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273 posts

Ultimate Geek

# 81207 9-Apr-2011 09:59
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Hi all,

For the past few years I've been contracting to a couple of schools and other people and as part of that, combined with a desire to automate as many repetitive tasks as I can, I have built up my own multi-site network management system.

Thing is, I'm not so sure if I want to keep doing this on my own. I enjoy most of the work, it's just the administrative side of running your own business and the "lower-end" tech support that I'm not so keen on anymore.

So I was wondering what advice other Geekzoners have with what I've got and what I should do with it, or if there's anyone interested in using it?

Below I explain what the system does and where it's at, and why I'm looking for a bit of a change. I'd like to hear your advice on what I should do from here.

In a nutshell, it's a multi-client managed network environment that for each site consists of one or more Linux/Samba servers (was openSUSE, moving to CentOS) and Windows workstations, using a combination of per-site and multiple-site management.

If there's more than one server on a site then services are usually clustered using a combination of NFS, DRBD, rsync and Unison and my own self-written "glue" scripts that allow me to load-balance and auto-failover service by service that I call "Sirius". Services can be individual services like Samba or qmail, or can be whole VMs (such as a Windows server or Zimbra VM).
Servers are built using a semi-automated set of build scripts I wrote that cut setup time by about two thirds and have server setups across different sites consistent, and help with syncing data from server to server whether clustering or upgrading (or both - upgrading a cluster).

Workstations are built and managed using a combination of open-source tools but mainly through a management program I again wrote myself ("Streamline") that does everything from automated application distribution/provisioning and maintenance to smart document synchronisation (again written muself) and redirection (user or machine based - so you don't fill a shared workstation HDD with a hunderd different people's MyDocs folders but still synchronise it with their individual laptops) to location-based printer management - some things absent when using Windows in a non-AD environment like Samba. Streamline also manages software updates including Windows, Office, Adobe Flash/Reader and so on.
This combines with an open-source imaging platform (FOG) to allow me to completely remotely rebuild a PC and provision the correct software for it, remotely, with a single click. If I rebuild a machine, often the user doesn't even know it's been done.

Basically I wrote it and added features to it to respond to the needs of the schools it's at as well as minimizing repetition between those schools and other sites, with a view to expansion.

It's designed so I can maintain per-site repositories for software as well as have a multi-site repository which I distribute software and updates multiple/all sites need like security updates and useful gratis software - again this is to minimize repetitive management. I can test then distribute a new or updated piece of software (or things like service packs) to multiple or all client sites in one go. The on-site servers synchronise relevant parts of the multi-site repository overnight and it's applied to workstations as they're used.

Licensed software such as Microsoft Office can be distributed using the site local repository but updates and service packs distributed multi-site.

It's designed to be green - queued-up maintenance tasks are performed when the user logs off and the machines are then powered down - they're not left on overnight. Full rebuilds are initiated with a Wake-on-LAN wakeup and a PXE boot.

Currently, this system is deployed in full at one Auckland primary school that I manage myself, in part (staged rollout this year) at one Auckland secondary school with its own network admin, and scaled-down "miniservers" are installed in three test sites to see how small a home/office I could economically scale the system down to. I figured from that test I can have a system that will provide full network management for a site as small as three  or four workstations. To that end, it also supports management, document sync, and partial profile sync with Home Editions of Windows although I'd still class this somewhat experimental. I have two small sites doing this.

It's a little incomplete - the administrator-facing management tools are written in MS Access/VB for example which is not quite ideal but it works.

Overall I believe it works well at these sites - users seem happy and the automated build processes and server clustering mean any faults are repaired or at least worked around quickly - but I got these sites by word of mouth. I'm not a marketer and also I'm not too keen on continuing as a one-man band.

I'd like to combine this system with some sort of network management company so I can focus on continuing to develop/maintain it without having to worry about all the other bits that go with doing it alone from basic client tech support to GST returns.

It's survived the test of working well at a school - a difficult environment - so I'm confident it should be pretty solid in an office environment.

So now that I have this system, what should I do with it?

Any advice much appreciated.


edit: fixed grammar

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Professional yak shaver
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Uber Geek

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  # 456958 9-Apr-2011 10:09
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Sounds like an awesome system. Surely one of the many IT companies here on GZ could be interested! :)

Maybe write a thorough documentation and sell it online as an appliance?

"Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads." - Doc Emmet Brown

272 posts

Ultimate Geek

  # 456968 9-Apr-2011 10:43
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I would make a checklist against what the competition has - what is it that this does better, cheaper, faster?

Anybody wanting to partner with you on this will want to understand this.

Mark Ascroft



273 posts

Ultimate Geek

  # 456972 9-Apr-2011 10:55
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Thanks for the replies.

Documentation is something I've never had the uninterrupted time to write properly so that is one thing it currently lacks. It's something I think I'd need to dedicate a week or two to focusing on - difficult when working alone.

And at this stage I'm not too sure what the competition is. When googling around I've not found much in the way of small-to-medium sized multiple-client network management. It was kind-of why I started writing my own. I'll look around again but if anyone knows of anything along those lines, please post :)

BDFL - Memuneh
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  # 456981 9-Apr-2011 11:43
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You have a couple of options:

a) package and sell it, either as a service or as software for IT depts to use.
b) open source it, with an adequate licence, upload to a project hosting site and let people use it.

If you go through (a) then you will need to document the system, define a target market, make a list of its feature set, make sure it's adequate for the market you want to reach, and sell it.

You will need to arrange for some investment/capital. You will need then to provide support (not yourself, but whatever organisation comes out of your plan), accounting, etc.

In other words, turn it into a sellable product.

BDFL - Memuneh
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273 posts

Ultimate Geek

  # 457571 11-Apr-2011 17:26
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Hm, while I'd love to release it as OSS, I also need it to pay the bills. I think managing an OSS project would spread me too thin and it'd hurt both me, the project, and my existing customers by creating more work with no more income.

So I guess it needs investment or sponsorship from somewhere. I guess finding an investor will involve documentation again so they know what they're sponsoring. I guess I will have to get writing then!

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  # 457614 11-Apr-2011 20:55
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And at this stage I'm not too sure what the competition is. When googling around I've not found much in the way of small-to-medium sized multiple-client network management. It was kind-of why I started writing my own. I'll look around again but if anyone knows of anything along those lines, please post :)

If you look for "cloud based IT automation" you will find products like Kaseya, which are your competition

I would follow their software as a service type pricing model
eg: monthly service fee and a small fee per machine and/or tiered monthly packages for upto x machines at each tier.

I think you will need investment to give you or a team the time to bring your admin ui/tools etc up to a high standard.




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  # 457625 11-Apr-2011 21:16
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Here's a few thoughts in case it is useful,

Looks like you just need a good bookkeeper to deal with the raw paper.

And, to hand off the time consuming hand-holding type support to a competent support contractor at an hourly rate charged back to your customers.

That leaves you holding last line support, implementation, maintenance / new features. Somewhere here it starts looking a little more like a sustainable business and less like a one man band.

In terms of attracting investment, your business plan is far more important than detailed documentation. Things like licence/renewal structure, client/server licensing differentials, update/maintenance subscriptions, and growth projections from a sustainable base.

From there you can contract out the implementation and it starts looking like a solid business.

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