The next wave in network management

By Lynn Haber | Apr 1, 1999 | Print this Page
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The next wave in network management

Service-level management products should align network management to business requirements.

By Lynn Haber



Since Children's Hospital in Boston has long been considered one of the most prestigious facilities for children's healthcare in the nation, officials there have come to understand the need to identify tools to solve specific problems. And that goes for its IT officials as well.


AT A GLANCE:

The company:
Based in Boston, Children's Hospital is the largest pediatric medical center in the United States and is Harvard Medical School's primary pediatric teaching hospital. The hospital records approximately 18,000 inpatient admissions each year.

The problem:
To become more proactive in management and capacity planning for the network, which supports approximately 3,200 users and all hospital departments--including clinical and administrative--across a 35-mile radius.

The solution:
Using the Street Savvy Software, or S3 products, from NextPoint Networks, of Westford, Mass., as the baseline tool set to measure a variety of network metrics and better understand how the network is running.

The IT infrastructure:
The network infrastructure at Children's Hospital includes 4,500 IP devices that operate in a flat, switched, layer 2 environment. The facility runs 10/100 Ethernet to the desktops and has a switched FDDI backbone.


So when Jim Hutchinson, the manager of integrated communication and networking, needed help better managing the various aspects of the hospital's network last fall, he became an early adopter of service-level management (SLM) software. SLM broadens the definition of network management, as it's commonly known, from monitoring the network to monitoring the applications that run across the network.

"My philosophy about network management is to look for tools that solve specific problems without going with an enterprise network-management platform," says Hutchinson.

While still in its infancy, SLM may well represent the next wave in network management. Its purpose is to align network management with business requirements. So, rather than manage servers, hubs, routers, and switches, network administrators can monitor network performance, availability, and reliability as they affect the availability of critical end-user applications.

The need for monitoring application response time isn't new, and at some level, SLM tools aren't new either. In fact, today's SLM tools--while not identical--recall products that existed in the systems network architecture (SNA) world. In the past year or two, the introduction of and emphasis on SLM tools is new, only in so far as the tools have become available for distributed applications. These applications--in particular, e-commerce, intranet, extranets, supply-chain automation, and e-mail-are bombarding corporate networks. And the critical nature of these distributed applications has raised the stakes for network performance and accountability. At the same time, network infrastructure costs are rising and network managers are continually asked to justify the increased expenditures.

A new perception

Perhaps it's best to view SLM as a change in mind-set along the lines of customer service, where the network exists to provide a service for the business. "SLM is not so much about looking at the network as it is [about] looking at the business," says Elizabeth Rainge, a research manager at International Data Corp. (IDC), of Framingham, Mass.

In a 1998 joint study on SLM by Renaissance Worldwide Inc., of Newton, Mass., and McConnell Consulting Inc., of Boulder, Colo., industry researchers found that SLM implementations are in the visionary-early adopter phase and that IT departments are currently focusing on network availability management.

The study looks at 37 businesses responsible for managing more than 370,000 networked desktops in various vertical-market segments, and reveals four drivers that play a major role in shaping an organization's implementation plans. The most significant driver for SLM is increased network availability, chosen by 70% of the respondents. Network availability, according to John Morency, vice president of the IT consulting business at Renaissance Worldwide, is the critical state-of-the-art metric used for most users' organizations. The other most significant drivers are decreasing operational costs, supporting new network services, and requests from business units, selected by 52%, 48%, and 48%, respectively. (See chart, "What's driving people to use SLM?").


"This year, we expect that the most important metric for SLM will be service availability," says Morency, in Lincoln, Mass., noting that e-mail is considered a service, as is an ERP application, along with getting reliable and predictable Internet access. "Service availability is understanding the level of available support for an application and supporting components, such as servers, LAN infrastructure, and subnets such as a Frame Relay backbone," he says.

According to IDC's Rainge, the market for SLM software was $130 million in vendor revenue in 1998, an increase of more than 90% from 1997. Some of the 50-plus players who have emerged on the scene in the past 18 to 24 months include Compuware Corp., of Farmington Hills, Mich.; DeskTalk Systems Inc., of Torrance, Calif.; the InSoft product division of International Network Services, of Sunnyvale, Calif.; and Micromuse Inc., of San Francisco.

Industry observers say the three areas of functionality these and other SLM vendors tend to support are policy enforcement on the network, network problem identification in real-time (which allows network administrators to prioritize breakage by service), and performance monitoring and compliance reporting.

However, officials say SLM technology isn't multifunctional at this point and vendors tend to support only one particular area, although Morency believes in time, users can expect to see product consolidation with vendors trying to develop comprehensive network/SLM frameworks.

