Piece by piece

Modular suites expand the reach of network management

Recent changes in the structure of network management software could be a boon for buyers looking for better performance and prices.

Vendors are adopting modular software designs that make the programs more appealing to users who up to now might have been turned off by the cost or setup difficulties.

The focus of this guide is on scalable midrange products for small to midsize organizations.

Well-known enterprise network frameworks such as BMC Software Inc.'s Patrol Enterprise Manager, Computer Associates International Inc.'s Unicenter, Hewlett-Packard Co.'s OpenView and IBM Corp.'s Tivoli were built around the requirements of Fortune 500 companies and offer a full array of programs and services for organizations able to afford them.

These full-service programs are generally able to deliver what they promise, but they are expensive to buy and maintain.

By breaking down their products into modules that can be installed independently and even integrated with other vendors' products, the Big Four figure they can attract more users while maintaining a strong base of customers requiring a comprehensive approach to network management.

On this end

At the other end of the scale, vendors of small management toolkits and single-solution, or point, programs also are redeveloping and expanding their products into modularized minisuites.

And within the past year or so, market demands have given rise to
a variety of midrange network management products. They lack the full functionality of Unicenter or OpenView, but their growing popularity has helped put the squeeze on the Big Four to go modular.

To the direct benefit of users, midrange network management programs are relatively inexpensive and can be used right out of the box. Enterprises can use them to solve specific problems, and smaller organizations can afford to combine the modules of one or more vendors to handle different aspects of their growing networks.

By themselves, midrange suites can handle most or all of the network management requirements of small to midsize organizations.

But even large organizations using one of the Big Four framework systems can select modules from any of these smaller suites to round out their arsenal.

This guide doesn't attempt to provide a complete listing of available network management programs. For more complete listings, you can check the DMOZ Open Directory Project, at www.dmoz.org, or do a quick Web search using the term 'network management software' or other related terms.

But few if any general Web searches will give you listings of modularized midrange software'the main focus of this guide. To find them, you'll have to work the hard way'check out the listings program by program and download the specifications of the ones that interest you. Then, call the vendor for more information.

To get you started, I have sifted through more than 100 products to come up with a list of 20 midrange suites that show promise.

Each will give you an array of features, and the modules can be integrated into other programs, including other midrange suites or even the Big Four framework suites.

Feature-by-feature comparisons don't hold up with network management software suites, so you'll have to develop your own criteria.

Carefully read the overviews of each product downloaded from a vendor's Web site. Eliminate products with statements of objectives that don't closely match your own.

If a product looks like a match, review its set of features. These may or may not be available in modules, but in combination they will give you a clear idea of what the software is intended to do.

Check the specs

By the time you have read the specifications of 20 or 30 products, you should be able to whittle your master list down to about five products. At this point, check the specifications even more closely.

Among the questions'some obvious, some not'you should ask:
  • What areas does it monitor'applications, network devices, network usage?

  • What types of notification methods does it use'e-mail alerts, pagers, help desk gateway, Web interface, wireless alerts?

  • What types of reports are generated?

  • How many reports can be generated?

  • Is the architecture client-server, distributed or server-centric with distributed agents?

  • What types of console and server platforms are used?

  • What types of databases are used?

  • Are corrective actions automatic, manual or both?

  • What mapping tools are provided?

  • Is the management interface browser-based?

After you have asked these questions and others, you should have narrowed your list down to one or two contenders because you have eliminated the others.

Now it is time to talk to the vendors. Ask about bulk prices, license fees, warranty information and anything else you can think of. Get a copy of the software to test before you buy.

Remember, no questions are too dumb or outrageous to ask. It's your nickel.

J.B. Miles of Honolulu, Hawii, writes about communicaations and computers. E-mail him at jbmiles@starband.net.

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