VA watches over servers as well as patients

Video-monitoring appliances let network operations center keep track of switches and servers at 10 hospitals

Hal Haislip and the other engineers at the Veterans Affairs Department network operations center in Little Rock, Ark., aren't doctors, but they do have patients' lives in their hands.

If any switches and servers die at 10 VA hospitals, the effects could be catastrophic, Haislip said. Although each server room has a lock and a card reader system, 'just because it's Mark's badge doesn't mean it's Mark' coming through the door, he said.

On the skinny

A couple of years ago, Haislip bought a dozen slim black WallBotz monitoring appliances from NetBotz Inc. of Austin, Texas. The IP-based security hardware and software monitors changes in environmental factors within a server or telephone switching room.

The device has peripheral ports for modules to detect humidity or smoke. The company also sells add-on software to monitor, for example, power supplies and fans of switches from Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif., or CPU temperatures inside various PC brands, said Mitch Medford, NetBotz vice president of product development.

The NetBotz hardware costs $895 to $1,795 per device, and Advanced Device Crawler modules for various vendors' equipment cost $695 each through General Services Administration IT Schedule contracts.

About a third of the company's business comes from federal facilities. 'They've all had a disaster,' Medford said. 'Since Sept. 11, there's a lot of focus on the physical side.'

The NetBotz units can link to databases such as Oracle9i, Microsoft SQL Server 2000 and MySQL 3.23 to store historical records about the computing environment.

With the devices mounted in each server and telephone switch room, Haislip can watch everything from his desktop computer. 'All I need is a TCP/IP connection,' he said.

He logs onto NetBotz.com and enters a user ID and password to see each room's temperature, humidity and other environmental variables.

When someone enters or exits one of the equipment rooms, Haislip gets e-mail about it. Alerts can also go to pagers and cell phones.

A desktop management application, NetBotz Central, consolidates WallBotz 400 frames and transforms them into a Web video.

Haislip said that even though the video quality from his first WallBotz device was fairly poor, he bought 11 more devices. 'I've never had one croak on me,' he said. 'Uptime is paramount. Loss of service is not acceptable.'

His main need was for surveillance; environmental monitoring was secondary. Another alternative, TV camera surveillance, would have required extra cabling and someone to watch the cameras, he said, so it wasn't practical for VA.

Also, he said, thieves tend to steal surveillance cameras, but he's not worried about theft of a NetBotz device. By the time a perpetrator ripped it off the wall, 'their picture would be someplace else,' he said.

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