Network management tools serve small business

Lowdown

What are they? Midrange network management software suites have a limited set of features for handling specific network management problems. In size and scope, they fall somewhere between the all-encompassing suites offered by BMC, Computer Associates, HP and IBM and the small, single-solution programs offered by niche vendors.

What are their benefits? They are turnkey, relatively inexpensive, out-of-the-box programs that are highly scalable and designed to integrate with other programs.

Any drawbacks? Midrange suites don't contain nearly as many features as enterprise network management suites.

When should I use a midrange suite? When you are managing a small or midsize network, or require some specific management modules for an enterprise suite. And when you are trying to save some money.

When shouldn't I use one? When an enterprise suite serves all your management requirements.

Must-know info? Midrange network management suites represent a growing trend for buyers looking for relatively inexpensive, highly scalable network management. They are a good deal for buyers who have analyzed their network problems thoroughly, and reviewed a large number of potential solutions with care.

Midrange suites are likely to be hot for the next year, but they will never entirely take the place of full-featured products for the enterprise such as Unicenter or OpenView.

Concepts to think about

Turnkey. The minisuites in the accompanying chart are turnkey, out-of-the box solutions that take hours, rather than months, to get up and running.

Return on investment. Buyers of midrange NMS suites are gaining good returns for each dollar invested in the software. Generally, they have begun to pay off within the same year of installation.

Total cost of ownership. Because the initial costs are relatively low, and the programs don't require weeks of staff training, midrange products are fairly inexpensive to install and maintain. Their overall flexibility also adds to their value.

Scalability. Modular designs make midrange network management products highly scalable. Users find it easy to move from managing small networks to larger ones because adding management modules is easy.

Integration. The new generation of midrange suites has been designed to integrate with other programs, including those of the Big Four.

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 expense 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 generally are able to deliver what they promise, but they are expensive to buy and maintain. In addition to initial outlays of up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, customers can expect to spend thousands more annually on maintenance fees, training programs and salaries for highly trained technicians to keep the programs running.

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

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

And within the past year or so, market demands have given rise to a variety of midrange network management products, such as Concord Communications' eHealth-Network, Heroix Corp.'s eQ Management Suite, Ipswitch Inc.'s WhatsUp Gold, Lucent Technologies' VitalSuite, Micromuse Inc.'s Netcool 3.5 and Tavve Software's eNMS 2.2 Suite.

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, if not all, the network management requirements of small to midsize organizations. But even very 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 offers a listing of some available network management programs. For more complete listings, you can check out 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 if you need it.

To get you started, I have sifted through more than 100 NMS software products, including the major framework suites, to come up with 20 midrange modularized suites that show the most promise for meeting the requirements of the largest number of users.

Each will give you a decent array of features that are reasonably priced in most cases. Their modules can be integrated into other programs, including other midrange suites or even the Big Four framework suites. And in some cases, they just might have all the features you need.

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 the 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.

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. At this point, check the specifications even more closely, and cut the list to one or two.

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 question is too dumb or outrageous to ask. It's your nickel. n

J.B. Miles of Honomu, Hawaii, writes about communications and computers. E-mail him at jbmiles@starband.net

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