Configuring a remedy

Increased automation features are all the rage in tech tools, but it appears that some of the most basic tasks like network configuration have been overlooked; attempts are only now beginning to be made to lessen the manual labour load.

According to a study conducted by Stamford, Ill.-based research firm META Group, network configuration management (NCM) has typically been a “vendor-centric, disorganized activity.” This has been attributed to the fact that NCM tools have traditionally been limited to hardware vendors like Cisco Systems, with its CiscoWorks offering, and Nortel Networks Corp.’s Optivity line.

Glenn O’Donnell, program director and author of the META study, explained that there is a large demand for tools that can not only manage configuration tasks in multi-vendor environments but also add a level of automation capabilities to take some of the burden off network engineers and managers.

“Instead of configuring the network on a device-by-device basis, we want to look at how we can do configurations across the board and treat the network as one autonomous unit,” O’Donnell said. “The big, absolute bottom line for this is enhanced automation. We are relying way too much on manual configuration. Number one, it is costly, and number two, it is highly error-prone.”

Human error accounts for a whopping one-third of all North American network outages, according to a Yankee Group report published last year. The report found that these errors are a direct result of lack of configuration control of the network’s routers, switches and firewalls.

Case in point: Microsoft Corp.’s Instant Messenger service experienced a five-hour outage last month after technicians incorrectly configured routers to upgrade the .Net Messenger service. According to a Microsoft statement, the routers were being installed to make the service more reliable.

According to O’Donnell, some new NCM products are beginning to address these issues. He explained that with the help of some smaller startups, NCM is “finally getting some good possibilities for automating some of these tasks,” making human-error less likely.

Intelliden Corporation is one such company focused on making software that automatically configures routers and LAN switches. The company offers two products within its flagship R-Series line: The R10 and R30, both of which offer a comprehensive graphical user interface (GUI), authentication, device management and wizards for change; both are compatible with Cisco and Juniper routers and Cisco LAN switches. The R30 also offers user programmable application program interfaces (APIs), resource management APIs and asset management features.

According to Intelliden, in order to move, manage and maintain all the data flowing across enterprise networks, corporations rely on highly paid network engineers to manually configure each device – thus adding increased complexity and cost. The company said that for every dollar spent on a router or a LAN switch, the enterprise spends up to eight times as much on support costs.

“The fact that millions of devices are still manually configured every day is amazing to us,” said Dale Hecht, president and CEO of Intelliden in Redmond, Wash. “What we have really done is try to transform the error-prone, manual, slow configuration process into an easy-to-use point-and-click solution. Users can control multiple configurations of multiple devices from multiple vendors and can do it from a single Web-based interface.”

British Telecom recently opted for the Intelliden R30 offering, and said the tool has helped the telco increase its operational efficiency while providing fast and reliable service provisioning for its customers.

Another relatively new kid on the block is Rendition Networks. Its TrueControl system, a cross-vendor configuration/device management tool, offers real-time reporting of changes made to routers and switches on a network. While the product does not offer automatic configuration capabilities, TrueControl identifies all changes made on the network, performs a backup of the changes via snapshots and sends out e-mail notifications to the appropriate technicians.

“You can think of it as mean time to repair: we are really trying to reduce that window,” explained James Ni, director of product management for Redmond, Wash.-based Rendition. “Instead of taking two hours to diagnose a problem, this tool saves [technicians] time.”

Still, META’s O’Donnell warned that while these products offer some much-needed help to network managers, they currently only offer part of the solution.

“Right now we are still in the early stages of all of this,” he said. “Looking at the solutions from the emerging vendors, while they all have some really good characteristics to them, they all have a lot of work to do to really reach the so-called ‘utopian’ vision. But if you take what they have to offer today, you are still going to be able to do a lot of automated configuration changes.”