At Your Servers

NPI has got your back ... and your backup

by Mark Pendergrast

npi_lead_jcJohn Burton took a downsizing buy-out from National Life in 1988 and, with Steve Koenemann, launched Network Performance Inc., working out of their homes. NPI, on Green Mountain Drive in South Burlington, now employs 15 people and tops $2 million in gross annual income.

On a Wednesday near the end of November, the largest computer — used as a server — at a major Burlington law firm crashed at 6 p.m. While there were backup files for historical data, all the work of the 60-person firm for that day appeared to be lost. Panicked, the lawyers called NPI (Network Performance Inc.), since they subscribed to NPI’s Canopy service, an all-inclusive contract for computer service and monitoring. NPI had already noticed the problem through its remote monitoring at its offices off Shelburne Road on Green Mountain Drive.

Within 15 minutes, technician Dave Irwin arrived at the law firm and found that the disk was corrupted. He called Dell, the hardware manufacturer, which advised deleting everything, reinstalling Windows, and restoring data from the backup. Only problem was, that would entirely scrub that day’s work.

Irwin kept working, and around 1 a.m. he was able to reinstall the active directory, the brains of the network that stores user names and passwords. That gave him access to most of the lost data, and by 3 a.m. he was done. He backed up all but a few things that could not be salvaged; then replaced the hardware in the server. Later that morning, the law firm opened for work as if nothing had happened.

Fortunately, life is not always that frantic for NPI or its clients. The computer firm, founded in 1988, has established a reputation for reliable service and devotion to clients over the years.

“We have hired NPI for over 15 years,” says Robin Jeffers, general manager at S.D. Ireland Co., which began using the company’s Canopy service about six months ago. “One afternoon a week, on Friday, technician Bob Dinan comes on-site. As we have grown, NPI has helped us grow with IT management, larger networks, remote offices, and multi locations.”

Others echo those statements. At Wake Robin continuing care retirement community, the computers handle payroll, financial, dining room point-of-sale, and electronic medical records. “The network normally doesn’t need much service at all because it runs so well,” chief financial officer Fred Erdman says. “The parts of the system that NPI has installed work seamlessly together.” As at Ireland, a technician visits every week to check the system.

John Burton, 59, is NPI’s founder and president. He learned to program computers at the University of Vermont, where, in 1973, he earned a bachelor of science in education with a major in math. “UVM had a foreign language requirement,” he recalls, “and I’m terrible at French or Spanish, so they allowed me to learn FORTRAN instead.”

As a math teacher for 10 years, Burton taught students BASIC programming on early Radio Shack and Apple personal computers. Then, through grants administered by Champlain College, he installed computer labs in Vermont schools before joining National Life. “I helped build PC networks for one of the divisions of their new IT department charged with starting to build LANs.” On the side, he began to offer the same service to small Vermont businesses.

“The best thing that ever happened to me was National Life’s downsizing in 1988,” Burton says. He and Steve Koenemann took buy-outs and started NPI, working out of their respective homes in South Burlington and Montpelier. Their first jobs involved hooking up PCs to share expensive laser printers, then networking a steady progression of modems, faxes, phones, CD towers, databases, and servers. NPI grew up along with the shift from buzzing, squawky dial-up connections to high-speed broadband.

In 1991 the partners hired Eric Hart, their first employee, who is now vice president of the company, and moved to incubator offices on Hercules Drive in Colchester offered by the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation. Nine years younger than Burton, Hart began learning to program computers at age 8 from his father, a Chicago-area programmer, about the time Burton was at UVM. In high school, Hart helped a friend build a computer from scratch. Before college, he took a two-year break from the computer-nerd world to hitchhike from England to India, where he volunteered to teach English.

Eventually, he wound up at Cornell, paying for college by doing computer work for the sociology department. “My last semester, I got a part-time job at The Computer Center in Ithaca,” he says, “but I quickly got sucked into full time.” He finished his coursework, but never quite finished his final thesis. In 1991, his girlfriend, Pam Laser (now his wife), went to UVM. Hart came along and looked for computer work. He joined NPI because “everyone said John and Steve were great to work with.”

At first, NPI provided services for only products their customers had purchased. Around 1995, Burton and Hart realized that they needed to become experts, trained in the computer products made by Novell, Microsoft, and others. Today they partner with the cream of the computer-related crop, including companies such as ShoreTel (telephony), Cisco (internet protocol), RSA (security), APC (backup power), VMware (virtual datacenters), Microsoft, and Dell. “We found that if we weren’t actually selling the products, our depth of knowledge was not as good, so we signed up as a reseller for these various products,” says Burton.

