Network (Mis)Management

Organizations face a dilemma in keeping critical networking links running even as a tight economy pressures managers to reduce costly support staff

P> Almost every day, it seems government and commercial organizations move their mission-critical applications from expensive, proprietary mainframe platforms onto networks that offer cost savings and greater flexibility.


However, while this tendency to "rightsize" is proving a boon, it is not a panacea. Organizations face a dilemma in keeping these critical links running even as a tight economy pressures managers to reduce costly support staff. Factor in the increasingly high traffic volume and complexity brought on by the growing use of multimedia and the Internet, and the move to pinch costs can spell disaster.


"Networks and all of their corresponding equipment and devices have been growing exponentially, but the personnel needed to run them have not been increasing at the same rate," explained Patty Chrystycz, director of marketing for network and systems management at Cabletron Systems Inc., Rochester, N.H. "In fact, in many cases, staff levels are headed in the other direction, and it comes at a time when most organizations cannot afford for anything to happen to their networks."

In the recent past, automated software systems promised to take the labor intensity out of network management. But according to industry insiders, many organizations, trying to reduce staff, are already clamoring for more simplicity in products to manage networks, systems and data resources.

In response to these demands, traditional network management products have been joined by a slew of new offerings that fall under a new category known as "hot administration." This broad-based label includes any intelligent software product that recognizes network issues, such as bottlenecks or outages, and resolves those issues without requiring human intervention -- the modern version of what was once referred to as a "lights out" operation.

"Organizations that have rightsized their operations are recognizing that downsizing is not sufficient," said Kitty Cullen, vice president at BMC Software Inc.'s Bethesda, Md., office. "Having embraced heterogeneous client/server environments, organizations want the same bullet-proof reliability they are used to getting from homogenous mainframe solutions. However, it is no longer possible or economically viable to have systems administrators deployed at every location."

This local knowledge gap drives the demand for hot administration tools that automate management functions, according to Cullen.

"More than simply ensuring the health of the network, organizations are looking to manage their applications to optimize availability and performance," she said.

These application management tools work hand in hand with network and systems management products such as Palo Alto, Calif.-based Hewlett-Packard Co.'s OpenView, Maynard, Mass.-based Digital Equipment Corp.'s PolyCenter and Islandia, N.Y.-based Computer Associates International Inc.'s CA-Unicenter, to manage the health and availability of mission-critical applications.

These applications can range from database management systems from Oracle Corp., Redwood Shores, Calif.; Informix Software Inc., Menlo Park, Calif.; and Sybase Inc., Emeryville, Calif., to Cambridge, Mass.-based Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes groupware.

Two products that fall into the hot administration category are BMC Patrol and Cabletron's Spectrum Enterprise Manager.

BMC Patrol includes a console and intelligent application-specific Knowledge Modules, which sit on top of applications and feed back information on the performance and health of the application to the system administrator, who sits at a single console. Many different Knowledge Modules can be configured to feed into one console.

The Spectrum Enterprise Manager uses artificial intelligence to understand the relationship between different network and system components. If a router, for instance, breaks down, network managers generally receive warning signals from every element affected. Spectrum pinpoints the root cause of the crisis. Thus, the true source of the problem relays a single warning to the manager, who can promptly remedy the situation. In addition, a recently released add-on module to Spectrum called a Case-based Reasoning Tool not only determines the root causes of faults but helps managers resolve problems automatically through the use of case histories, deduction and logic.

"The secret to these hot administration network, system and application management products," said Cullen, "is to make the complexity associated with managing today's heterogeneous environments transparent to the end user and simple to the system administrator."

"Executives and managers want to be able to simply push a button and make the management of these resources work in an effective way," stated Brian Buck, director of business architecture for PLATINUM Technology Inc., Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.

"People at the top of organizations want to be able to specify higher-level policies like, 'This application is more important than that one,' or 'Make it so that if one link breaks, my entire business doesn't go down the tubes in the next day,'" Buck said.

"We think that 80 percent of the faults are relatively simple to automate responses to, and if all of a sudden you can clear away 80 percent of the calls to your help desk or 80 percent of the problems that occur to your network, then that will be extremely useful to an organization," he said.

Mike Buchko, general manager for the government systems group at The Santa Cruz Operation Inc., Santa Cruz, Calif., noted that the demand for automation in management tools is even having an effect on hardware manufacturers. "Hardware boards in Intel PCs are being designed with diagnostic firmware that can automatically pass health and performance information to the network management software," he said. Buchko expects this trend to hit the mainstream market by late summer.

"There's just a real cost issue involved in maintaining enough support staff to do diagnosis, so as more companies and more government agencies downsize, the first place they're looking at is help desks, support personnel and other areas that lend themselves to automation, " Buchko said.

The trend toward automation doesn't necessarily translate to the extinction of network and systems managers, industry watchers noted.

"The objective is to get to the point where you can run a network and the underlying system without having a very large, highly specialized, highly trained staff to manage it," Buck explained. "But that doesn't mean that these people will go without jobs. The absolute explosion in the size and complexity of networks means that those people will still be in incredible demand."

Network Management and Traffic Jams

The merging of data, voice and video already complicates networks and their management, but with videoconferencing, client/server platforms and Internet access becoming more mainstream, the pressure on communication links likely will remain an issue in the future.

"Every kind of traffic will be running over every kind of medium," said Brian Buck, director of business architecture for PLATINUM Technology Inc. "It's not just that you will have videoconferencing and data and everything else running over phone lines, you will have cable companies involved, videoconferencing-on-demand putting pressure on local area networks, and other types of complications. We do not actually have what I would consider a satisfactory kind of solution as yet in terms of managing networks that have those very different kinds of applications pulling large amounts of bandwidth out of that same network."

Many industry watchers believe the solution will reside less in technological developments than in policy initiatives that balance the demand for bandwidth. "Managers will have to determine rules that say, for example, 'You can't videoconference at such and such a bandwidth between these two locations from 1 to 5 p.m. because it will affect the results coming in from our stores,'" Buck explained. "Fundamentally, I would say, all of these new communication technologies and applications will make network management even more difficult and messier than it already is and harder to deal with exclusively at a lower level."

Kitty Cullen, vice president at BMC Software Inc., however, takes a contrary view, noting that the key to optimal management in the face of mounting complexities lies in a clear focus on managing applications within a cohesive enterprise umbrella structure.

Where to Get Standards Data

Acronyms for competing standards and related names plague the computer industry. But nowhere is this more the case than in the network management field. The major organizations that publish networking standards are the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the International Telephone and Telegraph Consultative Committee (CCITT) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). Requests for standards issued by these bodies can be sent to:

--ANSI, 1430 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10018, (212) 642-4932

--ISO, 1 Rue de Varembe, Case Postale 56, CH 1211 Geneva 20, Switzerland

--CCITT, 2 Rue de Varembe, CH 1211 Geneva 20, Switzerland

--IEEE Service Center, 445 Hoes Lane, P.O. Box 1331, Piscatway, N.J. 08855

For additional information: Leinwand, A., and Conroy, K.F., Network Management: A Practical Perspective, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1996.


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