New approaches let small firms outsource the complexity of network management

Expensive software and difficult implementations could be avoided

In large, complex networks, enterprise system management is extremely expensive, with implementation costs potentially running into seven or eight figures. But the functionality could be achieved with just a telephone and a helpdesk number.

A cynical outlook? Absolutely, but there are many who think the same way - and with evidence to back up their arguments.

A few years ago Broadband-Testing researched enterprise-level users of major network management packages and found that very few were ever fully deployed despite the costs involved - or sometimes because of them.

In one instance just the first module of a management application suite had taken the user nine months to successfully deploy - and the man in charge of the roll-out was chairman of the software's user group, so he should have known what he was doing.

In another example, a carrier tried to deploy two well-known network management suites and gave up both within a year, switching to what was at the time a far less famous but lower-cost product which did the job and took only two weeks to change to.

Then there is the one about the entertainments company which, on trying to discover why the network management system it had installed was not improving downtime, found that 72% of its network traffic was management data. SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol) can be a real killer if not configured correctly, as many companies have found to their cost.

There is a recurring theme here: the problems involved in successfully deploying a network management system. In other words, it is one thing to spend thousands of pounds buying a product, but another making it work properly.

An obvious answer is to outsource your entire network management requirements. After all, how many people really want to administer network adds and changes, identify faults, resolve them, compare network performance and behaviour?

The problem with outsourcing network management to date is that it has been too expensive for most companies.

The irony, of course, is that the smaller the company, the less likely it is to have members of staff who are capable of resolving a networking problem. So, by default, they are the ones who most need outside help, but who can least afford it.

John Earley, of Optimised Networks, a start-up focusing exclusively on the provision of IT and network monitoring for SMEs, suggests that in the past, would-be providers of outsourced network management to smaller businesses got the basics wrong.

"Return on investment is arguably where suppliers have misread their ability to persuade smaller enterprises of their value proposition," he said. "Although downtime may cost large enterprises six- and seven-figure sums, the same is not true for SMEs, whose employees will always endeavour to find something useful to do if the computer fails periodically."

Of course, that is not to say that SMEs do not appreciate downtime costs. Earley believes it is simply that they do not audit associated costs and refute figures presented by those with a vested interest in network management systems. He noted that low-cost software products have enjoyed limited success among SMEs, which have tended to invest less than £1,000 for software that is supposed to be in permanent operation, only to decommission it, preferring to use it as a trouble shooting utility.

The argument here is that the time required to administer such systems is disproportionate to the value returned - a point of view that stacks up well when you consider that even free software products have failed to satisfy the needs of most SMEs, which lack the internal technical skills to make them work.

Then there is the argument that SMEs simply refuse to invest time and money in network management software that they see as only being of occasional use and primarily for when something goes wrong. In other words, it is a case of the "insurance syndrome". Even when a company has the in-house expertise to use management software, it is common for it not to spend money up front on a network management product.

Phil Snell of Limbo Creatives, which produces a change management software suite called Deltalert, believes one answer lies in renting management software tools on an as-needed basis. "I can see why someone would not want to spend money on a product that they believe they will hardly ever use," he said.

"So, given that software can be downloaded as and when needed from the internet, why not offer a range of online management tools, downloadable for rent?"

The Deltalert change management tools are based on the idea that network problems mainly arise when something is changed. They are all downloadable and are designed to be up and running within minutes of installation.

The tools have also been designed so that they can be used remotely over unpredictable, low-bandwidth internet connections, so they are ideal for low-cost, outsourced management services.

This has been a shortcoming with many management software suites in the past, which have been designed for use on high-bandwidth Lan connections, despite many networking problems arising in satellite or branch offices with low-speed Wan or internet connections to the main office.

However, the SME market is finally attracting the interest of both the management software giants and managed service providers which have previously focused on the enterprise and ISP markets.

An interesting development in this respect is the collaboration between Computer Associates and iRevolution, where the latter is using CA's Unicenter management system to provide managed services targeting SMEs.

The concept is simple: use iRevolution's own network operations centre to provide 24x7 monitoring to third parties. The proposition, which is charged at £75 per month per application (with an initial focus on SQL), appears more realistic than the pricing model traditionally used by managed service providers.

Another initiative that employs CA technology has been packaged by PC World Business, which is increasingly active in the SME market place. A key difference of the PC World Business offering is that it provides a helpdesk service for desktop users, charged at only £12.50 a month per seat. However, SMEs may be put off by the associated server monitoring charge of £200 per month per server, which offsets the otherwise realistic cost model on offer.

According to Earley, hidden costs are the key element to be avoided in providing outsourced management at the SME level. His company has a simple pricing policy - £19.95 per month, with no minimum contract requirement.

The software was developed in-house, so no third-party product royalties are payable, helping to keep costs down. Another enabling factor in this pricing model has been Optimised Networks' decision to outsource its own network operations to India.

"Some people argue that this adds an element of controversy to our business model, but the reality is that the technical skills of staff in India match those in the UK at a fraction of the cost," said Earley.

"We also appreciate that users prefer a 'closer to home' contact, so we always look to provision services through local resellers who 'front' the service and provide added value through, for example, break-fix maintenance and helpdesk services."

Steve Broadhead runs Broadband-Testing Labs, a spin-off from independent test organisation the NSS Group.   Author of DSL and Metro Ethernet reports, Broadhead is now involved in several projects in the broadband, mobile, network management and wireless Lan areas, from product testing to service design and implementation.

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