In a world where IT complexity continues to rise and budgets remain depressingly static, many organisations are seeking ways to maximise investment in their IT infrastructure.
As a result, increasing numbers of enterprises are turning to systems management software to ensure they get the best out of the technology that they have in place.
According to Ruggero Contu, a principal research analyst at Gartner, the global market for such offerings was worth £5.6bn in 2006, and is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 8.7% over the next five years, valuing it at £8.5bn by 2011.
These relatively high growth rates are borne out by a survey that was published by Datamonitor in June this year, in which the analyst firm questioned IT decision makers from 500 companies of varying sizes located in Western Europe, the US and Australia.
The study indicated that although nearly 80% of those questioned currently have some form of systems management software in their organisation, adoption levels for different products within the sector vary widely, creating scope for further investment.
For example, although certain areas such as network and database management are fairly mature in adoption terms, others areas such as asset or datacentre management are not.
But one of the reasons that adoption is currently so piecemeal is that going down the systems management route at an enterprise-wide level is not necessarily a cheap option, and can be difficult to justify.
Therefore, although most large multinational companies have already introduced an integrated software suite from one of the top four players - IBM/Tivoli, Computer Associates, Hewlett-Packard and BMC - uptake elsewhere tends to be more fragmented.
And this situation is set to continue. The Datamonitor study suggests that as a result, over the next six months, organisations - particularly SMEs, which have so far been reluctant to spend money in this area - will invest most heavily in database management technology.
Network management, meanwhile, will be the most popular target over the medium term of up to 24 months, particularly in industries such as insurance, energy and utilities, education and healthcare.
But outsourcing is also likely to increase, particularly in the energy, utilities and retail banking sectors, although according to Aphrodite Brinsmead, an analyst at Datamonitor, it is still not considered a mainstream option, and will "remain the preference of a small minority".
Although currently about 20% of organisations opt for an outsourced approach, the figure may rise to as much as 30% over the next two years, says Brinsmead, not least because systems management software is widely viewed as difficult to deploy.
Roy Illsley, a senior research analyst at Butler Group, summarises the situation thus: "Further down the stack from the large corporates, a lot of organisations still do not have any systems management software at all and get by with tools provided by their hardware supplier.
"Or if they have got it, they tend to have tools to manage this and that, and they are not integrated. So although you find odd examples of organisations using integrated suites, they are in the minority."
Nonetheless, says Contu, there is a gradual tendency by companies of all sizes towards introducing suites rather than implementing best-of-breed systems, as they attempt to reduce the number of suppliers and products they have to manage.
But the biggest inhibitor to adopting this approach for SMEs is cost, which can include not only pricey upfront licence fees, but the time and resources required for planning, implementation and training.
According to Paul Farmer, head of IT at Arsenal Football Club, this means that unless organisations have a fairly large network, it can be difficult to make a business case to introduce such software.
"In the past, our infrastructure was not big enough to warrant systems management as much, so when we were still at our Highbury stadium it was not something we could justify.
"But anything more than 30 to 40 servers and it becomes harder and harder to do things manually and to pre-empt any issues. It is a risk management thing," he says.
The club, which employs about 400 staff, moved to its new Emirates Stadium in the summer of 2006 and increased the number of its servers from under 20 to 60, in order to run a suite of new hospitality and entertainment systems that control everything from the site's 100 turnstiles to its 500 tills and 300 TV systems.
At the same time, the club also introduced Computer Associates' Unicenter network and systems management software to enable it to become more proactive in tackling availability issues.
"It is noticeable since we moved that the amount of server uptime has gone up markedly to almost 100%. There have been a number of instances where we have been able to pre-empt problems and avoid possible downtime, which translates directly into money terms," says Farmer.
Finding the right system
Although he says that Unicenter is not the cheapest product on the market, Farmer emphasises that it is important for organisations to look at the price tag in relation to what they are trying to achieve and the savings they can make by boosting the availability of their systems.