By the late 1990s, there was a crying need for spam control — “We were surprised we couldn’t find a good product,” Burton says — so they created their own, called SpamRejector, still part of their services. In the years 1998 (when the company bought the Green Mountain Drive property and moved) and 1999, NPI boomed as paranoia over Y2K prompted businesses to replace and update computers. “There was a real survivalist mentality,” Burton recalls, “with people stocking up on canned goods and wood stoves.”

In 2000, as the century turned without incident, NPI business fell off dramatically, and for the first time the company lost money and had to lay off one employee. Steve Koenemann, stressed and still commuting from Montpelier, also left to take a job as chief information officer at the Vermont State Employees Credit Union.

As computers became ever more important to Vermont firms throughout the first decade of the new century, NPI recovered and expanded. As the complexity and importance of computer systems grew, Burton and Hart realized that clients needed more than just on-demand service. They needed a full-service, comprehensive, overarching umbrella that included system planning, installation, and monitoring.

In 2006 they created Canopy, which gives clients peace of mind at a flat fee per work station. As befits Burton’s background at National Life, it’s a kind of computer insurance. If something goes wrong or breaks, NPI is responsible and the client pays nothing extra. NPI continually monitors the systems, including firewalls, e-mail, telephone, and servers.

With everything running smoothly, Hart planned a sabbatical to teach English in Nicaragua. “I felt I had learned a lot since I taught in India at 17, and I wanted to try it again when I knew more,” Hart says.

Just as he, his wife, and their two children flew south in November 2008, the economy tanked. Yet businesses still needed IT service, and NPI helped clients upgrade their networks through such things as virtual servers and storage area networks — centralized large repositories for storing lots of data. Using less space and electricity, they are part of the greening of IT. “If products and services help to add value for customers,” Burton says, “they will invest even in hard times.”

In March 2010, Hart returned to NPI, where he supervises the technicians, while Burton focuses on sales, administration, and the vision for the company’s future. NPI serves 130 clients, most with 20 to 200 employees, and almost all in Vermont. They include health-care facilities, manufacturers, and white-collar professionals.

Revision Eyewear, a Canadian company that makes protective eyewear for the U.S. military, was one of the first Canopy customers when 10 people worked in its temporary Burlington office. In 2007 the eyewear firm moved to Essex and now employs 160 people. “We are their entire IT department,” Hart says. He heads the NPI security group — particularly important since Revision Eyewear works with the military.

NPI employs 15 people and tops $2 million in gross annual income. “We succeed by hiring the right people,” explains Burton, “with a unique mix of technical skills and a good bedside manner.” One such is technician Matt Beckert, 27, a Champlain College graduate in computer networking, who has been with NPI four years and leads the Canopy team.

“Face time with clients is invaluable,” Beckert says, “but ultimately what matters most is how fast we can resolve issues.” He can jointly operate a remote computer, then take control of it and solve most problems.

Some clients are thinking of moving their computer data to the “cloud,” the latest buzzword in computer circles. NPI currently teams with the likes of Sovernet in Burlington and TelJet in Williston, which provide huge bandwidth in bunker-like buildings with redundant power and temperature control. Clients can rent rack space in such bunkers so their computers are connected to an invisible computer facility they can access either over the Internet or their own private connections. The company’s SpamRejector service is on the cloud. Burton periodically offers webinar workshops for clients on cutting-edge subjects such as cloud computing.

Once a year, on Martin Luther King Day, NPI employees report to work at a nonprofit such as the Vermont Foodbank, Spectrum, Community Health Center, and Burlington Land Trust, where they donate an entire day’s work to upgrading computer systems and firewalls. This year they will descend on the Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick.

Trouble, though, brings out the best stories. When a big windstorm knocked out Revision Eyewear’s power in early December, then-new NPI technician Bob Dinan happened to be on-site, and with temporary battery backups, the computer shut-down went smoothly without any lost data.

NPI noticed that the server of another customer was performing rather slowly. “We dug deep,” Hart says, “and discovered that the server was hosting a game site, installed by hackers before we took over the firewall management.” •

In 2006, NPI created Canopy, an all-inclusive service contract program. David Irwin (left), a field technician, is on the Canopy team. Matt Beckert leads the Canopy team.

Eric Hart (right), vice president, was NPI’s first employee. He oversees the technical staff. Nick Hinge is senior account manager.