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Alaskan hospital chain able to assess health of its network

A new network assessment tool is helping the small networking staff at Alaska's Providence Health System manage a vast computer network.

Providence Health System's multistate computer network helps save lives, yet this large, critical system is managed by a tiny staff. Still, with the help of a new network assessment tool, this small staff gets along just fine.

Providence Health System, headquartered in Anchorage, Alaska, is the state's largest health care provider, with facilities in Seward and remote Kodiak Island, as well as in Washington, Oregon and California.

Physicians and nurses use the network to access lab results and patient records. The company's time clock and employee badging system runs on the network. And the hospital chain is beginning to move into video conferencing and voice over Internet Protocol, which demand consistent, high-quality connectivity.

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It is vital that the network function well, said Mike Ford, a network engineer with Providence, yet the company has only two network engineers. Working with such a small staff makes it hard to keep the network up and running with conventional tools like Sniffer, Ford said. But now he has a network troubleshooting tool that not only helps him, he said, but also helps him help his Internet service provider (ISP).

Providence's Kodiak Island facility is remote and uses a satellite wide area network link to tie into the mainland. Ford said that the facility was having trouble with the quality of its link. The assumption was that it was the satellite connection, but the ISP was unable to fix it. If Ford had to make the trip to the island to troubleshoot the problem, it could have taken days because flights are often delayed due to bad weather.

Instead, he used a network troubleshooting tool from jaalaM Technologies Inc., a Vancouver, British Columbia, network assessment company. The company's network testing tool, called appareNet, uses probes -- small pieces of code that sit on a central point of the network -- to collect information about how the network is functioning and where there may be bottlenecks.

Wayne Browne, director of marketing for jaalaM, said that this system can troubleshoot problems in a local area network (LAN) or a wide area network (WAN). It can even help determine when problems exist with an ISP, he said.

"This is the first tool someone can turn to," Browne said. "AppareNet tells you where to put your resources."

Using appareNet, Ford was able to pinpoint the trouble with the Kodiak Island connection quickly, without leaving the central office. He discovered that the problem was not with the satellite connection but with the "last mile" to the facility. In fact, he said, he was also able to use jaalaM's tool to help his ISP pinpoint and fix the problem.

In another instance, Providence had just bought new PCs but was finding that the computers did not have the kind of throughput he expected. Rather than spending hours troubleshooting the network, Ford was able to quickly determine that the problem was with the computer's network interface cards and was able to upgrade the PCs.

"We can now do from the desktop what it might have taken hours to do before," he said.

Dennis Drogseth, vice president of Enterprise Management Associates, the Boulder, Colo., research firm, said that this product is an efficient and cost-effective tool for helping to mange an enterprise network.

Unlike many other network troubleshooting tools, it does not require placing agents on the network, but instead uses probes. That, he said, makes jaalaM's product easier to deploy and administer. And unlike many other tools on the market, it is equally effective at assessing WAN problems and problems on the local network.

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