Nerds on Site test-drives smarter network card

A Canadian firm is hoping to take traditional system management software a step further by offering a network card that can not only alert administrators to network problems but fix them.

Symbium Corp. in Ottawa made its debut this

week with its first product, the Intelligent Secure Automatic Controller (ISAC). Based on an embedded computer that fits like a network card into a host server’s PCI slot, ISAC uses a policy-based software engine to perform fault recovery, root cause analyses, unauthorized software/task blocking and scheduled automation of preventative maintenance routines.

Jay Litkey, Symbium’s founder and vice-president of technology, said the idea for ISAC came out of his background at Bell Northern Research, where switch technology provided telephone networks a degree of reliability that isn’t seen in many data centres.

“You can’t be part of the thing you’re trying to manage,” he said. “The principle in telecom that we know is you can’t just do that with software” because software agents can end up taking up CPU resources from the host server and bog the network down.

Litkey likens ISAC to a flight data recorder and autoplilot in an airplane — ISAC sends alerts when problem occur but also takes network “snapshots” at two-minute intervals so that the causes don’t disappear. That information is then bundled as a report that gets sent to the user. “Sometimes you’ll get to the computer and there’s no sign of anything anymore. You reboot, and you lose the forensics,” he said. “You have to preserve the scene of the crime.”

ISAC contains preprogrammed policies to stop or kill off offending applications, parse files or handle other problems before the whole network comes down. It also does this locally, Litkey said, without “saturating” the network. That was part of the appeal for London, Ont.-based Nerds On Site, an IT repair service that has been piloting ISAC for about four months. James Keenleyside-Richter, the company’s data centre director, said the tool has allowed its team to remotely access clients and have a few technicians managing multiple sites.

“We’ve used it to enhance a service contract and save our guys a lot of time and energy. They get busy and you want to put out fires as quickly as possible, and this is one of the ways of doing it,” he said. “It’s a great tool, but Symbium has taken product to another level by fixing issues and not just letting us know about them. Does it fix a lot of major issues? That’s to be determined.”

Although it can be used as a standalone product, Symbium does not intend to compete with system management tools such as IBM’s Tivoli line or Computer Associates’ Unicenter. ISAC integrates with Tivoli as well as HP’s OpenView software, for example.

“This is not something where we’re going to go into the enterprise and tell them to take everything out,” he said. “It’s about offering additional functionality.”

Symbium will be offering ISAC exclusively through reseller channel at a price of $62 per server a month for the software, hardware, and management console. “We can’t afford to knock on doors one at a time to sell something direct,” he said.

ISAC is designed for Windows servers, but a Linux version is in development, the company said.

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