Do Frameworks Ease Network Management?

Is network management better served as a complete dinner or ` la carte? Frameworks have as yet garnered only limited acceptance, and while there may be a good reason for this, sometimes they may be the best way to go.
As networks grow larger and more complex, network managers can find it difficult to guarantee that connections will stay up and running across their businesses. Vendors such as Computer Associates International, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM have touted as an aid the concept of "frameworks," which enable technicians to run a range of management applications from a central management console.

These vendors have developed product suites that touch upon most tasks a network manager must complete. In addition, they feature open Application Programming Interfaces so third parties can hook their management applications into a central console.

Three years ago, Raley's Inc., a Sacramento, Calif., supermarket chain, moved from a simple dial-up wide-area network to a packet-based network for voice and data. Once the new network was in place, the company needed tools to monitor it.

First, the chain tried IBM's Tivoli. But when it could not get it to work, it moved to the Kinnetics network management appliance from Peregrine Systems but was not impressed with its features. It then installed Computer Associate's Unicenter at the beginning of this year.

"Having been burned a couple of times, we were a bit skeptical about Unicenter," admitted Tom Jones, Raleys chief information officer.

So far, the fears have proven unfounded. The grocer, which has 150 stores, replaced a handful of point products with a series of software packages from Unicenters TNG product line: network management, remote control, asset management, and software delivery.

While the frameworks have been available for several years, so far theyve garnered only limited acceptance. "Framework vendors have been unable to deliver as much integration as customers desire," said John McConnell, president of McConnell & Associates, a Boulder, Colo., market research firm.

Tools like Unicenter do a good job of meshing their functions with Computer Associate hardware, but integration with other vendors' products is usually not as tight. One problem is management products have few common design points. Suppliers have built applications to perform specific tasks, such as counting packets going through a router or transactions going through a database, so the type of data collected can vary widely.

The differences can extend to how management applications store information in database management systems (DBMSs). One application may be optimized for an Oracle DBMS running on a Unix operating system, while a second may rely on SQL Server with Microsoft's Windows 2000.

Another reason is vendors have been slow to agree on standards to ease the movement of management data from one application to a second, instead trying to lock customers into using proprietary interfaces. Recently, there has been movement to Web-based standards promoted by a consoritum called the Desktop Management Task Force, but it is still in an early stage of evolution.

The result: to date, connecting different applications often requires a fair amount of custom programming work -- a task that often falls on the user's shoulders. And the customer's challenges do not end once applications are linked. Each time a vendor issues a new release of its management software, the user has to make sure that all of the different modules are compatible with it, which means the frameworks require significant ongoing maintenance.

In the end, a company has to decide whether the benefits of simpler problem navigation outweigh the time required to maintain the framework. Companies with networks of less than 1,000 nodes can probably get away with point products. Firms with larger networks, or companies for which the network is a core element of the business, may require them.

Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Mass., who specializes in technology issues.

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