Like an la carte menu, today's system management tools

System management tools are the glue that keeps an enterprise network
together. Whether for software distribution or capacity planning, these tools are what
systems administrators rely on to manage the computers on the network and often the
network itself.


The network has become such an integral part of the work environment that many system
management vendors have added some network management ability to their products. Network
management vendors have begun including system management tools in their packages as well.


When PC servers moved beyond simple file and print services to hosting mission-critical
applications, system management could no longer include just the server hardware; it had
to include the applications running on the server. Tasks such as managing applications
running across the network and assigning user rights also became an inextricable part of
system management.


Service management is the managing of mission-critical functions to maintain a defined
level of performance and availability. The step beyond system management, it combines
reporting and troubleshooting tools with performance monitoring tools. Service management
isn’t unusual in the mainframe world. But as PC servers run more and more transaction
software, the mainframe management paradigm must apply to PC servers to guarantee proper
service levels.


Many administrators shop around for the best system management suite for their needs,
and some use the software provided by their network server maker. Whichever route you
take, you must know what you want to accomplish. Otherwise, your system management
software can become a patchwork.


System management tools often reflect an organization’s management philosophy.
Some are structured and hierarchical; others are more open. Generally, the larger an
organization, the more structured the network. You don’t want to end up with system
management software that doesn’t fit the way your organization operates.


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Other concerns are which platforms you need to manage and what environment they operate
in.


Before you can make an informed decision, you must understand what the tools can do.
Although many system management tools emphasize clear, concise reporting, many are moving
toward event correlation, or the automated response to predetermined criteria.


In effect, system management suites are becoming expert systems, handling common tasks
and freeing personnel for more pressing needs.


The right system management tool, implemented correctly, can save a lot of time. The
wrong tool can cost you time and resources, drowning you in insignificant data.


According to data gathered in some industry studies, most system management rollouts
fail to achieve the desired return on investment and, not surprisingly, end with
dissatisfied users. Vendors tend to place the blame on users’ unreasonable
expectations; users complain of product complexity and vendors’ unfulfilled promises.


The entire industry faces a paradox: Never has system management been more important,
and never has it been so difficult to implement. There are no quick fixes, and the
problems will likely only get worse.


Although organizations are adopting new platforms, operating systems and apps,
they’re leaving in place much of the old infrastructure. That increases their
networks’ complexity. When offices within an organization choose incompatible
management software, new headaches pound both users and vendors.


Standardizing on a single set of management tools across an organization is often
difficult because the tools that are right for one office may not be for another. The
management needs of a finance office information technology manager are not necessarily
shared by the IT managers of other offices within the same organization.


The feature set in each system management suite is often unique. Sometimes gaps can be
filled by third-party utilities that work with a suite. For example, the PowerNet line of
power management software from American Power Conversion Corp. of West Kingston, R.I.,
interfaces with Tivoli from Tivoli Systems Inc., HP OpenView from Hewlett-Packard Co. and
CA Unicenter TNG from Computer Associates International Inc. It lifts power protection
management from the desktop to the enterprise level.


A suite may not have what you need, but a third-party vendor might. Look at what is on
your network, from uninterruptible power supplies to servers to hubs. Chances are, some of
your equipment and applications have reporting tools that work with one or more of the
system management suites.


If all management suites are unique, what should you look for? Start with some basic
functions that are central to system management:


As one federal manager put it in our network management Product Preference Survey [GCN,
Oct. 13, 1997, Page 20], he’s still looking for the Holy Grail in network management
software. It’s an easy view to sympathize with, as many management tools are too
proprietary, not well integrated or just too complicated.


Many users cite bugs or usability snags that are difficult to resolve because the tools
are so complex. The fact that the tools are used across an entire enterprise and many
platforms often increases users’ frustration.


No silver bullet exists for system management, but any number of management suites can
come close. The best thing to do is understand the limitations of the software and plan
accordingly. This is not an area that you can overresearch.


Many system management vendors focus on providing a complete software package rather
than individual products. Often, they’ll work closely with potential buyers, then
recommend a package.


If you know what you need, you can pull together a system management package yourself.
Implementing it, on the other hand, will take lots of resources, people and time.


Consider expandability. You’ll want assurance that as your network grows, you
won’t need to completely replace your existing tools. New computing platforms,
operating systems and network infrastructures can all render your management package
ineffective if it cannot adapt.


What about the management packages that often come with PC servers? Compaq Computer
Corp., Dell Computer Corp., IBM Corp. and others provide their own management software
with many of their products. The software usually has interfaces with third-party
enterprise system management software.


The tools are usually based on open standards such as the Desktop Management Interface,
but they’re often limited in their capabilities. Although they’re better than
nothing, deployment and management of computers within an enterprise environment is better
aided by more full-featured management software.


Features such as software distribution and backup and recovery are sometimes more
important than the ability to remotely diagnose interrupt request conflicts.


In using the wealth of data that a system management tool can bring you, the interface
gains importance.


When managing the system on a network supporting 200 people, an interface with icons is
easy to use. Using that same interface on a network with 2,000 people is cumbersome, and
it impedes effective management.


Computer Associates International Inc.’s Unicenter TNG is often cited for its
interfaces. The Unicenter TNG Framework product can display real-time views of networked
computers and devices in both 3-D and 2-D graphical displays. Flexibility in how data is
displayed should be a part of any system management package.


The interface of management tools running under Microsoft Windows NT may soon change.
The Microsoft Management Console (MMC) is a central point of administration, and although
it has no management functions of its own, it provides a framework for Microsoft Corp. and
third-party vendors to add management applications called Snap-Ins.


Microsoft is not positioning MMC as a replacement for its System Management Server but
will instead port the functions of SMS into MMC as Snap-Ins. Microsoft Snap-Ins and
Snap-Ins from other vendors will work with each other.


Depending on the Snap-Ins, MMC will also be able to pass information to enterprise
system management tools such as OpenView or Tivoli.


Another way to access your management information is by using a Web administration
tool. Best reserved for static management reports, Web administration gives you
cross-platform software but less management power.


Combining Web browsers and Java improves a Web interface for system management use, but
such a route is still problematic with some forms of Java. For now, Web interfaces are a
nice side dish, but don’t provide the sustenance of a dedicated system management
package.


Future system management suites will have more event correlation capabilities built in.
The day may come when you will manage only the serious network problems and your system
management tools will take care of the rest.


Until that day, system management is unavoidable. The software is difficult to deploy,
manage and use, and it can leave users with buyer’s remorse. But you can’t do
without it.


The best advice is to do lots of research and planning before you decide even which
system management tools you’ll need to buy. System management suites are powerful,
sometimes extremely invasive, and generally among the most complex software many of us
will ever deal with.


If system management suites were a drug, you’d be required to get a prescription
from a doctor. You wouldn’t take a medication without understanding what it was for
and what it did.


Don’t buy and deploy system management software without knowing what it will do
and what the possible side effects are. 


Jason Byrne, a senior editor for reviews at GCN, has managed networks in the public
and private sectors.


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