Opting out isn’t always easy

When it comes to network management, it’s tempting to simply hand off operations to a managed network services provider.

Some sophisticated software and hardware products promise to improve service uptime, reduce maintenance costs and enhance security. Yet enterprises are increasingly leaning toward managed network services for systems maintenance, according to a recent report by Gartner Inc.

Companies must be vigilant, however, of vendors that try to sell them managed services “solutions,” especially for new technologies such as multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) and voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), says Ted Chamberlin, a Gartner principal analyst and co-author of the report.

Convergence and VoIP are big buzzwords right now. But at the end of the day an IP network remains nothing more than a transport mechanism. “And it’s hard to differentiate it,” he says. “There are going to be services that will be commoditized.”

Managed services offer the carrier a means to achieve revenues that push between 25 per cent and 40 per cent, says Chamberlin. “It’s the cornerstone to a carrier’s strategy. If they’re not providing managed services, they’ve got a business plan with a big gaping hole.”

Don’t be bullied

Gartner cautions strongly against any contractual agreement with a vendor before enterprises have studied the pros and cons of managed services. The Stamford, Conn.-based research firm says organizations should not allow vendors to pressure them into taking one of these services and urges enterprises to shop around.

“We’re seeing a lot more people being open to having their networks externally managed than before.” says Chamberlin. “There are so many different slices, so many management services models, that it definitely depends on what the carriers offer and what IT outsourcers offer.”

Options extend beyond having to choose between sophisticated do-it-yourself products, such as HP OpenView, IBM Tivoli or CA Unicenter, and managed services from the carrier network provider.

“Most solutions are either too costly, too hard to deploy, simply under-powered, or all three,” according to Dennis Drogseth, a vice-president at Enterprise Management Associates Inc. in Boulder, Colo.

Drogseth says appliances such as Raritan’s CommandCenter NOC (network operations centre) can help systems administrators without burying them in complexity and non-relevant detail.

Somerset, N.J.-based Raritan Computer Inc. recently unveiled its CommandCenter NOC 2500 box, with enterprise network management features such as traffic analysis, vulnerability scanning, intrusion detection, asset management and reporting functionality.

Agnostic guardian

Gartner’s Chamberlin says companies may want to look at a network-independent services provider, as a viable alternative to a carrier’s managed services.

NEC Unified Solutions Inc., for example, last month announced Secure Remote Management and Threat Management Services: two new offerings that aim to enhance network performance and availability.

Chamberlin says NEC, which has a PBX and integration business but doesn’t own a network, can go in as an agnostic, carrier-neutral services provider. “They’re not trying to sell you the network, and they’re not going to try to pull the wool over your eyes and say, hey, everything’s good. As a third-party, independent provider, NEC can sell to someone who has a network from AT&T or Bell Canada, for example, and tell you — without playing favourites — how your network is running.”

Chamberlin believes that carriers are indeed making the network easier to deal with. “They’re actually showing their clients they don’t need to run a lot of this mess. They’ll take it on for them.”

The Gartner report says managed network services providers can bring proven methodologies and best practices, and they can more easily afford the high-end systems administration tools.

NEC uses a number of tools to complete its hybrid remote monitoring service, according to Llewellyn Derry, director of security solutions for the Irving, Tex.-based company. Among these are NetIQ for application monitoring, Voyence for configuration change and EMC Smarts for root-cause analysis.

Digging deeper

Companies that use a carrier often don’t feel the managed services are sufficient, so they’ll install their own network monitoring tools from Visual Networks (Fluke), for example, or products such as HP OpenView, says Chamberlin.

The carrier offerings are not superficial, he says, but they don’t go into the application layer. “Depending on how much intelligence, support and information you want, that’s when some of these other tools on top make sense.”

A lot of these tools — from the likes of NetIQ, Fluke, Raritan and Compuware — go deeper, he says, through the network and into the application layer, where they open up packets for closer inspection.

Chamberlin says some companies just have very finite, aggressive requirements for network and systems management. “Some of them tend to overdo things, while others will just take whatever’s given to them by the carriers.”

Gartner stresses that managed services do not provide a magical solution to network maintenance and change management. Rather, it’s a shift in responsibility, from network operations to vendor management. The report offers key questions to ponder before an enterprise hands off the day-to-day administration of its network.

Among the main reasons enterprise companies are moving their IT teams away from network operations is to focus more on core business activities. “It’s blocking and tackling,” says Chamberlin. “You shouldn’t be doing the basic stuff. You should be freeing up your talented engineers and application guys to be running your business.”

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