Diagnosing the network

At Children's Hospital, Hutchinson is responsible for overseeing voice, data, video, and multimedia across a 20-building campus ranging over 35 miles. This is no easy task. The hospital's network includes 4,500 IP devices that operate in a flat, switched, layer 2 environment; runs 10/100 Ethernet to the desktops; and has a switched FDDI backbone.

The value of SLM software in an environment architected for redundancy and resiliency was proved recently when the hospital experienced rapid growth in its operating room (OR) department. To help manage this growth, the network group added new clinical applications. It implemented an SLM tool in September, 1998 to quickly identify network traffic increases in the OR and to respond by giving the department more bandwidth and the fast performance it needs.

"With SLM we can look at the departments ahead of time to see if there's a need to add bandwidth to optimize application performance," says Hutchinson.

The network group also uses SLM tools to ensure departmental service-level agreements are met. Since the hospital operates as a nonprofit institution and there's no traditional charge-back between IT and the departments, fulfillment of these agreements is as important as monitoring and managing the network.


At one time, an e-mail outage at Refco took three to four hours to fix. Today, using the SLM tool, outage identification and resolution time has been cut by more than half. And that hits home with the Refco's users.


"The hospital's departments have a variety of network needs, and we have to justify our existence every day," says Hutchinson.

To that end, Hutchinson set out early last year to find a baseline tool set that would help his group measure a variety of network metrics and better understand how the network is running. In addition, this tool set would help Hutchinson and the network group become more proactive in the management of and capacity planning for the hospital's network.

The tool that met all of Hutchinson's criteria was the Street Savvy Software, or S3 products, from NextPoint Networks, of Westford, Mass. Both Web and Java based, the S3 products run on Windows NT. The tools aggregate data flow and create reports, which allow the network group to do historical analysis for budgeting and preplanning, Hutchinson says. Previously, the department obtained baseline network information manually, a process that entailed going from network connection to network connection. Before selecting NextPoint's tools Hutchinson reviewed products from Concord Communications, of Marlborough, Mass., and Ganymede Software Inc., of Morrisville, N.C.

Today, Hutchinson is finding the benefits of SLM tools are plentiful, and include the ability to proactively identify problems; the ability to uncover problems that were previously routinely missed using manual methods; the Web-based tools allows network administrators to dial in from off-site locations and monitor the network 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"My staff is more productive using SLM tools. We're not running around fighting fires, but rather, when we see a glaring issue we can schedule it into the workflow. We work more logically and professionally," says Hutchinson.


Looking for answers

For the IT department at Refco Group Ltd., SLM tools translate into network baselining, as well as providing answers to key issues such as service availability. "E-mail would come to a halt, and it would take hours before we'd find out about it, problem-solve, and get the service up and running again," explains William Quinlan, director of global communications, at the New York City-based futures and commodity firm.

Lessons learned about service-level management

  • Map a strategy before implementing SLM software, i.e., observe usage patterns and end-users' performance requirements.

  • Plan where SLM software will be deployed, addressing the most vocal users, mission-critical applications, and servers first.

  • Define service-level goals and objectives.

  • Define SLM metrics or data that need to be collected.

  • Define service-level objectives to reflect actual business processes.

  • Determine "normal" levels of performance before committing to service levels.
  • To combat such service-related problems affecting Refco's 2,000 business users in 22 worldwide offices, IT officials earlier this year implemented the Trinity suite of SLM products from Avesta Technologies Inc., also of New York City. This implementation was part of the company's complete network overhaul that got under way several years ago.

    Prior to rebuilding its network infrastructure from the cabling on up, Refco had a variety of network technologies; no standards; multiple e-mail systems; shared Ethernet hubs without any backup, security or monitoring; and scattered responsibility for keeping the network up and running, according to Quinlan, who recently left the company. When the firm changed its business model from a "do your own thing as long as it's profitable" model to a more structured business model, the technology to support it followed suit, says Quinlan.

    After rebuilding the LAN and WAN last fall, the IT department saw a reduction in its total communication costs by at least 20%, according to Quinlan, "but we had no tools in place yet to monitor the network," he says.

    The Avesta product came to Quinlan via word of mouth. Quinlan says he was impressed with Trinity's focus on service levels and the product's ability to not only manage outages, but to determine the impact at the individual user level. Trinity can also identify what's down in the network--even at the service levels--on the firm's 60-plus Windows NT servers, he says.

    Quinlan says NT services tend to lock up more than they should. Prior to implementing Trinity, for instance, Refco's IT department wasn't always aware that the server, while appearing to be up and running just fine, wasn't delivering services such as Microsoft Corp.'s Exchange, to users.

    While acknowledging Trinity is not yet a full-fledged network management tool, that's the direction Avesta plans to take the product, according to Quinlan, who has discussed Avesta's direction with company officials. Refco currently uses the Spectrum network-management software from Cabletron Systems Inc., of Rochester, N.Y., for statistical reporting on the network links.