"If downtime is not an issue, there is no point, but if it is, systems management is definitely something you need to look at," Farmer says.
One of the advantages of going for an integrated systems management suite is that it acts as "a manager of managers" says Farmer. This means that Simple Network Management Protocol-based (SNMP) products such as Extreme Network's Epicenter network management software, simply plug into the offering and work right away. However, with non-SNMP applications, it is necessary to manually import log and text files, which takes more time and effort.
But the big four suppliers are not the only companies offering systems management software, although they are keen to make inroads into the SME space using the third-party channel. IBM, for example, is coming out with a specifically cut-down version of its product in the shape of Tivoli Express.
Beyond the big four suppliers
Of the wide range of alternative suppliers that currently target the mid-market there is Symantec and its Altiris acquisition, Avocent's Landesk, Novell, and Microsoft for Windows environments only.
Budget Insurance Services, on the other hand, decided to invest in a system from Halcyon Software to support business growth by ensuring that its core IBM iSeries (formerly known as AS/400s) and Intel-based servers, which run its call centre and online systems, remained constantly available.
The organisation, which operates across multiple sites, including South Africa, had formerly used its own bespoke software to manage the systems. But about two years ago it got to the point where not only was maintaining it a full-time job, but the application was no longer functional and proactive enough for its needs.
This meant that many of its 154-strong IT team had to work in shifts all through the night to ensure that there was no downtime, which was leading to fairly high staff turnover.
Benefits of systems software
But according to Steve Whitelam, associate director for infrastructure at Budget, the implementation of systems management software has "reduced the need for skilled staff to do more mundane tasks as the software alerts us to any problems".
He adds, "The alternative was to have people wait for things to go wrong, but this lets the team focus on more value-add activities rather than just the day-in, day-out stuff."
Like Arsenal, Budget also sees a direct correlation between server reliability and sales, not least because the company's IT budget is based on the availability of its systems. As a result, says Whitelam, the software has paid for itself tenfold.
"If we lose systems even for an hour, it costs the company a lot of money in lost revenues, so each minute of downtime is quantifiable because of lost referrals or quotes. But the software ensures that our systems are available for the maximum time and if there is an issue, we have intelligence on what went wrong and why," he says.
Nonetheless, for those companies deploying such software for the first time, he advises against adopting a big bang approach.
Budget introduced its system bit-by-bit and migrated its applications over one-by-one because "if something does not work, it can have catastrophic results".
"It was about fear of the unknown. We were going from believing we were in complete control, to letting software manage our systems and, at the time, it was a scary thought," says Whitelam.
Illsley confirms that this building up and expanding out of systems over time to tackle individual pain points is the most common approach to deploying such applications. But he warns that prior to implementation it is crucial to map out a systems management strategy to obtain real benefits, rather than simply introduce products on an ad hoc basis.
"It is fine just to whack in some technology, but implementing tools like this effectively is a long journey, so it is crucial that organisations understand what they want to achieve and the benefits they want to obtain.
"You have to devise a strategy, understand how it links to the organisation's governance and service management model and also how you want the system to manage your underlying IT resources," says Illsley.
Another issue to consider when purchasing software of this ilk is that the market is a consolidating one and has been for the past couple of years. This means that potential users need to be wary in relation to their purchasing decisions.
This is not least because the big four suppliers are currently in acquisitive mode as they jostle for market dominance and attempt to fill gaps in their products lines.
But the sector is also characterised by a raft of new entrants such as Opsware and Bladelogic with their server provisioning software, which can make procurement confusing unless users are clear as to their requirements.
Nonetheless, systems management software is widely considered as progressively crucial to ensure the smooth running not only of IT infrastructure, but also of the business.
As Contu says, "Quality of service has become an increasingly important issue in Europe over the past few years, but it is not just about availability and resilience these days.
"It is about bringing IT in line with critical business requirements and ensuring that it will support business needs."