ISP offers diagnostic toolbox

A nonprofit Wisconsin Internet service provider is providing its members with free self-diagnostic applications aimed at straightening out network problems faster.

WiscNet (www.wiscnet.net), a decade-old Internet cooperative, began providing the Java-based "toolbox" this spring to its more than 500 members, which are mostly K-12 and higher education institutions, local governments, libraries, hospitals and several other groups.

"I think the whole impetus for the toolbox was largely to continue sort of the cooperative/educational philosophy of WiscNet," said Craig Stephenson, the organization's new services manager. "It's just something that enables our technical contact at the site to, among other things, perform self-directed troubleshooting.

"Like any network, there are times where things will fail, but that really wasn't the impetus for rolling this out," he added. "It really was to provide a common set of tools to a largely varied, as far as technical experience," group of people.

Kika Barr, WiscNet's technical services manager, said the software tools "level the playing field" among people who are or act as — such as teachers — information technology managers at each of the member sites. Although she couldn't quantify the reduced number of calls to her technical support staff, she said service is much more efficient. "One call that took 20 minutes, today might take only less than half of the time," she said.

To stock their diagnostic toolbox, WiscNet members can download VisualRoute, developed by Visualware Inc.; WiscNet-developed RouterTool; and DesktopStreaming, developed by Expertcity Inc.

VisualRoute, which analyzes Internet connectivity and performance problems, provides members with an easy mechanism for pinpointing where a network breakdown may be occurring, Stephenson said. Whether via a table or graphically displayed on a map, members can see whether the source of the problem is within their system, within WiscNet, or outside the network. Learning how to use the tool takes about 20 minutes and is easy, he said.

A technician would use RouterTool to determine problems with a site's router when the WiscNet's support staff cannot get access, Stephenson said. However, the tool is difficult to learn, and WiscNet is looking to make it more user-friendly, he said.

The DesktopStreaming product enables a WiscNet technical support person to gain remote access to a member's desktop with permission. Stephenson said it also is effective in teaching members how to use applications.

So far, about 380 members have downloaded the toolbox, he said, adding that he expected increased use before the school year starts in September. WiscNet provides service to about 370 school districts in the state — nearly 90 percent — as well as to most two- and four-year colleges, including the University of Wisconsin system.

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