drives--
remember, CD-ROM drives weren't standard on all new machines at that time. Employees at the company's headquarters could use a PC in the business library that had a CD-ROM drive, but this solution wasn't perfect. This PC was a standalone machine, so users had to go to the library to view the information they needed and only one person could use the PC at a time, even if two people wanted to view the same CD-ROM. Other employees in branch offices that didn't have a computer with a CD-ROM drive couldn't use CD-ROM-based data services.
At the library manager's request, Dorsey began developing a more efficient way of distributing data to Nationwide employees. His method of using two towers with a total of 108 CD-ROM bays connected to the network was straight-forward and effective. The CD-ROMs are available to PCs in the Windows NT domain and to any computer connecting to the company network.
To connect to the shared CD-ROM towers, each user must obtain a client stub from Dorsey. The stub is Meridian Data's CD Net software, which displays configurable icons (i.e., shortcuts) in a separate window. The file groups product icons by general topic and displays these icons by specific niche after the user selects a general topic. These icons can include special properties that the systems administrator sets based on the CD-ROM product requirements. After a user selects an icon to launch a product, the Microsoft Systems Management Server (SMS) Installer running on a networked NT server performs the appropriate setup routine for that CD set (e.g., client-stub, registration). The SMS Installer then enters the employee's client ID into a delimited text file that a systems administrator can read with Access 97 to audit user and product usage.
Although every Nationwide employee on the company's national network can access the data from the CD-ROM towers, not all employees have a need for access. Software licensing still applies, so Nationwide restricts access to the CD-ROMs according to the licensing for each subscription. The company controls access by limiting shares and password-protecting some shared CD-ROM volumes. The system also includes an idle sensor that breaks connections that remain idle for a certain period, indicating that the user is finished with the CD-ROM but forgot to disconnect from the share.
In addition to the primary benefit of disseminating data as needed throughout the company, Dorsey's solution has some other benefits. First, users don't need to know how to install the information from the CD-ROMs onto their client systems. This benefit means that a user error can't break the installation process and that employees don't waste time trying to configure their machines or someone else's. Second, having all the information centrally available virtually eliminates the problem of overpurchasing knowledge-base subscriptions. In a decentralized information system, different departments can easily purchase the same subscription inadvertently. The centralized CD source lets users see that the company already has a subscription on the CD-ROM tower so that the company can avoid purchasing duplicate copies of the same subscription. Thus, in streamlining the Nationwide knowledge base--turning it into a "subscription information shopping mall," as Dorsey put it--the company has also decreased costs for user support and subscriptions.
Microsoft * 425-882-8080
CD Net CD-ROM share-group software
Meridian Data * 408-438-3100
DISTRIBUTING TRAVEL REPORTS ON A CORPORATE INTRANET USING OLAP, IIS, AND POWERPLAY SERVER WEB EDITION
The US company of multinational electronics giant Siemens AG has 25,000 frequent travelers distributed among its 22 divisions. As you can imagine, tracking these travelers and the company's travel expenditures is a big job. Trend-mapping the travel data is also important for planning future needs.
Historically, Siemens had distributed travel data in monthly paper reports to the appropriate managers. However, in late 1994, the Siemens Travel Management group realized it needed more comprehensive and exact travel expenditure data than the present system provided. Stephan Meyer, Siemens' manager of IT tools - travel and fleet services, explained that the standard paper travel report didn't always answer users' questions, and the paper-based system lacked speed and flexibility. As travel markets began shifting to the sellers' advantage, the need to quickly provide managers with the appropriate travel reports became even more crucial so managers didn't have to extract the data they wanted from a static paper report.
Although the company recognized the need for a new means of data distribution in 1994, the project has taken a while to come to fruition. Siemens needed a high-quality system to track the cost and functionality of the company's travel resources. The company initially considered using a data mart to distribute the travel data to appropri-ate managers. However, Siemens didn't consider the idea of distributing this information using other means than paper reports until summer 1996. Beginning in 1997, the project began to get off the ground. Siemens management committed to create a data warehouse project and allocated funding. By this time, the company had already developed most of the necessary concepts, so Meyer's team could start on the project immediately. By October 1997, the data warehouse structure was complete, and users began accessing the online travel data in February 1998.
To make the project work, Meyer's team receives a Zip disk every month from each of its suppliers with travel data for the previous month (e.g., who traveled where, how much the travel cost, what airline and hotel the traveler used, the length of the trip). The team uses Cognos' PowerPlay Server Web Edition to assemble this travel information into a multidimensional online analytical processing (OLAP) cube to let users create the necessary travel reports. Because the travel data comes from several sources, the final collection is more complete than information the company collects from any one source. After the team formats the travel data, it places the information on a companywide intranet server running Windows NT and Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS) 4.0 for viewing. Managers can query the database to create the exact reports they need without having to worry about extraneous data.
