Organizing a data center with unified network management tools

As data centers grow in complexity, so do management chores. Unified network management tools can help ease the burden of those responsibilities.

Network management tends to be an unwieldy beast in the modern data center. After all, each appliance, piece of hardware or virtual machine (VM) seems to come with its own core management application that is hard to use, integrate or understand. In this tip, I’ll discuss unified network management tools and explain what administrators should look for when evaluating these tools.

The need for network management toolsets
Take a look at the typical data center and you will usually find dozens of management consoles with graphical user interfaces for the server, command line interfaces for the infrastructure components and various applications to control other bits and pieces of the network. Although that may be the current state of affairs, no administrator in their right mind wants to deal with dozens of consoles, each of which only focuses on a small part of the operational picture.

There must be a better way, and there is; it’s a technology called unified network management tools, which promises to bring a single pane of glass view to network operations. So, if this better way exists, why hasn’t everyone jumped on the unified network management bandwagon? The answer to that question is simple; costs and capabilities.

Inhibitors to using unified network management tools
Cost enters the equation simply because comprehensive management products are expensive (at least from an initial cost point of view), especially when compared with the bundled/native management options, which are usually free. Most products on the market are not capable of managing everything, at least without add-ons, which drive up the cost and learning curve even more.

Fortunately, the concerns of price and capability are being addressed aggressively by vendors looking to pitch their own network management tools. , let’s take a look at the cost argument. People who sign the checks are usually put off by the large sticker price of unified network management tools. That initial price shock hides the real value of the tool. Luckily, vendors are ready, willing and able to help prospective buyers prove return on investment (ROI) to justify the expense.

Take, for example,  Paessler AG, a software vendor out of Germany that is offering its PRTG V9 product as a major unified solution to all things network management-related. The company has published several case studies on its site that exemplify how much time can be saved with a unified network management system, how downtime can be avoided and how quality of service can be better controlled. A chief technology officer (or IT manager) can use that information to create a return on investment statement that shows how unified network management tools have a low total cost of ownership, and use the comparison to prove that the technology can pay for itself. Paessler is not unique, many companies, including SolarWinds, Manage Engine and Quest Software Inc., all offer the same type of collateral.

Simply put, cost should not be the primary objection to adopting unified network management tools. If it is, there are some low-cost options that help defray the initial upfront costs–I am talking about hosted services here (those that live in the cloud). Several Software as a Service (SaaS) companies, such as N-able Technologies Inc., Nimsoft and Servoyant LLC, have come to market with unified management platforms that follow the monthly billing model. In this case, the SaaS provider charges a monthly fee based on the number of managed devices and the number of administrators. Costs can add up quickly, but a small monthly charge out of operational expenses tends to be more attractive on a balance sheet than a large, single capital expense.

With different financing options available, it should be the capability of the technology that determines if a unified network management tool is a good fit for your data center. Administrators want one product that can manage everything. This may sound impossible, but there are products that aim to achieve this goal. Finding the best fit for your environment is the real challenge.

Evaluating network management tools
The process of choosing network management tools should start with a hardware and software inventory. It’s ironic that gathering such information is usually the job of a network management product, but an initial inventory is important to verify heterogeneous support.

Short of performing a manual inventory, there are some open source, freeware, or trail versions of products that can gather that information for you. Companies, such as Hemoco Software, Spiceworks Inc. and GFI Software, offer free or trial tools to gather that inventory information.

With an inventory in hand, it’s time for some research. Administrators must look at each available product and make sure that it supports their matrix of hardware and software, including any VMs. That can be one of the more difficult processes to accomplish.

Shop with flexibility in mind
Unified network management tools are usually very customizable, yet most use a client server approach to manage and monitor devices on a network. In other words, administrators tend to have a server that runs the management application and then they deploy sensors, clients, shims and Simple Network Management Protocol traps out to the devices on the network. The idea here is to have the most robust suite of those sensors and clients so that administrators can monitor and manage all of their network components.

Of course, that seems like a logical approach to finding the appropriate product, but watch out for details that vendors might not advertise. Some venders obscure what they can actually monitor. For example, a vendor may claim complete support for Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI), but fail to mention that their product can’t monitor particular WMI calls, such as CPU utilization or disk space–a fact you seem to find out after purchase. Due diligence is the order of the day here.

That said, there is still a robust ecosystem of tools out there to choose from, and luckily, most of the vendors offer trial versions that are fully functional for a period of time. That proves to be a great way to try before you buy, but carefully consider the process to uninstall the product after the trial period expires–some of the uninstallers out there are very messy.

Network management tool checklist
When considering network management tools, there a few key things to check for before signing on the dotted line:

How much does it cost? This should include costs for the primary product, sensors, device count and support.

  • What can it manage? Consider the number and type of devices (hardware, software and VMs). Also consider how any hardware/software restrictions will affect you in the future with technology refreshes and upgrades.
  • How does it scale? As you add hardware and VMs, will the product’s performance and stability hold up?
  • What does it require? Is it an appliance or does it install on a separate server? Do you need to buy a database? What is the footprint of agents and other elements on the various systems across your data center?
  • Can it be customized? Can you create your own sensors, monitors and shims?
  • What devices does it natively support and what add-ons might be needed?
  • Does it offer a single pane of glass view (a unified management console, with alerts)?
  • Does it offer roles-based administration? Can you control who does what?
  • Is there a comprehensive reporting for auditing, , troubleshooting and trending?
  • How hard is it to install and remove (especially if looking at a trial version)?
  • What is the upgrade policy? How much is software maintenance and support?
  • Does it offer automation (scripting, updating, patching, etc.)?

Taking those elements into account should narrow the field and help you select the best unified network management tool for your specific data center. Ultimately, the goal here is to make your job easier, while gaining awareness of the network.

About the author: Frank Ohlhorst is an award-winning technology journalist, professional speaker and IT business consultant with more than 25 years of experience in the technology arena. He has written for several leading technology and business publications, and was also executive technology editor at eWEEK and director at CRN Test Center.

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