Service drives change in network management

Guaranteeing a high quality of service is the imperative behind new approaches to network management. But should you hire more...

Guaranteeing a high quality of service is the imperative behind new approaches to network management. But should you hire more staff, get in fresh kit or outsource the whole operation? Helen Beckett reviews the options.

As networks become more homogeneous and the boundaries between local and wide area networks blur, companies are rethinking how they should manage the transmission of data around their organisation.

Networking accounts for a considerable slice of the IT budget and increasingly sophisticated technology means that costs are continuing to rise, compared to server and desktop costs. "Features such as packet filtering, content filtering, firewalls and their associated management software are now controlled centrally by the experts, rather than being distributed to users who can be lazy, uninterested, or confused about how best to protect their data," explains Nick Johnson, senior consultant with networks consultancy Parallel.

The proliferation of Internet Protocol (IP) as the protocol of choice across any segment of the network also alters the network management landscape. As end-to-end service - from the internal client to customer out on the Internet - becomes a reality for many organisations, guaranteeing the quality of service of applications is a new imperative. "The language of negotiation changes from technology-speak to service-speak," says Ed Dennehy, managing director of networks specialist Commslogic.

Mind the skills gap
But Dennehy notes that the focus on translating business requirements into network service levels has created a fresh skills gap. Local area networks (LANs) have traditionally been the preserve of a special breed of technologist, particularly prone to wearing open-toed sandals and talking in acronyms. The modern network manager, however, has to understand business priorities and communicate these to a staff whether they are in-house or a third party.

This is a tough call given the history of the networking department. "Networking used to be very engineering oriented and has therefore been viewed as more specialised than other areas of IT," explains Dennehy. However, a strong record of outsourcing the external portion of the network means that thinking in terms of quality of service within the firewall is not too foreign a notion.

Outsourcing is one answer to the technical convergence of LANs and wide area networks (WANs) and the new business pressures the network operation must support. The network was the first portion of IT to be outsourced simply by virtue of the fact that large, complex pieces of mechanical engineering integral to the WAN resided in remote exchanges. Many organisations, already comfortable with a culture of outsourcing their WAN management, see handing over the management of local data traffic as a small step.

"What has happened is that external suppliers have taken on more responsibility. Whereas they used to manage just the wires, now they are managing all the other components on remote sites as well," says Dennehy. The current buyer's market is a further impetus for large multinationals to wield their clout to secure a good deal.

Keep it all in
Many small and medium-sized companies without corporate buying muscle are finding that it is more cost effective to stick to the DIY option. Greenergy, a supplier of "clean" diesel, brought network management back in-house after a costly period of outsourcing. "We were paying a hell of a lot for a time slice of a few people," says James Kirby, systems architect at Greenergy.

Kirby opted to buy a network management box from Mutiny and to hire a senior network engineer to support the network that links three offices in the UK and Germany. The Mutiny product sends Kirby an SMS flagging up any problem and the device affected so he can allocate personnel accordingly. He confesses that it was not easy to find his new recruit - "there are a lot of pretenders around" - but adds: "We have saved money and got a better service".

Mark Tindale, network consultant at Compass, suggests that building resilience into the network through extra hardware is a cheaper method of ensuring availability than lots of staff on standby. However, he points out that some working cultures may militate against this potential saving. "Business units within financial sectors often like to have a lot of people running around fixing things," he says.

The cost of people power
But with salaries of network managers holding up, few IT directors can afford to ignore the cost implications of the choice between building resilience through hardware or employing more people. Brenda Carter, principal consultant with recruitment specialist Computer People, estimates a network manager may command between £30k to £35k and those running large teams will increase this to £60k plus. "If you have a good person, you could still lose them because there are jobs out there," she warns.

Meanwhile, those organisations looking to outsourcing to resolve the fractures between in-house teams and to ensure that the network is treated more coherently still need to retain a network authority in-house says Tim Moore, director of Parallel. "Someone has to take responsibility for the WAN," he points out. Moore advises companies to invest in tools to monitor performance, asking: "Would you trust a telco to 'fess up and hand over penalty payments? It makes sense to measure internally."

Declare your independence
Parallel had to mediate an impasse where an organisation with a £5m a year outsourcing contract was taking months to pay quarterly payments to its supplier because it was unhappy with levels of service. Parallel set up independent monitoring and found that both sides were making errors in measurement. Reassured by impartial information, the user started to turn round the £1m payments within 24 hours.

Network monitoring products that log performance and locate problems form a crucial interface between user and supplier in outsourcing agreements. Mike Betz, managing director of EMEA, Concord Communications, explains that applications' performance can be measured down to the individual transaction. "You need to be able to predict whether you have the raw bandwidth, processor power or disc space for applications to perform," Betz points out. He adds that by monitoring the network more effectively, using Concord tools, France Telecom was able to reduce by 20% to 30% the number of penalty payments it was making to clients for lapsed service levels.

With end-user expectations of "access anyplace anywhere" and wireless LANs being put into coffee shops and airport lounges, network management promises to be an issue that will only become more prominent. Whether outsourcing makes economic sense will probably depend on the size of the IT budget. But sophisticated monitoring tools coming onto the market at a range of prices to suit different budgets are available to everyone - and should never be left just to the suppliers.

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