Friday, April 19, 2024

Modular Suites Blur Network Management Landscape

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A few years ago network management comparisons were easy. On the one side stood huge and monolithic network management frameworks, such as IBM Tivoli or HP OpenView, which took an army of technicians years to deploy. On the other side were low-cost tools and toolkits such as Aprisma, WhatsUp Gold and WebNM. It was a great David and Goliath, or Evil Empire vs. Rebel Forces yarn.

How times have changed. Both sides have moved closer to a middle ground, though major differences still remain. The Big Four — Computer Associates, IBM Tivoli and BMC Software — still dominate, offering a full array of products and services to meet the needs of the Fortune 500.

At the other end of the spectrum, out-of-the-box simplicity reigns. Enterprises use toolkits to address specific problem areas and small to mid-sized businesses can afford such products to manage their growing networks.

“The market pendulum swings between all-encompassing solutions and best of breed niche products,” says Debra Curtis, research director in network and systems management for Gartner, Inc.

That size of the pendulum swing is narrowing, however, as both large and small vendors adopt more of a modular suite approach.

Thinking Outside the Frame

For the framework vendors, this means breaking down their products into smaller pieces which can be installed independently and integrate better with products from other vendors.

“Rather than continuing with the framework approach, we broke Unicenter up and any piece can work with others,” says Gale Persil, Computer Associates’ (CA) director of Unicenter performance and availability. “This has greatly simplified implementation and reduced the total cost of ownership.”

Stripping out many of the functions means that the core elements of Unicenter are easier and quicker to deploy. While Unicenter TNG formerly came on 11 CDs, that number is down to four. It also comes with an installation wizard that Persil believes removes much of the complexity users formerly experienced.

“Our long-term strategy is to be able to drop in the product and go,” Persil continues. “We’ve made a good deal of progress, but we still have a way to go.”

Part of the sea change for CA is the realization that customers may want only a piece of Unicenter or may prefer to integrate it with other products. For example, Unicenter now integrates with a host of CA-smart solutions — products from partners that either enhance Unicenter functionality or integrate with it.

The video networking elements of Minneapolis-based Todd Video Network Management, Inc.’s TC Reliance software, for example, are managed in Unicenter. Similarly Oaktree Solutions’ (based in Sterling, Va.) Oaktree Navigator expands Unicenter’s reporting capabilities. In some cases, CA is even partnering with its competitors.

“Net IQ Corporation (based in San Jose, Calif.) is a top competitor, but they are also in our partner program,” says Persil. “We will also soon be integrating Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM) with Unicenter.”

Although these packages work better with products from other vendors than they used to, they have yet to achieve “plug-and-play” interoperability.

But while Big Four suites and modules are undoubtedly making serious headway in bridging the usability gap, they are still playing catch-up to nimble vendors in niche markets.

“The big suites are extremely difficult to integrate and comparatively expensive,” says Brian Fogg, technical director for systems integrator SRA International, Inc., based in Fairfax, Va. He quotes figures of $200,000 or more to get infrastructure going and $40,000 plus per year in maintenance.

Toolkits Expand Functionality

The toolkit vendors, meanwhile, have tended to adopt a “mini-suite” approach. Rather than looking to split up an oversized product, they have had to greatly expand their range of functionality.

Take the example of Somix Technologies, Inc. of Sanford, Maine. Its network management activities began with company CEO Mike Patterson operating as a network consultant and troubleshooter. Initially he added a few custom enhancements to Ipswitch, Inc.’s WhatsUp Gold, an off-the-shelf monitoring and mapping tool.

Over time, a few lines of code evolved into a CD to leave behind at customer sites. That eventually grew into a network management toolkit named WebNM — it takes the network maps and the IP addresses generated by WhatsUp Gold and creates historical trending graphs. These show how much of a network resource, such as network bandwidth, CPU utilization and hard-drive capacity is being consumed, as well as up-time and response time of devices and services. It began life monitoring WAN links to detect slowdowns or dropped packets.

Since those early days, however, WebNM has expanded. It now does trouble ticketing, remote desktop management and incorporates Webcam support. In addition, two other modules were released for automated inventorying of server and desktop hardware/software, and Syslogs/Event Log information aggregation.

These types of mini-suites lack the full functionality of a product like Unicenter or BMC Patrol. But a growing legion of adherents has forced the Big Four to vastly upgrade their portfolios. So which should you chose? Not an easy question to answer.

“Companies need to plan very carefully up front to make sure they capture the business rationale for what they are trying to manage so they can apply the right dollars to the right systems at the right time,” says SRA’s Fogg.

For some, that means toolkits or small, inexpensive suites. Users note that while they may not receive all the functionality they desire, what they get is more than enough. And perhaps most importantly, what they would have to pay to obtain the remaining network information would make it cost prohibitive. For them, the value of that “missing” information is much smaller than what it costs to receive it.

Others prefer a package with the comprehensive features that come with the established network management vendors. While users admit that first costs may not be small and implementation can be time consuming, they firmly believe the trouble to be more than worth. Most who go to the trouble of fully implementing Unicenter, for example, report not only better management but also significant cost savings.

The deciding factor between the two camps seems to be user need. And in that regard it appears that there is no one product that will meet the needs of every company.

“These tools and technologies, if used appropriately, can provide huge benefit, but you must be careful in analyzing what you need,” explains Mike Jude, analyst for Enterprise Management Associates, based in Boulder, Colo. “You must do your homework and try before you buy to make sure it doesn’t just look great on paper but works in your own shop.”

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