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Picking the right network management platform

Sure, you know what network management solutions are offered. The tough part is differentiation and integration of functions and features. We tell you what you should consider in making your way through the maze of products from Sun, HP, DEC, and IBM

By Rick Cook

January  1997
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Network management platforms are simultaneously becoming more open, more integrated, and more intelligent. But this only makes the job of selecting a network management system harder for managers. We help you understand the players, the differences, and how to determine which one is right for you.
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Picking a network management platform isn't getting any easier, but the good news is, it's harder to go wrong. The bad news, however, is that as platforms converge in feature sets, differentiating the platforms by how they implement these features is becoming more difficult. Your ultimate decision now includes not only what is offered, but how well it is implemented.

That's only one of the trends to be considered by a company purchasing a network management system today. Integration with third-party applications is becoming more important, network management is overlapping with systems management, and of course, Web-enabled network management software is sprouting like mushrooms after a spring rain.

Part of the problem is that the growing size, complexity, and heterogenity of corporate networks is raising the bar for network management systems. Products that only handle one company's hardware or one operating system are increasingly marginalized by those that handle multiple-vendor systems running more than one operating system.

Ultimately, network managers are demanding more from their software. They want it to be easier to use, offer more information, and expand their management capabilities, such as adding systems management and performance tuning.

To meet these demands, software companies are relying increasingly on new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, object-oriented databases, and partnering with third parties to cover the spectrum of required capabilities rather than trying to develop everything in house.

Differences are emphasis, not absolutes
Network management platform developers are taking different approaches to providing these capabilities. Sun Microsystems's Solstice products emphasize integrating network management and system management. Hewlett-Packard's OpenView family stresses universality through a large base of third-party software support. Cabletron emphasizes built-in knowledge base and ease of management.

Sun was an early adopter of network/system management as part of its drive to regain momentum in the network management system market; it calls its Solstice strategy "comprehensive enterprise management." Besides managing the network and doing the jobs normally associated with system management, it includes managing software revisions, running the help desk, managing storage devices and policies (such as hierarchical storage management) and telecommunications and disaster recovery management. Sun's plan is to combine all these functions under a single software umbrella with a consistent way of handling problems, including a consistent method of signaling the operator about whether the problem is in the network, a node, or the software.

As part of this strategy, Sun plans to include its Java Management API in the a release of its Solstice Enterprise Manager scheduled for the summer of 1997. The Java Management API was announced in the spring as a way to allow management programs, such as Solstice Enterprise Manager, to interoperate and exchange management information with applications that conform to the API's specifications. The next version of Enterprise Manager will also use the API to communicate with so-called "thin clients." So far, approximately 30 companies, including Cisco Systems and Legato Systems, have adopted the Java Management API.

There has been a lot of progress in network management software capabilities during the past year. Although the offerings still have individual strengths and weaknesses, the major platforms have developed a set of core competencies that fit with what most system administrators request most often. Today the differences are more in emphasis than in absolutes, as the basic feature set is almost identical as vendors add the final key components.

For managers who have to choose the software all this means that the selection process has become more intensive as well. Today the goal is to find the best match between the corporate network and the network management software. That involves deciding which features are necessary, which are desirable, and which are dispensable, and then carefully evaluating products to determine which are strongest in the most important areas.


How to select a platform
The first step in selecting network management platform is to understand your network and where it is going. You must know the kinds of devices and manufacturers your network uses, how the network is organized, and what corporate plans are for future growth. This is critical because selecting a network management system today usually involves finding the best fit between your system, the features you want, and your needs.

The next thing is to list network management features you must have, those you'd like to have, and those that are unimportant. This will give you a requirement list to work from. Generally the things on the "must-have" list are strengths you want to see in the software you choose. Remember, increasingly it's not a matter of can a network management system do a critical job, it's how well it can do it.

For example, almost all the major network management systems are Web-aware in some sense. However some, such as Solaris Enterprise Manager, have Web awareness much more tightly integrated than others, like Cabletron's Spectrum that is still working out its Web strategy. Spectrum has some Web awareness, but compared to systems like Solaris and IBM's NetView, it lags. If you've got to have broad Web support this can be important. OpenView is somewhere in between.

The Digital version of OpenView will significantly increase its Web awareness with new features in the next two or three months. Like a lot of important features on network management systems, this is an area where companies are scrambling frantically to meet developing customer demands.

The third critical element is the overall feature set of the basic platform, plus added features from third-party developers. That's important because most vendors today rely on third parties to complete their offerings with complementary, and often tightly integrated products.

