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Enterprise notification software: the last system standing

Matthes Derdack discusses the key features to look for and potential pitfalls to avoid when selecting an enterprise notification system.

Maintaining business continuity and IT service availability is a key goal for any organization and significant investment is often made in areas such as disaster recovery plans, data backups and IT monitoring systems. Rapid and reliable information on critical incidents in IT or business processes are essential to keeping enterprise systems up and running. Enterprise notification software can play a vital role in maintaining and increasing operational excellence by automating and accelerating the response to business-critical system failures or outages.

As PAC Berlecon analyst Dr Andreas Stiehler comments, “Enterprise notification software should be a cornerstone of the effort to maximise systems uptime and minimise disruption to business continuity and service availability.”

However, as your ‘last system standing’, finding the right enterprise notification system is critical to achieving this goal.

The value of a reliable and speedy notification system cannot be understated. For example, the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling report into the 2010 BP oil spill highlighted the need for better monitoring systems and procedures for managing the resulting alert notifications:

”In light of the potential consequences, it is no longer acceptable to rely on a system that requires the right person to be looking at the right data at the right time, and then to understand its significance in spite of simultaneous activities and other monitoring responsibilities.”

But there are a myriad of systems that have or claim to provide notification features. Not all systems are created equal and they can vary considerably in terms of their functionality for instance regarding the persistence of information distribution or the proper management of alarms in order to avoid alarm flooding.

When evaluating different notification systems, companies typically start with addressing their specific pain points, e.g. interruption to IT service availability or maintaining manufacturing and production output. However there are ten key factors that should be considered when reviewing which enterprise notification system is right for you.

1. Persistent, closed-loop notification and real-time delivery tracking
Customers today need a solution that goes beyond one way ‘fire and forget’ notifications which leave organizations open to a greater risk of interruption to business continuity. This is where products that use closed-loop notification technology really stand out.

Closed-loop notifications allow notification delivery tracking, the use of automated escalation or find-me/follow-me procedures and automated response management for incident tickets, in real-time. This feedback element provides a greater level of certainty that critical information is delivered and that the event is going to be addressed before it impacts on the business.

2. Integration capabilities and hub concept
Typically, the larger the organization the more monitoring and management systems are in use, each of which is capable of generating events. The implementation of notification software works best when it is deployed in the form of a centralised notification hub that receives and manages the events from each monitoring system. This avoids ‘notification confusion’ while at the same time decreasing effort and costs of operating such notification infrastructure.

Evidence of proven integration capabilities should therefore be high on the evaluation checklist. The ability to rapidly integrate the hub into the corporate IT environment depends on whether the proposed notification system offers industry standard connectors to monitoring solutions from Microsoft, IBM, HP, etc. Also, generic APIs and non-standard interfaces are especially useful when dealing with smaller niche systems such as fire alarms, temperature sensors and in-house developed applications.

3. System reliability
It almost goes without saying that system reliability needs to be very high. As the last system standing, the enterprise notification software must be capable of running in a redundant configuration with high availability features. This will ensure that even as other systems or servers are failing, the notification hub can still send and receive critical notifications.

There is little value in investing in a notification system if it can be disabled by a power cut or server failure. Therefore you need to carefully establish that failover mechanisms are robust and the system can offer uninterrupted performance, for example by switching communication channels where necessary.

4. Throughput and performance
Performance is not just about reliability. In a major disaster scenario, there could be hundreds of events triggered by different monitoring systems. Therefore the ability to handle high levels of throughput, often at a moment’s notice, is essential.

Think of it as a car engine that has to accelerate from idling to 150mph in a split second. However system performance is probably the most overlooked area of an evaluation. Be wary of any system that cannot handle a large number of events simultaneously as delays caused by clearing a message backlog could mean the difference between averting a disaster and dealing with the aftermath of one.

Demand evidence of performance and throughput for processing both inbound and outbound messages under stress test conditions. This will allay any concerns that the system will cope effectively in an emergency situation.

5. Unified communications
Notification systems that make full use of the available communication channels will ensure that your mean-time-to-respond (MTTR) to critical events is as low as possible. Systems that are limited to just one or two communication channels such as email or SMS text could miss out on opportunities to communicate an event to the right person with minimal delay. A good notification system should support the full range of communication channels: instant messaging, SMS text, voice with text-to-speech for dynamic content, smartphone push, email and even fax.