One of the biggest challenges Siemens faced in collecting and presenting all the data for the travel reports was the inconsistent quality of the raw data the company received from the various sources. Specifically, the data sources weren't complete because no one source could supply all the information the managers required. To overcome this problem, Siemens focused on developing a sophisticated data staging process that checks, cleans, and consolidates the different data sources. Additionally, Siemens management continues to work with the suppliers to improve the data source quality and ensure that the company receives the information it needs.
Another problem Siemens has had to address is a function of its size and diversity. As Meyer explained, "Theoretically, all operating companies connect to the corporate intranet, but every company uses a slightly different means to connect, which caused some communications problems when we started to roll out the system." However, in a joint effort with the MIS departments of the operating companies, Meyer's team once and for all overcame these problems. Since then, connectivity has not been an issue.
Siemens hasn't limited the online database to providing travel data to the 20 or so members of the US Travel Management group. The database can also provide other types of information (e.g., corporate travel policies and travel advisories) that management and travelers need. Future plans for the database include implementing additional analytical tools that travel management has requested and providing a greater variety of travel information (e.g., car and fleet) and other purchasing data (e.g., purchasing card) after the company irons out some of its data quality problems. The system is already a great improvement over the paper reports. According to Meyer, any large heterogeneous company that takes travel management seriously can benefit from this system.
Stephan Meyer * 408-764-9254|
Internet Information Server 4.0
Microsoft * 425-882-8080
PowerPlay Server Web Edition
Cognos * 781-229-6600
PROVIDING CALL CENTER SUPPORT WITH EXCHANGE, ENTERPRISE INTERACTION CENTER, AND CHAT SESSIONS
When you're providing technical support to companies such as Bay Networks, Cisco, and SAP, you need a stable, reliable, and simple means of managing incoming and outgoing calls. According to Ryan Nowacki, IT manager for TECHMAR Communications, 100 call center agents and business users at his company handle about 1000 outbound and 500 inbound support calls per month. Because communications is a mission-critical application for TECHMAR, this kind of use level requires a sturdy solution.
For TECHMAR, this solution consists of a Windows NT server running Interactive Intelligence's Enterprise Interaction Center (EIC) and a Microsoft Exchange Server system. The EIC all-in-one communications server, which replaced a proprietary voice and fax system, went live in May 1998 and integrates all message traffic (i.e., email, fax, and voicemail) into each call center agent's Exchange mailbox.
You can easily see how this kind of call management software handles incoming calls. When a call comes in, the system automatically routes and places the call in a queue for the appropriate agent. EIC software handles the call through the telephone handset connected to the EIC server. If the caller wants to speak to a specific agent who's unavailable at the time of the call, the caller can leave a voicemail message. A big difference over the old system is that the new system sends the voicemail message to the agent's mailbox instead of disturbing the agent. Whereas the old system used a beeping signal (replacing the dial tone) to notify agents that they had voicemail, the new system records the voicemail message as a .wav file and places the message in the agent's Exchange mailbox. Exchange Server notifies agents that they have a new voice mail message using an audible tone and a small mail icon on the taskbar (i.e., the same way Exchange notifies agents when new email arrives). Similarly, if the agent receives a fax, the agent no longer has to wait in front of a fax machine because the new system lets the agents click on the fax icon in their mailbox to receive faxes instantly.
The call center agents can also place outgoing calls easier with the new call center software. When the PBX-based telephone system (combined with automatic call distribution and interactive voice response) was in place, agents could display follow-up calls they needed to make, but they had to manually dial the number to complete the call. With the new software, agents can click a button to have the computer dial the number. If the person the agent is calling isn't available, the agent can click another button to leave a pre-recorded .wav file message as long as the agent doesn't need to leave a customized response. (Each agent has a personal prerecorded message, but the recording can't call the customer by name.) The combination of these two options can save 10 to 20 seconds per call. Although 10 or 20 seconds might not sound like much, it adds up when you make a lot of calls. Depending on the application, Nowacki estimates that the automation can increase productivity by 50 percent because the agents waste less time on repetitive tasks.
TECHMAR chose EIC partly because of EIC's Web integration. A customer can go to the company's Web page and request a chat session with tech support. The software routes and queues this request just like a telephone call. Agents can then answer the Web chat request straight from their desks and carry a text conversation with a customer. On the customer's side, a window lets the customer see a picture of the technical support person they're talking to. The agents' Web chat window contains a vocabulary box so they can answer and push the desired frequently asked questions (FAQs) or other repetitive requests for information directly to the customer's Web chat window by simply pointing and clicking. The agents' Web chat window also lets them take control of the customer's Web browser so that an agent can drive the customer to other Web pages on the Internet that might contain requested information.
