Using A Framework To Ease Network Management

As networks grow larger and more complex, network managers can find it difficult to ensure that they can keep enterprise connections up. Vendors, such as Computer Associates International Inc., Islandia, N.Y.; Hewlett-Packard Co., Palo Alto, Calif., and IBM, have touted frameworks, which enable technicians to operate a variety of management applications from a central management console, as an aid.

These vendors have developed broad product suites that touch upon most of the tasks a network manager must complete. In addition, they feature open Application Programming Interfaces so third parties can hook their management applications into a central console.

Three years ago, Raley’s Inc., Sacramento, Calif. moved from a simple dial-up Wide Area Network to a packet based network supporting voice and data transmissions. Once the new network was in place, the company needed tools to monitor it. First, the grocery store chain tried IBM’s Tivoli but could not get it to work, moved to the Kinnetics network management appliance from Peregrine Systems Inc., Anaheim, Calif. but was not impressed with its features, and then installed Computer Associate’s Unicenter at the beginning of the year. “Having been burned a couple of times, we were a bit skeptical about Unicenter,” admitted Tom Jones, chief information officer at Raley’s.

In this case, those fears were unfounded. The grocer, which has 150 stores, replaced a handful of point products with Unicenter TNG Network Management Option, Unicenter TNG Remote Control Option, Unicenter TNG Asset Management Option, and Unicenter TNG Software Delivery Option.

While the frameworks have been available for several years, they have garnered only limited acceptance. “Framework vendors have been unable to deliver as much integration as customers desire,” noted John McConnell, president of McConnell & Associates Inc., a Boulder, Colo. market research firm.

Tools like Unicenter TNG do a good job of proving common functions with CA products, but the integration with other vendors’ products is usually not as tight. One problem is management products have few common design points. Suppliers have built their applications to perform specific tasks, such as count packets going through a router or transactions through a database, so the type of data collected can vary widely.

The differences can extend to how management applications store information in database management systems (DBMSs). One application may be optimized for an Oracle DBMS running on Unix while a second may rely on SQL Server with Microsoft Corp.’s Windows 2000 operating system.

Another reason is vendors have been slow to agree on standards to ease the movement of management information from one application to a second and instead tried to lock customers into the use of proprietary interfaces. Recently, there has been movement to Web-based standards promoted by the Desktop Management Task Force, but it is still in an early stage of evolution.

The result is today connecting different applications often requires a fair amount of custom programming work — a task that often falls on the user’s shoulders. And the customer’s challenges do not end once applications are linked. Each time a vendor issues a new release of its management software, the user has to make sure that all of the different modules are compatible with it, which means the frameworks require a fair amount of ongoing maintenance.

In the end, a company has to decide whether the benefits of simpler problem navigation outweigh the time required to maintain the framework. Companies with networks of less than 1,000 nodes can probably get away with point products. Firms with larger networks or companies where the network is key to the business may require them.

Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Mass. who specializes in technology issues.

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