A far better approach is to use Unified Communications (UC) as Bob Hafner, managing VP, Gartner Research explains: “Integrating communications and collaboration with business processes offers opportunities for hard and soft benefits, savings and business improvements. The methods for modelling and developing these applications have matured along with UC solutions.”

Features such as ‘find me, follow me’ allow users to set preferences for which communication channel the notification software uses and in which order, e.g. during office hours it could be Instant Messaging, following by SMS and then voice. The ability for the software to automatically select a communication channel based on the priority of the event is invaluable. It ensures a contextual selection of the most appropriate or reliable channel. A good notification system should be able to communicate very critical events via voice instead of email for instance.

6. Communicating with multiple groups
Increasingly, organizations want to target their communications at different audiences, e.g. IT engineers, fire wardens, email users, departmental managers, etc. But there are relatively few systems that are capable of being configured to send contextual information about the same event to different audiences. However, such multi-target notifications make perfect sense. Imagine a mail server going down. While you of course wish to notify IT admins to remedy the mail server issue you might also want to inform the mail users, for instance to avoid calling the IT help desk. This makes even more sense in a large enterprise environment where a pro-active notification, e.g. via instant message, saves an enormous amount of inbound calls to the IT helpdesk.

There are even fewer systems still that can send these multi-group notifications in parallel. This is an important differentiator as sending messages in a sequential manner to first one group and then another, is slower and more inefficient. Any delays could be critical when dealing with major incidents.

7. Level of intelligence
The intelligence that sits at the heart of a notification system is core to achieving contextual compilation and rapid distribution of messages. You need a system that is sufficiently intelligent to send different notifications to each group using different communication channels.

Without this intelligence, it is impossible to achieve the level of granularity required to alert individuals with the information that they need and via the channel that suites their circumstances and the event in question. There is no point sending an instant message where the recipient is unlikely to be sat at their PC for example. This notification intelligence also ensures the speediest distribution of business-critical information.

8. Effective alarm management
A common complaint with many IT monitoring systems is that they produce a large number of events, not all of which are critical. This leads to a lack of visibility as users that receive too many events could miss the important one amongst the flood of low priority items, which in turn can negatively impact critical incident response times. Therefore a system is required that can intelligently filter the events and only act on those that meet certain criteria in terms of priority or importance.

Effective event correlation or alarm management eliminates this issue. The basic principle with notification systems is that it should minimise the number of events that are sent, and bring the most relevant to the attention of the right audience as soon as possible. Features such as double event suppression can prevent users being overloaded with unnecessary event notifications and increase user acceptance for the new system.

9. Automated communications
Many of the key factors described above can only truly be achieved if there is a high degree of automation. Therefore look for a system that has powerful and flexible workflow capabilities which are required to automate the whole notification process, from the receipt of the original event, the selection of the notification target group(s) and the proper communication channel(s), the tracking of delivery and response, the automated escalation procedures in case of non-acknowledgement and the feeding back of updates and responses into the event-originating system.

For critical incident management, it is vital that messages are delivered with a degree of certainty to the right individual. Automated workflow enables persistent delivery attempts over multiple channels, with escalation to other staff or managers until the problem is resolved.

10. 2-way communications and smartphone support
It is essential to not only deliver critical information but also to receive and process feedback from alerted staff. This ensures that notification messages are read and understood and enables remote acknowledgement and mobile assignment of incident tickets. Consequently, a notification system should thus provide full 2-way communication support.

Smartphones play a growing role in mobilising enterprise systems and a contemporary notification system should come with smartphone apps as they increase the level of convenience in digesting and managing incident information.

What often happens during a system trial or implementation is that customers discover additional features and benefits of the software which enable them to leverage their investment in an enterprise notification system. Therefore, a feature rich, flexible, robust and advanced notification system can deliver many business benefits on top of solving the original pain points.

By using these ten points as a checklist it should be possible to quickly distinguish between notification systems that can genuinely meet your requirements from those that might fall short and leave you open to a higher risk of interruption to business continuity.

Matthes Derdack is chief executive officer of Derdack.
Email: MDerdack@derdack.net
Website: www.derdack.com

•Date: 22nd Sept 2011 • Region: World •Type: Article • Topic: ICT continuity

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