Solaris Enterprise Manager and Cabletron's Spectrum, for example, allow conforming applications from third parties to integrate so tightly with their products that they appear seamless to the user. If the vendor is depending on one of these third-party packages to provide a feature which is critical to you, such as mainframe management in HP's OpenView, you will probably want to make sure it is easy to use through the network manager's interface.

Some products can be eliminated immediately because they can't handle your network at all. However, this is becoming progressively less common. IBM's NetView can't run on Solaris yet, but IBM's Tivoli division, which handles NetView, is due to release a version for Solaris by mid-year.

The real question is how the competing products handle your network, how they provide the features on your "must-have" list, and how they fit with the way your network works now and in the future. Almost everyone allows management from multiple consoles today, but they do it differently and that can have a big impact on how easy it is to manage portions of the network from remote offices, for instance, or on how much it costs.

Digital likes to claim that it's NetView is more modular than rival Hewlett-Packard's OpenView, and using NetView's mid-level manager at $2,000 a copy is more cost-effective than buying additional copies of OpenView's Network Node Manager at $15,000 a copy. That could be important if your network is expanding rapidly and you are planning to distribute network management. However, cost rarely is a company's only criteria.

This sort of evaluation can't be done from a spec sheet. You need to study the candidates on your short list carefully to pick the network management system that is the best fit for you.

But will it work with my software?
One complicating factor is that you have to consider not just the features of the network management system, but how well it works with your existing applications and management software. Because of the trend towards managing heterogeneous networks, most of the vendors rely on third-party products for at least some functions.

The number of third-party products a platform supports, and whether it supports the software on your system, can have a major influence on your choice of a network management system. HP's OpenView is probably the most broadly supported of the network management systems. IBM's NetView also has a broad base of third-party support.

So again, there is the question of how tightly these third-party products are integrated with the network management platforms. In some cases, the integration is very tight indeed. For example Cabletron Systems provides its partners with a toolkit and Application Programming Interface that allows them to hook directly into the knowledge base in Spectrum, Cabletron's, network management system.

"The result (of this tight integration) appears seamless to the customer," says Patricia Chrystycz, director of systems and network management marketing, at Cabletron.

Cabletron requires this high degree of integration because of the knowledge base and use of artificial intelligence to manage networks -- another growing trend. "It's really important to us that third parties integrate with our knowledge base because we believe it's a strategic advantage for us." As a result many of the partners in Cabletron's referral catalog are either completely integrated with the knowledge base or at least integrated to the alarm-and-event level.

Sun doesn't have a `smart people' monopoly
The need for tight third-party integration is succinctly summed up by Sun in a white paper describing its Solstice network management system: "Solstice has to be defined by one key fact: Most of the smart people in the world do not work at Sun."

This attitude isn't unique to Sun. In fact it is nearly a defining characteristic of modern network management systems. "For things we can't do we have to work through partners," says Andy Vanagunas, the OpenView program manager at Hewlett-Packard's network and system management division (Ft. Collins, CO). "For example, the whole area of mainframes is not necessarily a core competency, so we might partner with a company like Boole and Babbage and integrate various Boole and Babbage products so our customers can look at mainframe information."

The same goes for Digital. "Our strategy within the industry is to partner," says Susan Kaufman, the enterprise management marketing manager for Digital Equipment Corp., which markets IBM's NetView network management system. "To bring new technology to market faster and deliver on new capabilities we form partnerships or strategic alliances so we don't expend all our resources doing parallel work."

The NetView story is a little complicated. Until October 1996, Digital was co-developing NetView with the people at Tivoli, which took over responsibility for NetView after IBM bought the company. Digital has not transferred its NetView team to work under Tivoli management, and IBM is completely responsible for NetView, which Digital now re-sells under the name Polycenter Manager on NetView.

During the last few years, network management platforms grew from products running on one operating system and handling one or two manufacturers' lines of hardware to systems designed to provide a complete, end-to-end view of the network. Even giants like Sun, HP, and Digital have to budget their resources and look for partnerships to cover the areas that they don't handle directly.

Getting smarter and doing more
Cabletron's emphasis on Spectrum's knowledge base points out another important trend network management systems. As networks become more complex, the management software needs to become smarter to make sense out of it all. "If you have a router with 100 downstream devices and it goes bad on most systems you'll see 101 red things," Chrystycz says. "In Spectrum the operator will only see one red thing, the router." Spectrum `knows' that the router is probably responsible for the reported failures of the downstream devices and sets off its alarm accordingly.

