Management the draw in Vegas Networld+Interop

Dreamland capital Las Vegas seems a strange setting for networking’s most pragmatic and fundamental task to emerge as the centre-stage star during May’s NetWorld+Interop extravaganza of the latest and greatest in the world of connectivity.

For a refreshing change, style took a back seat to substance during this IS spring break, as the tools of network, systems and enterprise management overshadowed the more typical fare of feeds and speeds. Administration of the enterprise played out everywhere — from the keynote discussions by Sprint CEO William Esrey, Computer Associates CEO Charles Wang and Cisco chief technology officer Judy Estrin, to near countless tutorials on virtually every aspect of network administration imaginable, to a whole large section of the NetWorld+Interop show floor devoted to start-up management companies.

The “grunt work” of networking, as it were, could be seen in its entire form factor, running the full gamut from element management point solutions, to those complex and expensive enterprise environments designed for policy-enabled and proactive administration. And, for a surprising change, attendee traffic seemed to migrate towards the pavilions of those vendors who demonstrated practical solutions, rather than those who offered the best stress balls, t-shirts, floating pens and other novelty giveaways.

Heck, people weren’t clearing out by mid-afternoon to rush back to the casinos. Crowds continued to mull about within the confines of the Las Vegas Convention Center even after the trade-show floor had shutdown at 5 p.m. People at this spring’s event actually seemed to be looking for new ideas and solutions that would tame their enterprises rather than concentrating on desert sun tans and golf.

Sprint’s Esrey set the tone for what became an interesting and informative week by opening the show with the unveiling of his company’s Integrated On-Demand Network (ION) multiservice IP network, which includes a managed services component. In addition to being one of what will undoubtedly be many “pay-as-you-go” (pay only for the bandwidth used) multiservice IP offerings to be introduced, Sprint’s ION eliminates an entire layer of management around interoperability. ION is essentially a service that provides a single connection point for all communication services — voice and data — through an integrated hub that, according to Sprint, accepts all network protocols, converts the traffic to ATM and sends it across a WAN. Because it is ATM technology being used, users can assign classes of service to every type of traffic and protocol, Sprint says.

Esrey spoke of the need for companies to transcend the administration of networking technology, suggesting, of course, that companies would be well served to utilize the network management services of Sprint to address their day-to-day administration woes. However, he did make an excellent point in urging companies to move beyond their technology battles and focus on how real business value can be imparted through technology. It’s basically a message that suggests companies must remove the daily firefighting of network administration from the plates of IS staff so these specialists might focus on much more important strategic issues such as how can technology can make a business much more successful.

Cisco’s Judy Estrin followed up a day later with a keynote speech which trumpeted the need for more intelligent management in order to transition the Internet from being an interesting technology to a fundamental part of the IT revolution. She suggested that as the carrier world moves from circuit-switched to IP-based communications infrastructures, the management and reliability characteristics of circuit-switched telecom must move with it. Best practices in the Old World of telecom must remain, she said.

Without mentioning specific technologies or solutions, Estrin said what’s required in this networking evolution are intelligent user- and application-aware infrastructures. There must be operational automation enabled through policy and control servers, plus directory services that pool information about users and applications.

Of course, the show floor itself featured all types of management solutions. Pick a function and you’d have likely found a tool to address it — whether it was the ability to map out your entire enterprise and provide configuration from a Web browser, to automating a range of alerts and proactive measures when specified thresholds were exceeded, to the use of intelligent agent technology that offered the means to view and manipulate intricate elements of a network like never before.

Still, the self-healing and higher-level automated management function that has been promised for years hasn’t yet arrived, but there’s a sense that the innovation of network convergence may finally spur some meaningful development here. In discussing the matter with network hardware vendors and datacom management tool suppliers, there’s broad agreement that management in general needs to be stepped up a few notches.

A discussion with Nortel revealed the next evolution of network administration would see the higher-level management functions that currently exist in voice networks moved to packetized environments. It’s being prompted by the carrier side of the industry that must maintain the user-service-oriented approach in next-generation IP networks, which was created within their existing circuit-switched infrastructures. The need is rather immediate and the management innovation that will undoubtedly take place during the coming year should push the entire IT management industry to excel like never before.

Spring NetWorld+Interop 2000 could well top this year’s Las Vegas event for its focus on the practical rather than pretentious side of networking.

McLean is research manager, network support and integration services, for IDC (Canada) Ltd. in Toronto.