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The Right Tool for the Job

Long story. Bear with me.

It’s 24 hours before the opening of a major Telecoms trade show, a few years back. We’re in the main hall, which is a seething, chaotic mass of fork lift trucks, electricians, carpenters, and marketing executives. Not wanting a close encounter with any of these if I can help it, I am standing off to one side with Phillipe (the show is in Paris) admiring the consequences of a recent intervention by the building services team, of which Phillipe is part.

Phillipe’s team had been asked to clear a blockage in a large waste pipe which happened to run across the ceiling, twenty feet above the show floor.

umbrella

With that happy mixture of enthusiasm and recklessness - which is variously termed “Entrepreneurial” or “Plain Crazy”, depending on whether the activity has Venture Capital backing – their preferred solution was to attach a high-pressure air line to the waste pipe, and turn it on.

In absolute terms this approach succeeded beyond all expectations, blowing out both the blockage and a two-metre section of pipe and dousing the show floor, and an unsuspecting exhibitor’s booth, in what plumbers euphemistically call ‘Black Water’ but which turns out to have an altogether more organic hue to it. It becomes apparent that an awful lot of effluent backs up in a six-inch waste pipe serving part of a busy convention centre, and that whoever stuck ‘Demo equipment – not for resale’ stickers on the switches in the racks beneath the torrent was both prescient, and wasting their time, since none of that kit is going into the supply chain any time soon.

As an engineer, it is strangely satisfying to look at something going horribly wrong, and know that it wasn’t your fault (YouTube is living testament to this). So I’m watching as the Services team’s reaction passes through a series of emotions. At first, it’s pride. As one of the team explains, so much of their work goes unappreciated normally; here at least is something with impact. This is followed by twinges of guilt and then the realisation that someone is going to have to plug the leak, and that plugging it will require putting a ladder directly beneath the flow – now somewhat reduced but still pungent – climbing it, and effecting a repair. Through some version of rock, paper, scissors, a member of the team is volunteered for the task and – to distant but encouraging cheers from his mates – ascends the ladder and coaxes the pipes back together.

I look at Phillipe and realise he’s smiling. “There is union rules!” he explains, through a heavy French accent. In what is possibly the only time someone has ever actively enjoyed a piece of Trades Union Demarcation legislation, cleaning of the show floor must be done by the cleaning department, not building services, so Phillipe is not allowed to clean up the mess, even if he wanted to – which he clearly doesn’t. The grin on his face while making that ‘Clean up in Aisle 12’ phone call is something I can still remember.

I cite this slightly lengthy story because it’s a good illustration of the importance of selecting the right tool to do a given job, if you don’t want to end up in, well, a mess. Back to the present day, and increasingly Service Providers (ISPs, MSPs) are looking for tools to help them work with their customers, and strengthen those relationships, developing into a Trusted Advisor role. Our own segment – visibility of application and infrastructure performance - is a huge enabler here; and it’s a surprisingly hard space to work in. Most of the suppliers in this space offer reporting or monitoring tools which started life in the Enterprise world: they’re designed to be used by a single company, where you don’t have to worry so much about scalability, security, flexibility, data separation or privacy. “Multi Tenancy” is not a phrase that figures highly in their architecture diagrams.

Put these packages – some of which come from companies with 9 or 10 figure valuations - into a Service Provider environment, and the pain is intense. It turns out Service Providers have very different requirements from individual Enterprises. Suddenly the software has to provide reporting to hundreds or thousands of companies, not one. It has to keep data private, with each company having visibility of – and control over – their own area, but the Service Provider themselves seeing the full picture and able to get a picture of their whole customer base. It has to be configurable, adapting to different service levels and viewing preferences for specific regions or sales teams or customers or reseller partners. It’s presenting information not just to a group of engineers, who are happy to trawl through pages of tech, but to a huge range of people either side of a business relationship: CFOs, IT Managers and engineers on the customer side, Sales people and Service Managers and NOC staff at the Provider.

We’re starting to see Service Providers trying to implement customer visibility projects using these tools, and giving up – often blowing huge budgets on implementation and integration, only to find the tool can’t be made to fit. On paper, the checklist of features these big packages have is impressive, but they’re simply the wrong tool for the job. The project gets 75% complete, and then just stalls because the package isn’t flexible enough to actually deploy.

Here’s another example we come across: MSPs supporting their biggest customers by installing multiple copies of an enterprise tool, one per customer - sometimes 20, 30 or 50 of them. Apart from the cost of maintaining that, how do you configure it? upgrade it? and how do your service managers juggle 30 different screens, each of which might be trying to tell them something important? let alone try and scale this to 100 or 10,000 customers. In practice, no-one in your organisation will use the system, except for your NOC, and the opportunity to actually talk to and work with your customers is gone.

Highlight was born and bred in this Service Provider environment. Our first customer in 1999 was, intentionally, a Service Provider (Planet Online, if you’re interested, long since acquired but a nice bunch of people). Highlight is fully multi-tenant: for a Service Provider, adding another Enterprise Customer to their environment takes about six mouse-clicks and three minutes. The customer gets full visibility of their own services, applications and network; the service provider gets alerts for all their customers, on a single screen, but can tailor the system’s behaviour for individual requirements. Account managers see just the customers they look after, again on a single page – and they’ll actually use Highlight, because it’s simple and quick to learn, and a good basis for their conversations with their accounts. As one Service Manager said recently, “Highlight makes the quality of our network visible, and you engage with clients in a much better way… Highlight allows us to take the discussion to another level”.

Comments like this give me confidence Highlight is the right tool for this job – sitting between Service Providers and their customers, strengthening that relationship – and this is still a big focus for us. Over the next blog or two I’m going to set out what we feel ISPs and MSPs need, to help them strengthen those relationships - see if you agree with me.

Richard Thomas, CEO Highlight