On June 29, Tim Landgrave, founder of Vobix, an Internet application service provider, talked about how to build an ASP and what career opportunities exist in that arena for the IT professional. If you couldn’t join us then, enjoy the transcript. We hope to see you on our next live Guild Meeting. You can find a schedule of Guild Meetings in your weekly TechProGuild Note TechMail or on the Guild Meeting calendar.

On June 29, Tim Landgrave, founder of Vobix, an Internet application service provider, talked about how to build an ASP and what career opportunities exist in that arena for the IT professional. If you couldn’t join us then, enjoy the transcript. We hope to see you on our next live Guild Meeting. You can find a schedule of Guild Meetings in your weekly TechProGuild Notes TechMail or on the Guild Meeting calendar.

Note: TechProGuild edits Guild Meeting transcripts for clarity.

Welcome to TechProGuild
MODERATOR: Welcome everyone to tonight’s TechProGuild Guild Meeting. We have a really cool guest with us tonight. Tim Landgrave has been a contributor and consultant with TechRepublic since it started. In addition, he’s been in IT probably more years than he cares to count. Tim’s newest venture is Vobix, and he’s here to tell us about how it came about and what kinds of opportunities exist in a company like his.

Vobix: Providing MS applications across a LAN
MODERATOR: Tim, can you explain just what exactly Vobix will offer its clients?

TIM LANDGRAVE: After starting, growing, and selling a Microsoft consulting practice, I decided to focus on selling packaged services to smaller companies rather than selling by-the-hour services to large ones. Once it became clear that the technology that allows hosted services to be delivered cost effectively was imminent, I took the plunge. Vobix is concentrating on delivering an integrated and enhanced Microsoft-based desktop and backoffice system to businesses with 25 to 500 desktops.

JCARLISLE: Microsoft-based desktops to customers with up to 500 desktops? Doesn’t that consume a lot of bandwidth on the WAN?

MODERATOR: Can you explain?

TIM LANDGRAVE: Basically, we’ve devised a way for several companies to share a set of Windows 2000 Advanced Servers and to run Exchange, Commerce Server, Custom Intranet Applications, and products like Great Plains without any one company knowing that other companies are sharing the same set of resources. All the customers connect to our data center with a hard connection (DSL or T1) or via a VPN provided by a major carrier (ATT, Sprint, etc.) that can guarantee the bandwidth.

JCARLISLE: Even so, a T1 is only 1 Mbps. Loading MS applications across a LAN using a 100-Mbps Ethernet connection can be brutal. It must be real slow over a T1.

TIM LANDGRAVE: The bandwidth consumed is less than you would think. Products that require lots of bandwidth run on Terminal Servers in the data center.

ANDY_DAVIS: It sounds like virtual bridging… or maybe v-lanning?

TIM LANDGRAVE: It’s Virtual Private Networking that uses PPTP to create an extension of the data center LAN.

JCARLISLE: So applications, roaming profiles, data, everything is stored at your place… and then when users log on, they pull everything across the T1.

MODERATOR: In theory, is this like a giant WAN?

TIM LANDGRAVE: It is like a giant WAN physically, but the logical boundaries make it appear as if each company has its own set of servers, administrative accounts, resources, etc.

Are IT departments out of a job?
MODERATOR: How will Vobix work with traditional IT departments?

TIM LANDGRAVE: The IT departments in the companies we’re working with have recognized that if someone else guarantees the stability and availability of the infrastructure, then they can work to deliver more value-added services to their companies. Most of the companies we’re working with today are using us for the collaboration and financial systems on the platform. They still authenticate locally for file and print and then use these value-added services over the connection.

MODERATOR: Does that mean less IT folks or just that current IT employees can now do other projects?

TIM LANDGRAVE: The number of IT people in current customer pilots has stayed constant. The important issue for our customers is that with the high turnover in the IT field, if their e-mail administrator or key support person leaves, then they keep on running.

How secure is this system?
VWJETTA: Wouldn’t this mean more security risks are involved?

TIM LANDGRAVE: Security is an important issue. It’s the main reason that we use either a hard-wired connection or a private carrier to connect the users to our data center. We’re not convinced that the Internet is ready to have this kind of traffic yet.

JCARLISLE: Doesn’t it put them at the mercy of the T1 provider too? I mean, I know where we work, it seems like our T1 and Internet connection goes down at least once a week, sometimes for hours. If I’m running my financial system and e-mail on such a system, I’d be paralyzed during those times.