Nowacki and his team were able to set up such an elaborate system in part because they could start fresh rather than having to integrate the new software into an existing infrastructure. When TECHMAR decided to purchase EIC, the company was in the process of moving its California offices from Palo Alto to San Jose. Nowacki considered adding new capabilities to the company's existing setup, but decided that such an approach was a short-term solution at best and a liability at worst. "It would've lacked functionality, cost a fortune to set up and maintain, and taken forever to implement because of all the different proprietary systems involved," he said. Starting over and adding a new element to TECHMAR's existing NT network was easier. The new solution was so simple that the EIC server had a dial tone the day after it arrived, and Nowacki's team was able to fully customize the system for the company's needs about 2 weeks later.
Other than the hardware setup concerns, the biggest challenge TECHMAR faced was changing the way the employees perceived telephoning. Agents had to become comfortable placing and receiving telephone calls using their computer rather than using a traditional telephone. The training also helped users get up to speed transferring calls using drag-and-drop techniques rather than pressing buttons on a telephone.
Now that the call center software integrates fully with voicemail, email, faxes, and chat requests, the next step is to collect data to help management assess how to improve the process. Right now, the system includes the EIC server and an Exchange Server system, with the EIC collecting incoming data and passing it to the Exchange Server system for distribution. When the next stage is complete, a Microsoft SQL Server system will work alongside the other two servers to collect information (e.g., the number of calls an agent makes, the length of each call). Nowacki pointed out that such a system can provide an element of quality control. "Linking the data from the communication system with data from KARMA, our primary desktop application, will provide valuable insight into our business," he said. Other directions are also possible. One way or another, TECHMAR is confident it can make the system work to suit its needs and work with the combination of EIC and NT.
Ryan Nowacki * 408-360-3633|
Enterprise Interaction Center
Interactive Intelligence * 317-872-3000
Microsoft * 425-882-8080
MONITORING TELEVISION PRODUCTION EQUIPMENT USING RS-232 PORTS AND REFLECTION
If you typically think of Windows NT Server machines in terms of hosting file-and-print sharing, Microsoft Exchange Server, or Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS), you might be surprised to hear that one company is using NT as the basis of its diagnostic center for television production. At Turner Production (associated with Turner Broadcasting, the folks behind CNN), engineers are combining multiport serial adapters and NT in a way that might not occur to many but that suits this company's needs perfectly.
Before Turner began to use one NT Server machine to monitor its equipment, the company had used several different techniques to keep tabs on equipment status. About 1986, the company began dedicating individual terminals to monitoring specific equipment using an RS-232 port. This method worked, but it didn't scale well; over time, monitoring all the necessary equipment required more terminals than was practical.
After Turner determined that connecting one terminal to each device wasn't working, the company tried using T switches (an RS-232 selector switch that lets you connect more than one device to one port) to let one terminal collect and display diagnostic information for multiple devices. Although better than buying one terminal for each device, this arrangement had some serious limitations. First, not all devices used the same terminal emulation settings, so the engineers sometimes had to edit settings when flipping between devices. Second, as Turner added more equipment, the company needed more T switches to support all the devices (this problem is essentially what led Turner to using the T switches in the first place). Finally, and most serious, an engineer could enable a device's diagnostic capabilities only when the T switch was on for that device. Any error messages the hardware generated for devices other than the one the engineer was monitoring were lost forever. Frustrated by this experience, the engineers tried using laptops to monitor the devices. The laptops were more mobile than the terminals, and the engineers could dedicate an entire machine to one device to reduce the risk of losing monitoring information. Unfortunately, this approach didn't work because different devices require different types of cables. The engineers sometimes spent hours researching and building a serial cable wired properly for one device, just to monitor that device for a few minutes.
To remedy the situation, the engineering department identified four characteristics that its monitoring system needed to support. First, it had to be small (no larger than a dumb terminal). Second, it had to be capable of connecting simultaneously to a virtually unlimited number of devices--it had to expand to meet the needs of the company. Third, it had to require no user intervention to monitor a particular device. Finally, it had to continuously capture data from the connected devices (i.e., not just when the device's connection was active). From these needs, Brian Raslawski, engineering manager for effects and advanced imaging, created and designed the following system: a 90MHz Pentium PC with 64MB of RAM supporting 64 serial ports on a multiport board that individually connects to each device the engineers needed to monitor. David Berman, a Turner engineer, implemented this system. Each device has its own session into which it records diagnostic data. Thus, an engineer can call up any particular device's session to monitor that device. In this configuration, the NT system acts as a client to many hosts.
