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Cloud applications have been pitched to enterprises as cost-effective, easy-to-use and scalable alternatives to on-premises software. The pitch and the reality aren't always the same, especially when it comes to managing them.
That was the case for enterprise Voice over IP (VoIP) provider Aptela (recently purchased by Vocalocity). Clients of the company, based in Herndon, Va., had complained about network problems and slow service. But many couldn't provide Aptela enough information to solve the problem, and it was too costly for Aptela to send a technician to sites just to fix network problems.
"Most of our clients work just fine, but there are some that have networks that work by accident," Aptela Vice President of Information Systems Matt Smith said. "The necessity of having real-time capabilities with VoIP … those that do have problems experience it pretty severe."
Through personal connections, Aptela learned about application performance management (APM) company AppNeta and its PathView cloud appliance, a modem-sized device that gathers information on a network and reports it through a cloud-based dashboard. Installation of the device is simple, requiring a power outlet and an Ethernet cord.
Aptela liked that PathView gave them a data-driven response to clients' complaints and allowed them to get on-location insights without having to be on-location. Aptela simply shipped the PathView appliance to clients with a self-addressed return envelope.
"I'll be called to task by an executive at the company asking why their service is so spotty. I show them a few printouts from the PathView cloud, and the conversation instantly changes," Smith said.
What is application performance management (APM)?
Cloud applications use up network resources in ways that IT managers don't always notice. Smith said the bulk of his clients that have problems with their networks are small businesses without formal IT departments.
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AppNeta CEO Jim Melvin said that problems reported through his applications are close to 90% human error.
"IT infrastructures are just incredibly resilient; they almost never completely fail because they are so dynamic," he said.
Many networking problems have to do with simple things like an iPad user inadvertently syncing all his applications over a company network or network capabilities like Quality of Service (QoS) being incorrectly configured and never fixed after a router goes down, a routine occurrence.
"If companies are looking to move toward public Web applications like Salesforce, like Google Docs, like a backup system, like a mail system, they cannot take the plunge without some level of assurance, and that's what we offer," Melvin said.
AppNeta is not alone in that offering. A slew of vendors are selling products that make promises such as improved network management and the ability to analyze how a company's applications use Amazon EC2 resources. The network and application performance management vendors are all emphasizing the same thing -- we can save companies money by paying attention to what they're doing.
Aptela using AppNeta to fix problems
Sending out a microappliance to gather data and report back through cloud analytics is a different approach than most AppNeta users take, the bulk of whom are running PathView in their own environment. Smith said that although Aptela didn't often send engineers into the field, the fact that they no longer had to use highly paid professionals to do relatively easy work at all was a plus.
"They de-geeked network diagnostics," Smith said.
Aptela's VoIP application runs through Salesforce.com; so to receive the reports from the PathView appliance, they built a Salesforce application for it. When a client has an issue with its network, it makes a request to Aptela via Salesforce to alert them to the problem.
"A case gets opened in Salesforce, [we] take a device and provision it, which is very simple, and we ship it out to them with instructions," Smith said. "We look at PathView cloud for a day or two, and we can usually figure out the problem."
Smith relays a story about one client that had multiple offices and was experiencing severe problems in two of their locations.
"They had one location where they didn't have enough bandwidth when they assured us they did, and another location where they had a router that was dropping packets," Smith said.
After shipping them the PathView appliance, Aptela was able to explain that the bandwidth issue was caused by all the office employees logging into email at the same time. So it was time to upgrade the wireless router.
"Before PathView, we could only see half of the network conversation. Behind a customer's firewall, it was invisible to us," Smith said. "The nice thing about it, too, is it really shows we make the extra effort and that we have technology that can help them out."