TIM LANDGRAVE: We’ve not had an outage due to the failure of one of our telecom providers. We have Service Level Agreements (SLAs) in place that make it important for the providers to keep our lines up.

VWJETTA: Do you use Intranet services of some sort?

TIM LANDGRAVE: Yes, we provide an intranet, extranet, and Internet presence based on the Exchange 2000 Web store. For example, if you save a press release on your intranet in the Press Releases folder, then it will appear automatically on the Press Releases section of your Web site. We also have Digital Dashboards that companies can install for their users via an HTML setup and configuration capability.

JCARLISLE: Wait… Exchange 2000 isn’t shipping yet. You’re not building your business around beta software, are you?

TIM LANDGRAVE: Exchange 5.5 is not robust enough to use in this environment. The Exchange 2000 code has not formally shipped, but we’ve had customers running without interruption for the last 60 days.

JCARLISLE: Frightening enough that you’re talking about using Win2K, which isn’t even to SP1 yet. It’s barely beyond beta itself.

TIM LANDGRAVE: We made a conscious decision to build the business on all Microsoft DNA 2000 products. It’s too late in the life cycle of the other products to build a business around them.

JCARLISLE: Jetta has a huge point. So you’re using RC2?

TIM LANDGRAVE: We’re beyond RC2.

JCARLISLE: I’m not aware that MS is shipping RC3 yet. Are you just getting builds as they come? And again, isn’t that risky for customers who are leaving vital financial information on your system?

TIM LANDGRAVE: My experience with Windows 2000 suggests that a Windows 2000 Advanced Server implementation is significantly more reliable than any build of Windows NT with any service pack. We’re at 100-percent uptime since February.

VWJETTA: Why not build your system around Linux, or incorporate Linux in it?

TIM LANDGRAVE: Our customers don’t seem to mind being involved with state-of-the-art software. There’s not enough commercially viable software available on Linux to make the equation compelling. I always find it interesting when customers question the use of Windows NT or Windows 2000 for a robust enterprise solution. I’ve designed and implemented systems for thousands of users with 3 9’s of reliability on the Win32 platform. If you hire a bunch of Web monkeys to type setup in order to configure a system for your business, then you get what you pay for.

JCARLISLE: Normally leased lines and T1s are priced based on the distance of the run. What’s the average monthly charge of the connection?

TIM LANDGRAVE: The average monthly charge of the connection is bundled in the per-seat cost for the customer. A fully managed Exchange 2000 and Internet Security and Tracking solution costs about $90/user/month.

Have you experienced any data loss?
JCARLISLE: Active Directory still is, and will be, fundamentally flawed until the shipment of Whistler. For example, it’s very easy to lose changes to AD if they’re made from different DCs in AD. Have you encountered any loss of data in AD or the Exchange 2000 store?

TIM LANDGRAVE: Since all of the AD servers are located in close proximity and connected over a high-speed backbone, we don’t anticipate nor have we seen any of the problems you allude to.

What do you look for in an employee?
MODERATOR: Tim, what kind of people are you hiring and what kinds of skill sets are you looking for?

TIM LANDGRAVE: One of the most compelling arguments for using an ASP to host MS implementations is that the ASP is likely to have a more highly trained, responsive, capable staff than almost all companies with 50 to 150 PCs and most companies who have 150 to 500. These people are hard to find, train, and retain.

What are the chances of the system going down?
VWJETTA: Let’s go back to one point that was made earlier. One server can administer many companies at once, but isn’t that sort of an uptime concern? I mean if it goes down, all the companies suffer, not just one. Or was I misled in believing that this is how it worked?

TIM LANDGRAVE: If you’re running your servers in a clustered environment with a data center that has multiple levels of redundancy, your chances of going down are considerably lower than they would be for most companies whose servers sit in an open area where a four-year-old can step on the power supply and turn it off. I should also be clear about the administrative model. We’ve designed Web pages that allow each company to administer themselves. This integration gets really interesting when you can allow a company to add an individual to the Great Plains HR package and then automatically configure AD, Exchange 2000, and all the Intranet applications automatically. It saves companies a lot of administrative time.

VWJETTA: But usually servers are not just left in the open. They’re supposed to be in a secure area, so the chance of a four-year-old kid tripping the wire wouldn’t be an issue.