Implementing this system took some preparation. According to Raslawski, "The biggest obstacle was finding terminal emulation software that could monitor multiple ports without consuming vast amounts of system resources. We tried Hyperterm, but found that each port loaded a full instance of the program for its own use. Other emulation programs didn't recognize serial ports beyond COM4 or let us run multiple sessions. Finally, we settled on WRQ's Reflection, which can connect to as many as 16 ports with one session of the program. If we go beyond 16 ports, then a new instance of the program starts."
Right now, the engineers monitor all the devices from one NT Server machine, but Raslawski plans to create a multiuser system running Windows NT Server 4.0, Terminal Server Edition and a multiuser version of Reflection. Engineers can then connect to the server from anywhere in the facility via Windows terminals without having to wait on other engineers. With 250 employees in the department and 20 engineers monitoring the equipment, having more than one location from which to monitor these devices would be useful.
This configuration is highly flexible and applies to just about any organization that needs to monitor multiple serial-connection devices. As a result, other television studios, including NBC's studio in Burbank, California, have begun to inquire about the system.
Brian Raslawski * 404-885-2376|
WRQ * 206-217-7100
UNION TOSTADORA S.A.
GROWING AND SELLING COFFEE USING KIXTART SCRIPTS, SQL SERVER, AND ARCSERVE REPLICATION
Fundamentally, computing innovations usually make life easy for the network user, which can result in lower support costs. Ramon Villanueva, EDP manager of Union Tostadora S.A., has implemented an innovation that follows this trend. Based in Logroño, the capitol of the region of La Rioja in northern Spain, Union Tostadora produces 12,600 tons of roasted coffee each year. Villanueva is the only person supporting the network that maintains the sales, production, purchasing, and other data for this 80-person company. As a result, the network must be both reliable and easy to use.
Union Tostadora relies heavily on information in its online database, so ease of use is a key part of the company's setup. Union Tostadora stores all its data and applications on an IBM AS/400 and replicates this information to two Windows NT systems running Microsoft SQL Server that double as SNA gateways for the Windows 95 network clients. Villanueva uses Open Universal Software's Rapid Data to replicate the data to these machines. The replication permits faster access to the information, because the NT machines are faster than the AS/400 and can access the data more easily because the network doesn't have to translate requests made with Windows-based tools through the SNA server.
Villanueva has also made the data easier to access by letting network clients use Microsoft Exchange Server to query the SQL Server databases. Villanueva devoted one of the mailboxes on the Exchange server to the company database. To query the database, a user sends a properly worded query to this mailbox. Every 15 minutes, the SQL Server system checks the mailbox, runs any queries it finds, and mails back a reply to the user who made the request. For users unfamiliar with SQL syntax, Villanueva created 40 aliases for common queries. For example, a user who needs sales data for January 1998 but doesn't know SQL syntax can send an email to the SQL Server database with the phrase SALES 980101, 980131. Calling this script activates the properly worded SQL query based on the dates the user provides and returns the results to the questioner. Users who know SQL syntax and want to perform nonscripted queries can still send SQL-language queries to the database server's email address. Users can also specify whether SQL Server should return the query results in the body of the message or in an attached Microsoft Excel file.
In the interest of reliability, Villanueva used the KiXtart scripting tool from the Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 Resource Kit to maintain a consistent environment. This tool provides a means of downloading a complex logon script to each client, customizing the user environment with data preset from the System Policy Editor (SPE), and setting parameters such as the amount of disk space on the file server that each client can use. (For information about how Villanueva uses KiXtart, see Reader to Reader, "Determine Users' Disk Space Consumption," June 1998.) Although this logon script can't prevent users from overusing space, it can notify users when they exceed the preset limits.
A KiXtart script also protects the servers. Two NT 4.0 servers (a 300MHz dual Pentium II processor with 128MB of RAM and a 166MHz dual Pentium II processor with 96MB of RAM) support about 40 clients on the network. These servers provide access to email and the company database and serve as a gateway to the AS/400 serving applications to the network, so the servers are vital to network operations. Villanueva used features of Computer Associates' ARCserve (a backup program) to replicate information between the two servers every 4 hours and created another KiXtart script to check the status of each server.
Villanueva has been busy during the 4 years since he started this project with NT 3.1 and Windows 3.x workstations, and he doesn't expect it to end yet. As he said, "Every day, I improve the logon script. For example, the latest addition checks the Y2K-compliance for each client machine and shows a countdown to 2000 each time a user logs on." Future plans include migrating the servers and clients to Windows 2000 (Win2K-- formerly NT 5.0) when it's available and fine-tuning the data warehousing system and server replication. As a one-man technical support team, Villanueva is taking advantage of every opportunity to reduce total cost of administration for the network.
|UNION TOSTADORA S.A.|
Ramon Villanueva * +34 941 270171|
Computer Associates * 516-342-5224
Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 Resource Kit
Microsoft * 425-882-8080
Open Universal Software * 514-344-6040