Wide-area network (WAN) management with multiple branch office networks and limited IT staff can be a nightmare. Rather than easing the pain by layering on more WAN management tools, some organizations would be better served by simplifying remote IT support.
Eckstrom-Browne, IT manager at Haight Ashbury Free Clinics, is the only IT professional supporting Haight Ashbury's 200 users. If a computer or router goes down, he's responsible for getting it back up, no matter the time or day. With some clinics open 24 hours and no ready IT staff backing him up, the task can be daunting.
"It keeps me busy," he said. "If the servers go down, I get a call. I plan vacations where I get reception."
Eckstrom-Browne said he has pushed as much critical infrastructure to the central clinic as possible, allowing more simplified remote IT support since he has hands-on access to the servers that are doing the heavy lifting.
"I've implemented a system of thin clients, so everyone at remote sites is on thin clients that go back to servers at my site," he said. "I can shadow user sessions, which cuts the amount of trips out. Sometimes it requires more than that, to see if a device is functioning."
Focusing on simpler branch office network/WAN deployments rather than WAN management tools or remote administrator access tools can reduce management overhead for central IT staff, according to Peter Fetterolf, a partner with networking consultancy Network Strategy Partners LLC.
"The right approach is not to just add more software and remote capabilities," Fetterolf said. "The right approach is to get the infrastructure out of the branch office."
This approach applies to hardware and software, he said. The more centralization, the easier remote IT support becomes.
"From a service and support approach, that approach of taking everything out of the branch, everything from the desktop and laptops and networking equipment is the simplest model," he said. "Using a Web-based client instead of Outlook on the desktop, for example."
Fetterolf said there are some downsides to managing the branch office network/WAN this way, primarily in the increased WAN bandwidth required to connect users with centralized applications and data. But with WAN bandwidth prices dropping and broadband proliferation spreading across the country, that obstacle will shrink.
"I don't think network bandwidth today is a huge issue," he said. "Most branch offices do not have fiber, but … there are a lot more options between cable, DSL, T1, Ethernet for the first mile. And the other thing happening right now is major wireless providers are rolling out LTE high-speed wireless options."
With the thin client setup at Haight Ashbury, Eckstrom-Browne has been able to resolve most branch office network/WAN support problems from the relative convenience of the central office. He makes site visits only for basic user errors: A power cord was pulled out of the socket or a computer was not turned on in the first place.
"More often than not, it's the really basic stuff," he said. "We don't really have too many problems with connectivity between sites anymore."
To reduce help desk calls that require site visits, Eckstrom-Browne's standard procedure is to fix the problem, then recreate it and walk the on-site manager step-by-step through how to resolve the problem without him.
Education may be a low-tech WAN management tool, but it's one that cannot be overlooked for reducing on-site visits, he said.
"Hopefully, next time when the problem occurs they can check all the cords, restart the equipment," he said. "Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't."
And while Eckstrom-Browne said his main strategy was branch simplification, he is not above using the occasional tool if it can reduce problem time to resolution.
He scoured online forums looking for WAN management tools to better remotely diagnose where bottlenecks were occurring.
He eventually settled on Paessler PRTG (Paessler Router Traffic Grapher), which came highly recommended.
After Eckstrom-Browne wrote a letter pleading the cash-strapped nonprofit's case, Paessler donated its WAN management tools to the clinic.
He was able to install Paessler's PRTG probes throughout the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics' network, gaining him some visibility into the status of his routers but also some insight into details as granular as the fact that a branch office network/WAN printer was receiving an unusually high volume of print requests.
"It was a pretty automated setup, just three or four steps," he said. He was able to set up custom email alerts with the management tool, rather than having to dive into the software each time he wanted to check the network's health.
"If there's some downtime at a client site, it makes it a little easier to see where the complication is in the network," he said. "I can see if the switch isn't responding."
And at the end of the day, every WAN management shortcut makes Eckstrom-Browne's job just a little less daunting.