Clearing the NT Landscape

If a tree falls in the forest, but there's no one there to hear it, does it make a noise? These days, we don't have to look any farther than a typical corporate network for the answer.

It looks like the last decade of the 20th century will be ending pretty much as it began: with the trend toward downsizing still firmly entrenched in America's corporate culture. In fact, today's "do-more-with-less" executives seem so pleased with themselves -- not to mention their fat stock bonuses -- that it looks like they're planning on pushing staff reduction to the ultimate level: "do-everything-with-nothing."

Philosophically speaking, one wonders how we've come to mistrust and resent each other so much that we've evolved into a race of paper cannibals, proposing all kinds of ways to eliminate each other's jobs. All I know is we have a lot fewer people in the corporate forest these days to listen for falling trees. This has made for some humorous, and potentially catastrophic, situations.

A network manager friend of mine, whose responsibilities include support for her company's extensive network infrastructure, saw her organization's downsizing coming several months ago. To prepare for the impending loss of more than half of her staff, she proactively embarked on a program of automated network management. As the foundation of this strategy, she implemented a series of automated network device outage alerts. She ordered and installed a Windows NT-based network management software tool that cycles through a series of "ping" tests. The package reports failures by sending e-mail to designated personnel, displaying real-time alert messages on certain users' screens and even programmatically "beeping" a list of pocket pagers. With this software in place, my friend felt confident that she would know within seconds if any device in her network went down, enabling her to head off angry calls from disconnected users.

To get the early warnings of any Windows NT system problems, she instructed her staff to recode their automated system management procedures and test for the success of unattended operations like network backups and NT directory replication -- generating more real-time alerts and e-mail messages.

Initially, my friend and her staff got tons of e-mail every day from the various automated alerts. Because many network outages are sporadic, a lot of these automated alerts turned out to be false alarms.

In the beginning, they acted on every one of them. Eventually, however, a kind of alert denial set in. Then as their numbers dwindled, the staff gradually slacked off in their response to these alarms.

Now, because the staff that designed and installed the automated network monitors have either resigned or been downsized, my friend is left to handle the alerts on her own. Many of the alerts her system generates are false alarms, and now she ignores nearly all of them. And because she isn't technically inclined and doesn't have the time to learn, she isn't able to update the automated system's various command files and tables when she adds, removes or redeploys network devices.

My friend's dilemma teaches us a lesson on the practical limits of downsizing. It may seem like it's possible -- based on vendors' brochures and trade press articles -- to fully automate network management and eliminate all of your network support people, but it isn't. Without a well-considered staffing plan to configure, implement, reconfigure and respond to the network management products you buy, your investment in these products will be wasted. Make sure your staffing plan includes occasional drills to confirm that everyone knows what to do when things go wrong.

Here's a revised version of the quiz question: If a tree falls in the forest, but there's no one left in the forest to hear it, does it make a noise? Absolutely. And that noise -- even if you're refusing to listen to it -- may be your network's death rattle. --Al Cini is a senior consultant with Computer Methods Corp. (Marlton, N.J.) specializing in systems and network integration. Contact him at