Clear Vision: The network management nirvana

In theory, network traffic management software should withstand just about any downturn in the economy. In times of booming sales, IT budgets expand and more dollars are spent on expanding an organization’s IT infrastructure. However, in times of lower economic activity (like the current one we’re hoping we’re seeing the tail end of), IT budgets shrink and network administrators are told to do more with less.

Doing more with less is what network traffic management tools are all about. While the software can be pricey (depending on the size and complexity of a network), its aim is to ensure that you are getting the best out of what infrastructure you have got. And while there is much rhetoric as to what makes up a good network management tool, the end goal is always the same – to give an administrator a single and accurate view of the health of the network and everything it carries.

Ask Yossi Vardi, director of strategic alliances for Radware Australia Pty Ltd., about the need for network management tools and he will tell you the tools are not intended to solve technological problems. The inherent technological problem in any network is a lack of bandwidth or capacity.

Instead, Vardi suggests the need for management tools stems from the demand to solve a business problem. During the rush to get Web-enabled, organizations invested a great deal of resources into infrastructure. Vardi believes that the result was a great amount of wasted resources, as most networks see one box bearing all the strain of traffic while others sit unemployed.

“For example, there are some companies that have two firewalls,” he explains. “One is active, and one is used for back-up. Why not have both active? The company has spent capital and is not seeing the return.”

In what marketing managers are referring to as the “enlightened post dot-com economy”, it is easy to see why the financial director is unlikely to see the value in spending any more capital on infrastructure. According to Vardi, unless the plan is foolproof, the bean counters know it isn’t easy to gain any additional revenues through implementing technology – which only works for them when it is driving down costs. “The mistake that keeps being made is that IT departments are adding extra boxes to a network, yet they are not managing the network.”

“Without the right management tool you cannot predict what is going to happen in terms of capacity,” agrees Niclas Forsvall, regional director for InfoVista Australia and New Zealand. “You will either be over-utilizing or under-utilizing your infrastructure.”

Sophisticated tools

Network traffic management tools have been around for many years and have evolved into sophisticated tools. Take the 14-year history of Hewlett-Packard Co.’s OpenView product as an example. While it was originally designed to be purely a network traffic tool, it moved to managing servers in distributed computing environments, and has reached a point where now it manages the availability of databases and applications. In recent years network management tools have evolved to such an extent that individual packets are directed according to pre-determined business rules, such as what times a certain application is too busy to take more connections, or which customer should have preference in completing a transaction.

What is also quite obvious is that vendors who previously focused on network management tools are starting to realize the importance of application management, and application-centric software vendors are converging into the network management space. For example, BMC Software Inc., a company with a very application-centric view of infrastructure, recently acquired several companies that developed network traffic management tools. The logic behind this trend is that a business manager is not interested in whether it was the network or the application that failed when the end result is that they cannot deliver their service.

Yet, unfortunately, there is no such nirvana as an “end to end” solution for network management. Sal Fernando, technical architect for Veritas software, believes all solutions have gaps that require attention. For example, vendors like Veritas and Hewlett-Packard have found such a gap in the form of the Storage Area Network (SAN), which is often neglected in management tools. Fernando suggests that achieving a single consolidated view of an entire IT infrastructure requires the assistance of skilled systems integrators. Consequently, developing software based on open standards is vital to ensuring the tools will talk to each other.

Other vendors would argue that there are “complete solutions” available for network management, and warn against implementing several point solutions to achieve a single view of the infrastructure. Andrew Belger, national sales manager for Tivoli Systems Inc. software said organizations should avoid suffering “death by a thousand tools” when looking at a management strategy.

“Its not just about how much it costs for all the licenses, its how much it costs to train staff for the tools as well,” he said. “It is better to take a consistent, enterprise-wide view of your infrastructure.”

The latest and greatest network management tools provide a single comprehensive view of the whole stack. These tools manage the performance and availability of both the network and the applications. Such tools enable administrators to identify and solve issues faster, or even solve problems automatically.

The tools are getting so sophisticated, that leading network management software vendors would have you believe a network administrator can set up business rules, sit back and watch the software make intuitive, automated decisions based on the data feeding into it.

“The problem with a lot of management tools is you sit a box in a corner and it’s soon forgotten about,” said David White, systems engineering manager for Foundry Networks South-Asia.

“Many network management tools monitor problems, but don’t fix them,” said Tony Burke, general manager of Radware Australia. “Sometimes it is not enough for the system to just send a message to the administrator. You need tools that will make accurate, pro-active decisions.”

This automation is moving above and beyond load balancing between servers or filters that prioritize traffic according to its destination or protocol. Paul Muller, commercial sales manager for HP’s software division, said tools are becoming sophisticated enough to manage the network according to the value of the customer or partner trying to transact or transfer data onto your network.

Unresolved conflict

Now that the same tools are managing the performance and availability of applications as the network infrastructure, automation is becoming even more intelligent. F5 Networks Inc.’s Steve Kelly said management tools that are advanced enough to read application data could create intelligent, “self-healing” networks. Applications communicate with management tools according to when they are scheduled to be processing large amounts of data, or when the hardware they run on is nearing full capacity. “Your SAP software for example, can tell your network to limit connections, while it is busy processing important transactions,” he said. “It can ask the network to peer traffic off to another server until it has the capacity to take on more work.”

Network intelligence tools can stop problems before they occur. “It can handle all the tedious run-time issues,” said Kelly. However, like Vardi, Kelly admits there is a simple technological barrier for any network that no management tool can climb. “You can’t automate to the extent that you can create more capacity,” he said. “The laws of physics still apply – with any infrastructure you are going to reach a limit. But what you can do is measure trends in traffic volume and type. You can know when you will run out of server capacity and at what time.”

Even the best network management tool on the market cannot resolve the ongoing conflict between increases in volume of traffic on networks and the expense of continually scaling up to meet the extra demand. HP’s Muller acknowledges that all networks suffer problems and limitations. Recent versions of the OpenView product are now concentrating less on generating alarms when infrastructure breaks down, and more on managing the infrastructure, so more important issues are always solved first. “It is quite common on enterprise networks to have several problems at once,” he said. “Often, administrators are fixing problems in the wrong order.”

A conflict unresolved means dollars for the channel. Not only are resellers, systems integrators and other service providers able to profit from the on-sell of network traffic management software, opportunities are also presenting themselves for skilled channel partners to offer professional services or consulting, or even offer the software as a service.

“There is a huge opportunity out there with the outsourcing of an organization’s technology management,” said Tivoli’s Belger. “If you are skilled-up in the tools for application and network management, you are in a strong position to on-sell your services.”

Muller agrees. “A partner who can talk about management issues is more likely to succeed than a partner walking and talking about price-point.”