TIM LANDGRAVE: You would be surprised if you spent any time in the real world. In seven out of the 10 companies we dealt with in the consulting business, my four-year-old could have walked up to the server and turned it off. It’s really scary when you think about it.

JCARLISLE: Do you normally provide redundant connections? For example, do you have an ISDN backup in case the T1 goes down?

TIM LANDGRAVE: Customers can pay for an additional level of connectivity if they’re anal about losing the connection. So far it hasn’t been an issue. Companies are also “supposed” to make backups every night and users aren’t “supposed” to leave valuable company data on their hard drives where it can be wiped out if the drive crashes.

Tell me about yourselves
TIM LANDGRAVE: Are you folks consultants or IT managers?

VWJETTA: I’m a student.

JCARLISLE: I’m an IT manager.

TIM LANDGRAVE: You’re an IT manager for what sized company? (desktops)

JCARLISLE: We have 250 desktops and 5 remote locations.

TIM LANDGRAVE: What’s your biggest challenge in maintaining collaboration systems in an environment of 200 to 250 users?

LVACHON: Users who have read a little PC computing and decide to fix other users’ machines.

TIM LANDGRAVE: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing indeed!

JCARLISLE: Most of the problems are user-inflicted. They are normally the ones that require a call or personal contact of some kind.

TIM LANDGRAVE: Have you considered locking down the desktops? We’re investigating the use of thin client machines hooked up to the Terminal Services to deliver all services to users’ desktops. We’ve been asked by a couple of customers to give them a configuration that users can’t break so they can dramatically reduce their support costs.

LVACHON: I’m a network administrator.

TIM LANDGRAVE: How many desktops on the network do you administer?

LVACHON: We have approximately 200 to 250 desktops depending on temp/contract hires.

Tell us about Vobix
VWJETTA: Where do you offer your services?

TIM LANDGRAVE: We’re focused today on offering services in the Great Lakes area. We have a data center up in Louisville and are coming up in Cincinnati and Cleveland later this year.

JCARLISLE: Okay… again, about the T1 rates. The cost of connecting a T1 can be outrageous depending on the distance, speed, and level of SLA that you want. What’s the average cost of connectivity and then the cost of your services above that?

TIM LANDGRAVE: Our current model calls for the majority of customers to connect to local data centers. Distance and SLA level are much easier to manage that way. As the capability of the Internet to handle guaranteed bandwidth becomes widespread, we’ll begin working more with companies like yours–multiple locations in different cities. Our customers today are in a single city connected to our data center.

JCARLISLE: Okay, so one site-site connection. Average distance to the data center, say ten miles, what are the T1 cost and the hosting cost in a ballpark figure per month?

TIM LANDGRAVE: It’s approximately $90/user/month, which includes the connectivity cost.

JCARLISLE: And that includes the cost of the T1?

TIM LANDGRAVE: Yes, the communications costs are included.

JCARLISLE: Hmmm… Sounds like a pretty fair price for smaller shops.

How fast will the data be transferred?
VWJETTA: What is the speed of transfer from client to client on the network?

JCARLISLE: Data speed on the network shouldn’t be an issue. I would still think the bottleneck is going to be that T1.

TIM LANDGRAVE: You may be right. We’ll see. It hasn’t turned out to be yet. Our customers are satisfied with the performance of the system and very pleased with the reduction in administrative costs. The IT folks have been able to go back to adding value and not fighting fires.

VWJETTA: Why would there be a bottleneck at the T1?

JCARLISLE: A T1 goes only at 1 Mbps. Your typical LAN will have a minimum of 10-Mbps speed.

TIM LANDGRAVE: Your typical LAN is a shared Ethernet channel on a hub that has enough traffic once you get over 50 users to be more like a 100-K LAN than a 10-MB one. We don’t think hosting is right for everyone. But there are a lot of companies out there whose businesses depend on a reliable infrastructure who are basically “whistling past the graveyard” every time they turn on their PCs. We want to provide them with the services and reliability that they can’t afford to build and support by themselves.

That’s all the time we have
MODERATOR: Okay, everyone. I’m afraid time is up. I’d like to thank tonight’s speaker, Tim Landgrave, for spending his time with us this evening.

TIM LANDGRAVE: Happy to continue any dialog offline at timl@vobix.com. Thanks for your time.
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