Technology: Network Automation Software Improves Efficiency

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 07-14-2006

Drugstore.com, the $263 million, Bellevue, Wash.-based online pharmacy "has a lot of the same problems every other company has," says Don Allan, senior director of IT operations. "We're trying to manage the most equipment with the smallest staff, for example." And because the company is public, it must adhere to a bevy of federal regulations, most notably the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

Allan's biggest compliance-related headache? Managing changes to the company's IT systems. Drugstore.com's many servers, network switches and other hardware often requires reconfiguration as software programs are upgraded and the company expands its systems. Until recently, all of that work was handled manually, machine by machine. Not only did that introduce unnecessary errors into the system, but it was eating up the company's limited IT resources, since changes to each machine could take weeks to complete. Even worse, tracking all those changes and ensuring proper documentation was a logistical nightmare.

Allan knew he needed something that would simplify the process. So Drugstore.com partnered with Opsware, an automation services vendor. Opsware's software manages hardware configurations in a single place, allowing one network administrator to push changes out to multiple devices all at once. "Say you have 100 switches out there and one little setting needs to be changed on every one," Allan says. "Before, we would have to make that change one by one, and it would have taken days. Now, it takes less than an hour."

Building and repairing the company's many servers has also become a far simpler process, says Allan. Because of the new automation software, the time it takes to repair a server has been reduced from several hours to about 30 minutes. "We no longer have to spend hours trying to figure out what's wrong with any one server," he says. "We can just reconfigure it and have it up and running in 30 minutes." That makes IT troubleshooting far less complex. "The event horizon comes down to an hour no matter what. That's good stuff."

Though he can't comment on direct cost savings, Allan says the Opsware rollout has saved the company plenty in man-hours. "It's definitely substantial," he says. But the real value is in keeping current with government regulations. "Managing all our devices from one place has far-reaching implications for compliance," he says. The system tracks all user activity and monitors access so only the appropriate people can make universal changes, and it generates also reports. "For compliance, it closes the loop," says Allan. "We know exactly what steps were taken, and who took them. And that's just good, solid management."