Systems and network management platforms are key to controlling networks and the devices attached to them. Unfortunately, these platforms are typically expensive and require a small army of IT staff to install, putting systems and network management out of reach of all but the largest companies.
During the past couple of years, though, a group of companies known as management service providers (MSPs) has sprung up to offer small, midsize and, in some cases, large companies a variety of management services, including systems and network management, on a monthly subscription basis. So instead of paying a fortune for a software package and the salaries of the well-trained IT personnel required to run the software, enterprise customers can turn to an MSP and rent the software and expertise necessary to install and maintain it.
Some early MSP adopters say while it's too soon to measure the long-term impact of MSP services on their networks, MSPs are allowing them to be more proactive in solving problems and managing network devices, servers and workstations.
Daniel Cohen-Dumani, chief technology officer of On Campus Marketing, a US-based firm specialising in direct mail and endorsement programs targeted at college students, began using MSP Triactive to monitor his assets, help-desk functions and servers.
When Cohen-Dumani joined On Campus, which has 125 employees in three US sites, this year, the company was handling its asset management manually. Given that the company had about 110 workstations and 18 servers, a manual system wasn't practical, he says.
"One of my main concerns was to find out what systems and software we had," he says. Instead of trying to implement a systems management platform in-house, Cohen-Dumani turned to Triactive, an MSP that uses software from a variety of vendors, including Tivoli and BMC, to gather information on systems.
Triactive deployed a server at On Campus' main site with a VPN connection back to the MSP's network operations center (NOC). Triactive also installed microagents on On Campus' workstations and servers. Cohen-Dumani says the entire process took two weeks.
"With a limited staff like we had, it wouldn't have been possible to deploy in two months," he notes. He adds the price is reasonable -- about $US1000 per month.
The Triactive server collects data from the microagents installed on workstations and servers at all On Campus sites and sends the data back over the VPN to Triactive's NOC. Triactive customers are then able to view the data through an online portal.
Because of Triactive, Cohen-Dumani is now able to track the hardware and software installed on his network and monitor his servers' performance. He also uses Triactive to monitor help-desk information, something On Campus didn't do before.
"The help-desk service lets us track user requests," he says. "We can see where they are in the system and what's happened to them."
Cohen-Dumani plans to use Triactive to handle network monitoring once the MSP introduces the service. Currently On Campus performs network monitoring in-house. Overall, he's been pleasantly surprised by his experience with Triactive.
"This was my first outsourcing experience," he says. "In my old jobs I was never a big fan, but Triactive has changed my mind."
While Triactive may be taking over some tasks Cohen-Dumani would have performed, he's not concerned the service will replace him or his staff.
"It's added value to us," he says. "It will make our staff more efficient." Dave Wither, corporate telecommunications manager for Marconi Medical Systems, uses an MSP, SilverBack Technologies, for his network monitoring. Marconi manufactures medical imaging systems for healthcare providers.
Before Wither arrived at Marconi, which has 5000 employees spread across one main campus and 70 US sites, the company performed network management in-house, but only on the main site, Wither explains.
"When I came on, my goal was to identify Achilles' heels, and one was network management," he says. Despite the fact that Marconi had numerous branch sites, the company had no NOC to track its remote networks.
Wither decided it would be cheaper to outsource his network management than to build and staff his own NOC, so he approached IntelliNet, a local network operations firm. IntelliNet recommended a server from SilverBack.
The SilverBack server, which Wither says was installed in less than two hours, relies on a frame relay connection to report information to IntelliNet. IntelliNet uses the information to perform 24 x 7 monitoring on the Marconi network.
"All we needed to provide was a plug-in, an IP address and a list of IP addresses to be monitored," Wither says. "Now I have a level of control I've never had before as a network manager."
The SilverBack server monitors all of Marconi's connections -- WAN, LAN and remote access. The network includes 71 routers, 200 servers and 1800 mobile users.
Like Triactive, SilverBack allows customers to view their statistics through an online portal. Wither finds this feature particularly compelling.
"Because it has a URL, I can give sign-on to a variety of users and they can see what the network is doing in real time," he says. "Now there are no more fights about whether we're meeting [our internal service-level agreements]."
Wither says the SilverBack service allows him to deal with problems faster than he previously could.
"If I had a frame relay problem at two in the morning before, I didn't know about it until someone got into the office in the morning," he explains. "Now it's fixed before I get in."
Because of the 24 x 7 monitoring, Wither says the SilverBack/IntelliNet service is well worth the cost -- about $US7500 per month, $4,000 for SilverBack and $3500 for IntelliNet's service.
The only changes Wither would like to see to his MSP service are more features. Wither notes SilverBack will be adding systems management shortly, but adds he would like to see voice features included.
Unlike Wither and Cohen-Dumani, Roger Smith, director of IS for MSL, a US electronics manufacturing service company, came across his MSP, InteQ, almost by accident.
During the spring, MSL began a Hewlett-Packard OpenView implementation for its main site and four remote US sites. Smith brought aboard InteQ, an implementation firm that also happens to be an MSP, to help with the OpenView installation.
"I wanted us to have a successful implementation and didn't want it to suck up all our resources," he explains. "I'd heard some horror stories."
As OpenView was being rolled out, the remote sites came back with a report saying they required 24 x 7 network monitoring.
"We were working on a plan to define what the remote sites needed, and it was just a coincidence that InteQ was there," Smith says.
Once the implementation was complete, MSL hired InteQ to perform 24 x 7 monitoring for its 12 servers.
InteQ connected a T-1 line to MSL's OpenView server and ran the connection back into the MSP's data center. Because MSL owns OpenView, the company pays only for 24 x 7 monitoring.
"InteQ had proposed having us lease the software," Smith says, "but by that point we'd already bought it."
Smith keeps close track of how his MSP is performing and what it's doing for him. He holds weekly meetings with InteQ and also plans to conduct a semiannual management review, which will compare the cost of InteQ's service with the downtime InteQ has saved MSL. The service costs less than $10,000 per month.
While Smith is comfortable with the idea of remote network monitoring and management, he adds he probably wouldn't have gone with InteQ if it hadn't been close geographically.
"To me it was essential they be close," he says. "That's why we went with InteQ locally. The tech guys can just drive over."