But, just as smart shoppers have found ways to look great without spending thousands on an Yves St. Laurent evening dress, so can IT managers extract the information they need without blowing the budget.
"In most cases commercial management software has not really given us what we are looking for," says Bill Miller, Senior Network Engineer for Sappi Fine Paper North America, who works out of the company's datacenter in South Portland, Maine. "In the huge package you can find one little nugget you want, but it's not worth buying it just to get that one piece."
Instead, Miller is one of the growing set of people saving money by adopting open source and low-cost applications and management tools.
Open source software is not just for those whose budgets are in dire straits. It also helps firms looking for a level of control and customization they simply can't achieve with off-the-shelf software.
"Most freeware is built to address a single issue so I can get exactly what I need," says Miller.
While Linux is the most famous example of freeware, it is far from the only one. Today, you can download everything from browser skins to enterprise databases. Here is a sample of what is out there:
Network Management Tools
A trip to websites such as the San Diego Supercomputing Center's Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis (www.caida.org) or the Comprehensive Perl Archive Network (www.cpan.org) turns up thousands of tools and modules to add to your management resources. A few of the more popular items include:
Freedom has its Limits
Given the vast range of free tools available, what does Miller use to manage his own 3,000 node WAN connecting the dozens of installations in North America, Europe and Africa? Of the tools listed above, he uses Qcheck for bandwidth reports and the MRTG graphing tool. In addition, he has:
While Miller likes to use free tools where possible, he does recognize that the freeware has its limits. Qcheck, for example, has no where near the level of functionality of NetIQ's full products. The other big elements missing from most free software are support and documentation.
"If you are not an experienced hacker [someone who can write source code, not someone who breaks into Internet sites] with the ability to make an open source tool work in your own situation, you are bucking up a hard wall," he explains. "It takes someone who has been in the business for a long time and who knows the tools to make these work."
Then, even for experienced programmers, he says it is often better to pay for a commercial product that brings together several open source tools into a common, easier-to-use interface. He cautions against buying one of the traditional management packages and comes out in favor of an inexpensive management package that nicely ties together all the various open source elements he utilizes.
"With these commercial products you get the benefit of a lower cost since a lot of the software is already developed," Miller says. "But you also get the ease of use and support when you need it."
Sappi Paper uses WebNM from Somix Technologies, Inc. (Sanford, Maine). This suite contains a mix of open source tools such as MRTG, along with numerous proprietary enhancements. The whole package includes network monitoring, inventorying, asset management, remote administration, trouble ticketing, web cams, syslog management, service-level reporting and other modules. Since it is based on open source elements, there are no additional per seat or per device charges as there are with many network management packages.
So, whether you just want to fill in a few holes in your management toolkit, or need a whole new management set up, open source may be a way to expose exactly what you need at a price you can afford.