    Refco officials view SLM as a tool to develop and maintain a relationship between users and technology. In an industry where the work mentality is about immediacy and being able to communicate with users about the nature of an IT problem--and when they can expect it to be resolved-this relationship is extremely valuable, Quinlan says.

    Prior to using Trinity, an e-mail outage at Refco took three to four hours to fix. Today, using the SLM tool, e-mail outage identification and resolution time at the company has been cut by more than half. And that, says Quinlan, hits home with the Refco's users.

    To serve business objectives

    SLM promotes the idea that the network is a resource that exists to serve business objectives. According to IDC's Rainge, today's SLM products are primarily monitoring tools that provide a network group with forward-looking information that's easy to understand. "These products take the technology aspects of the network and hide them and [they] look at general network trends," Rainge says. SLM tools leave the task of making any changes to the network up to network-management team members once they've read the SLM reports.

    Some SLM products available now

    Avesta Technologies Inc., New York, N.Y.
    Product: Trinity
    http://www.avesta.com

    Concord Communications Inc., Marlborough, Mass.
    Product: Network Health
    http://www.concord.com

    DeskTalk Systems Inc., Torrance, Calif.
    Product: Trend
    http://www.desktalk.com

    International Network Services (INS), InSoft product division, Sunnyvale, Calif.
    Product: VitalSuite
    http://www.ins-insoft.com

    Micromuse Inc., San Francisco, Calif.
    Product: Netcool
    http://www.micromuse.com

    NextPoint Networks, Westford, Mass.
    Product: Street Savvy Software, or S3
    http://www.nextpoint.com

    The trend at Tenneco was recently consolidated data centers. And Rich Shoup, a project manager at the $7 billion automobile and packaging company based in Greenwich, Conn., needed a way to manage them. So at the beginning of 1998 he went shopping for an SLM tool. "I wanted to be able to get a single view of the business system as a whole so that when a link somewhere went down, I knew what application was impacted," he says.

    Shoup believed an SLM tool would give him timely information he could use to inform business managers about the status of the network and critical applications, as well as a means to tie service levels to costs, since the company has plans to move to a charge-back system.

    He selected San Francisco-based Micromuse Inc.'s Netcool, which he saw demonstrated at an industry trade show. Shoup says he likes Netcool's ability to normalize events on disparate devices and divide them up by view. The network managers at Tenneco see about 5,000 network events a day. Using a Micromuse-provided gateway to Mountain View, Calif.-based Remedy Corp.'s help desk tools, the product automatically generates trouble tickets based on a pre-selected level of severity and sends them to the proper group for repair--an unwieldy task technicians used to have to perform manually.

    Netcool is now the only tool network managers at Tenneco use to monitor network events, down from several products that only monitored specific vendor devices, such as those from Bay Networks Inc., of Santa Clara, Calif., or Cisco Systems Inc., of San Jose, Calif., says Shoup. "We've cut down on the cost of training for technicians," he says, adding that Tenneco hopes to cut training costs by 25%.

    But the biggest benefit Tenneco IT officials have found using the SLM tool is a timely way to solve problems. "We can run reports by division, server name, anything we want," Shoup says.

    The bottom line on SLM

    At this point, companies buy SLM tools to improve network/application performance efficiencies. So, while most network managers aren't calculating a dollar return on investment for the SLM tools they purchase, they report seeing ROI in terms of efficiencies. For example, managers use SLM tools to avoid having to chase network problems that don't affect the business. In addition, historical reports on the network from SLM tools give network managers the ammunition they need to make informed recommendations for network purchases, which also has an impact on ROI, according to SLM users.

    The cost of implementing SLM products varies, with investments beginning at $30,000 and increasing to $100,000 and more, based on the size of the network and the scope of the implementation. At Refco, officials spent between $80,000 and $120,000 on SLM hardware, software and implementation. Tenneco's cost for the Micromuse product was approximately $250,000, which included Micromuse's Object Server with five probes, three gateways (one for Oracle/Remedy/SNMP each) and some reporting tools. The price also included full redundancy.

    Industry analysts recommend companies begin their journey with SLM products with the user community most vocal about application availability and performance, and then scale from there. "Companies can begin with SLM by supporting the most critical set of desktops to the most critical set of servers," says Renaissance Worldwide's Morency.

    So all indications point to SLM becoming a network-management requirement, given the business direction toward business-to-business communications and e-commerce as well as the pressure on IT to ensure application and information delivery across the network.

    "This is the correct direction for network-management tools--ones that help break down the barrier between IT and the community they serve," says Refco's Quinlan.

    Lynn Haber, based in Norwell, Mass., writes about information technology and related issues. She can be reached at lthaber@mediaone.net.