The Houdini effect

Piers Ford offers a guide to the technologies that can liberate network managers from their current systems bondage and help them...

Piers Ford offers a guide to the technologies that can liberate network managers from their current systems bondage and help them to win back the respect of the business

Ask not what you can do for your network, but rather what it can do for you. This basic piece of advice for today's besieged network manager offers a glimmer of hope in the constant battle to make sense of arguments for and against framework-based management and point solutions.

There have been too many false dawns and empty promises for a golden, standards-based future, distracting network professionals from the fact that the corporate network infrastructure of the 21st century is a business rather than a technical proposition.

Despite widespread supplier adherence to the SNMP standard and signs that IP will be the voice/data convergence medium of choice for the corporate network, the sheer complexity of infrastructures that are constantly morphing in order to accommodate the new business models demanded by e-commerce grows rather than diminishes.

Ironically, the Internet, hailed as the great enabler of e-commerce, is an unmanaged, frankly anarchic, entity. Its penetration to the heart of the corporate network has created more headaches for a tortured breed of IT professionals, who can these days be forgiven for cynicism on an epidemic scale.

To further complicate matters, they are now being encouraged to see the network as a component in the grand evolution of the e-business model. Yankee Group, for example, says the next generation of communication services will require a comprehensive, business systems view of the applications, servers and client devices, as well as the infrastructure provided by the emerging packet-switched network. Globally, this market will be worth a massive $100bn by 2002.

"The complexity of modern IT environments has had adverse effects on enterprise systems management," says Paul Donovan, managing director of DeskTalk Systems, a supplier of network management tools. "The first is the lack of comprehensive systems management tools. The second is the difficulty of justifying very large software tool expenditures to top executives when IT hasn't delivered on cost saving promises."

According to Tony Cooper, network marketing manager at systems integrator Computacenter, the Internet itself hasn't complicated the purchasing decisions surrounding frameworks and point tools. Instead, it has emphasised the importance and value of network management as a business function.

"Hardware technology is starting to become much more intelligent and self-managing," he says. "Although on the surface this suggests that addressing the issue of network management should be easier, the solution is confused by many more suppliers in this market space. Whereas a few years ago, there were a couple of large-scale framework suppliers, now there are dozens of organisations packaging network management solutions under the banner of 'root cause analysis', performance alerts', 'service level management', and so on."

Cooper suggests that while suppliers - including traditional framework proponents who increasingly have to appeal to the SME community now they've saturated the large enterprise market - are competing on the merits of their point offering, managers must focus on the value of the network to the business.

"The issue of managing the total end-to-end user experience is vital in any form of Internet communication," he says. "Traditional network management tools have expanded to incorporate this traffic. The next step for exploiting this area is to take that end-user availability and performance data and turn it into business data - for example, to differentiate between browsers and buyers, and target them specifically. This calls for the ability to understand where Internet users spend their time within a Web site to place marketing there."

In other words, network management as a business process has now spilled into knowledge management - a new twist in the equation unlikely to appeal to network professionals jaded by their experiences with unwieldy framework solutions that don't deliver the right detail, or incompatible point tools.

The good news, though, is that ultimately it should enable them to pick and choose functionality as appropriate for the business rather than getting bogged down in a technology debate between framework and point solutions, either or both of which may be appropriate for specific circumstances.

"Our approach to delivering value in this area starts with understanding the objectives and requirements, assessing if these objectives are realistic and then working with the business to define a technical solution," says Cooper. "With this approach the choice of management solution is led by the requirement and not by the product. We have delivered as much value with minimal cost to organisations integrating a confederation of point solutions as implementing a framework, and vice versa."

If it sounds like the old horses for courses argument, at least it's a theory that's been proved time and again throughout the history of corporate IT. There's no reason why network management, whether approached from a technical or a business perspective should be any different. Nevertheless, framework and tool suppliers continue to fight it out for the moral high ground.

The answer, says Mick Andrews, principal network management consultant at ICL, is to look at the types and levels of service the network will provide for its users and business owners. This dictates the roles, processes and rules required. "Armed with this information it will become much clearer if a framework, point solution or combination of the two is the best for this particular organisation," he says. "For example, if there is an application that relies on some Unix servers, an NT server and distributed client software, then a framework to monitor hardware, operating systems, applications and the network, collect inventory from clients and distribute new client software would probably be appropriate. If there is an urgent, standalone requirement for marketing to have an isolated Web server, then management of this by a point solution may be more appropriate."

It's worth remembering that the four major framework suites (HP's Openview, CA's Unicenter, Tivoli and BMC) are products of the pre-Internet age. Despite their utopian promise to deliver a management data repository for all management applications and provide a single console solution, a lack of trust between applications and a lack of tools to fill in fine details have prevented the dream from panning out.

"The reason the repository never happened was that no application was willing to count on crucial data being provided by another," says Steven Joyce, director of network technology and e-business systems integrator NetIQ. "For instance, if I needed to discover devices in a network, but decided just to read that out of the repository instead of writing my own code, what happens if the customer hasn't bought a tool that does discovery? Do I have to talk them into buying one? People were happy to throw data in, but few were ever willing to count on anything coming out."

Joyce says the event manager is, in effect, the "new framework", acting as a single console and repository for all events. There is hope in this for any network manager who has previously found the framework an instrument of torture rather than a genuine support.

"The performance of the network as a whole determines how well, or badly, applications are delivered from server to client," says Alan McGibbon, managing director at systems integrator Scalable Networks. Achieving this requires management tools that enable, and simplify, the establishment and monitoring of service levels against a required, known baseline.

"Invariably, point products have given the best functionality but have required 'human integration', dealing with lots of data from different sources and attempting to build a meaningful overall picture. Products that claim this integration have arrived, and at lower cost than the traditional umbrella management systems. Are they any good? The jury is still out."

Framework or point tool?

Framework pros

Frameworks take an integrated approach with all functions supposedly communicating out of the box, and come from a single supplier, including licensing and support. If you're willing to invest, you'll be a valued customer as these are big-ticket sales. They offer consistency and a reasonably unified view of the whole organisation.

Framework cons

Expensive and require endless upgrades to maintain levels of functionality offered by individual point tools. Most are products of the age of large, single-supplier networks and cope poorly with today's multi-source distributed infrastructures, which may unite voice and data.

Point-tool pros

Point tools require a smaller upfront investment and have best-of-breed status for their intended purpose. Generally seen as more flexible and cheaper.

Point-tool cons

Tend to rely heavily on alliances and agreements between suppliers for cross- functionality, so there is less central control over product directions. Some gaps in the architecture and inconsistencies.

Double trouble: two trends will have a big impact on network management

Mark Lillycrop, director of research at analyst Xephon, says network managers should look out for two potential problems: the impact of the virtual organisation and the tendency of large suppliers to snap up tool developers.

"The nature of the 'managed object' is changing very rapidly in the Internet world, because so many devices and users are only loosely connected to the organisation via laptops, personal digital assistants or phones," he says. "Finding partners with the right management tools to plug into your framework or point solution is very hard. B2B e-commerce and extranets have blurred the boundaries between organisations, which makes management and security more complex."

On the bright side, Internet standards should, eventually, help to simplify network management through the adoption of common denominators like IP.

"Voice systems will migrate increasingly to IP rather than circuit switching as the platform, and this single network rationalisation will allow the use of a much simpler and more accessible set of management tools," says John Livingston, portfolio strategy manager at BT. "This may turn out to be one of the key benefits to be gained from the use of Voice Over IP in a corporate network."

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