"I'd rather have one event telling me the real problem than 20 events that are showing me symptoms of the problem," says Digital's Kaufman.

Of course this requires not just a high level of knowledge about the network, it also requires some reasoning capability in the network management system. More and more companies are adding this as a feature.

If, as Sun likes to say `the network is the computer,' the next logical step is to integrate managing the computer systems with managing the network. That is exactly what many network management system vendors are doing. Indeed, Sun defines Solstice as a `strategy for enterprise management' and includes products for system and network management in that product line.

This approach is proving very popular with customers because more and more companies are combining the network and system management functions. HP's Vanagunas says that for the last two years the company has polled its OpenView users group about network and system management coming together. "Over 65 percent say they have done it or will do it," he says. "Less than ten percent say they won't do it."

Ultimately the aim is what Chrystycz calls the global corporate control center. "We will be able to manage all the operations of the corporation," she says. "From the corporate network and computers down to building automation." Even trucks or shipping containers in transit would be tracked via satellite.

"For example," says Chrystycz, "if accounts payable becomes one more day overdue, the operator receives an alarm, and instead of dispatching a technician, they dispatch a business person to fix the business problem."

That is still quite futuristic. But increasingly you can expect your network management system to tie into your system management software so the two can work together.

Caught up in the Web
Within the past year, every major network management system has either become "Web-enabled" or will in the next few months. Typically, this means that anyone on the network with Web browser software (and the appropriate permissions) can view data from the network management system and make simple configuration changes.

Part of the excitement over the marriage of the Web and network management is the hype that surrounds Web-enabled anything these days. But hyperbole aside, there are solid benefits to a network management system with Web smarts.

"The immediate advantage is where data traditionally would have been accessed by someone in front of a Unix console, the [Web] browser gives you universal access to data," says Tim Riley director of product marketing for network management at Bay Networks, the Santa Clara, CA, maker of Optivity network manager.

"We have a network management specialist at Bay who developed a set of [Web-based] reporting tools," Riley says. "He's created a system where all the network trends are stored as .GIF (graphics) files and you can bring them up on a Web browser." This makes the network information much more widely accessible to the people who need it.

Web-enabled network managers help solve one of the bedeviling problems of network management -- distributing the management of the network. However, the solution isn't complete. "Web-enabled" typically means that the management software can provide information to anyone with a browser connected to the 'Net. Although many products have the ability to do simple network management tasks from a Web browser, most of them don't allow access to the full range of management tools that allow you actually to fix the problem remotely -- only to see it.

The result is something that is useful if a manager is checking out a problem away from the console and needs to log on to see the results of physical changes or make simple configuration adjustments, but it is not a replacement for a manager at a console.

Forget hiring an engineer, let's hire the whole company
The alternative to selecting a network management system is to select a network management company. In other words, to outsource all or part of the management task. In fact this is beginning to happen and at least some people see it as the next great leap forward in network management.

A number of companies are already offering network management services to businesses that want to outsource. Among them are subsidiaries of US West and Bell Atlantic, the Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs), AT&T, Digital Equipment, and Bay Networks.

"We see more network management moving to outsourcing over the next few years," says Ellen Carney, director and principal analyst for network integration and support services at Dataquest, a San Jose, CA, market research company. Given Web-enabled network managers capable of handling heterogeneous networks from distributed remote consoles, it is feasible to hire someone else to manage your network, she says.

For example, aside from managing its own network, arguably one of the largest in the world, Digital also is responsible for managing the entire Microsoft internal network.

Outsourcing offers a number of advantages for customers, Carney says. This includes reduced staffing (and the problem of finding expert network managers) and potentially lower costs. Outsourcing is the users' equivalent of the partnering among network management vendors. Like the vendors, customers who outsource decide to stick to their core competencies and farm out the rest of the IS job to specialists.

Whether this is actually a benefit is another matter. Outsourcing means giving up some control over network management and may interfere with integration of system management and other functions.

Still, Dataquest predicts that outsourcing of network monitoring and management will grow at more than 100 percent a year over the next four years, becoming a $750 million business by 1999.

For all the changes and all the advances, network management systems are not perfect. Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind in selecting a network management system is that the millennium isn't here yet. No one offers a product that can be all things to all networks. That means you have to weigh the competitors carefully to see who offers the best fit with your needs. You won't get absolutely everything you want, but increasingly, you can get most of it.

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About the author
Rick Cook ( got his start designing pages the old fashioned way, with paper and ink. Now he divides his time between writing about the Web, computers, and high technology and writing novels. Reach Rick at

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