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Managing a network can be a breeze if everything runs completely as it should. But the reality is that networks act more like misbehaved children needing a lot of care and constant supervision.

Enter the godsend, aka the network management suite. These large platforms including the likes of Tivoli from IBM Corp., Computer Associates International Inc.’s UniCenter and Hewlett-Packard Co.’s OpenView cover every inch of your naughty network, offer detailed reports and recommend actions when something goes awry. However, as much as these large-scale suites try to help, for mid-size businesses, they may represent more harm than good.

Replete with hefty price tags of US$100,000 and up, what many enterprises may not understand is the type of commitment they are making when rolling out these platforms of epic proportions.

According to Dan McLean, director of outsourcing services for IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto, the general statement that OpenView, Tivoli and UniCenter are far too feature-rich for non-enterprise companies is true.

“They are not cheap and they are not easy to deploy,” McLean said. “It is easy to get caught up in ‘I want the biggest and the best,’ even though I may not even need a quarter of the function that is provided in these products.”

McLean said that the real issue companies face is assessing their management needs. Enterprise management products often perform more than network management: they offer systems management, applications management and to some degree, business processes management.

“They are designed to be environments upon which you can add all sorts of different tools,” he said. “It is easy to see why someone would buy into a product like HP OpenView. It is probably the most popular network management product out there in the sense that it is probably utilized as a network management environment more than anything else that is out there….(But with suites like OpenView) it probably is a question of people going out and buying a transport trailer when all they really need is a pick-up truck.”

For Larry Zimmerman, it was a case of too many features with OpenView. One of the first things Zimmerman did when he started as a network administrator for Clarian Health in Indianapolis was shut down three servers running HP OpenView Network Node Manager software. He then loaded one server with Concord Communications eHealth suite of network and performance management products.

“I liked the product because it was more user-friendly. With OpenView, I had a lot of problems getting the [management information bases] to work, and the software generated a lot of false alarms, “Zimmerman said. “Concord was pretty much out of the box. In about three to four days, (eHealth) was polling every device, receiving traps and giving me reports.”

But Concord isn’t the only vendor out there offering ease of use in its network management tools. Lucent Technologies has been offering its management portfolio called VitalSuite for almost eight years. With a starting price of US$53,000, roughly half the cost of one of the larger platforms, VitalSuite can act as complete solution or as point products in different areas of a network.

“VitalSuite is a set of products that are primarily (designed) for performance management and application management,” said Balaji Venkatramen, director of product management for VitalSuite products with Lucent in Murray Hill, N.J. “On the application side we have products that can monitor desktop applications and we can correlate that information to see what the particular application behaviour is at a particular load condition and give you an indication of transaction and response time. We have put together an end-to-end view of what is happening in the network.”

Nancy Vinkler, director of product marketing for Lucent, added that one area where VitalSuite out-performs some of the larger management platforms is in the installation of the product.

“(The large suites) are so laborious and complex to get set up in enterprise environments,” Vinkler said. “Ours is designed so you can buy it as a platform or in point solutions and can be up and running in a matter of hours as opposed to days.”

Still, McLean warned that with the hundreds of network management tools available on the market, businesses have to assess what they are trying to achieve and buy accordingly.

“Having a good understanding of what you are trying to accomplish in terms of managing and monitoring…is the best bet,” McLean said. “If you were so inclined you could go out and download all of these different shareware tools that would provide monitoring functions or auto-configuration functions for you. Where everybody would like to drive to in terms of management is to be utilizing some sort of system that has a lot of automated features and functions and allows them to identify problems quickly…or before they occur. How they get there is a whole different matter.”

With files from IDG News Service.

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