Tools that take service to the next level

Sure, browser-based tools for network management make remote service more cost-effective. But they also help customers understand their infrastructure better -- a selling point with interesting implications.

Remember how long 28.8Kbps modems sat on the shelves before people stopped buying 14.4Kbps modems? Then 56Kbps hit the market, and suddenly you couldn't give away a 28.8Kbps. Where did the usual customer objections go, such as "we'll let the dust settle", or "will we really get the speed?".

Who knows? But you're selling 56Kbps today, and that's that. There was such an instant switch, you'd think Oprah was telling IT managers to buy the things.

The same velocity of change can be seen with network management tools. Remote network management capability has been around for years. Although it offers great functionality and nifty benefits, many customers told integrators "thanks, but no thanks" because of security worries, and because the technology was arcane and proprietary.

So companies slowly let their help desks have remote-control device access, while many held back on advanced capabilities like RMON. Then remote management tools based on Web tech- nology began appearing in late 1996, and today they're being adopted by corporate IT departments with a warmth and affection rivalling that for cyberpets.

Web-based tools have transformed network management seemingly overnight, and vendors everywhere want to catch the wave: management framework and platform providers like Computer Associates, Cabletron, IBM Tivoli, and Hewlett-Packard; infrastructure vendors like 3Com, Bay Networks, and Cisco; PC makers like Compaq; and remote access vendors like Shiva. Just about any device or application developer you can think of now offers Web-based management, or will soon.

Cost-effective service delivery

Web standards have removed most of the remaining resistance to remote management. Yes, there's caution about how far to push the browser interface -- enterprise customers in particular aren't ready to discard their management consoles in favour of a desktop browser. But it seems to be only a matter of time.

"We think Web-based management tools are great!" declares Diane Aufderhar, IT planner for USAA Property and Casualty Insurance. This customer sees the same advantage recognised by many integrators: technicians can access the tools from a desktop via the Web, making support much more cost-effective.

USAA is currently involved in a major upgrade of its network infrastructure, and the management architecture is a key aspect of the transformation. For platform management, USAA is using IBM Tivoli NetView and Cisco Resource Manager, both of which were recently Web-enabled. The browser interface in NetView version 5.0 from Tivoli Systems, an IBM company, is being used at USAA to give real-time network-status information -- including monitoring, fault management, and fault isolation -- to support personnel, especially in remote offices. Cisco's Web-enabled Resource Manager inventories devices and software on the network.

Technicians can also manage downloads of Cisco's IOS (internetwork operating system) to routers and switches through the Web interface, and USAA plans to use it for device configuration as soon as Cisco ships that capability.

"We don't anticipate the Web interface replacing our NetView consoles," Aufderhar noted. Nevertheless, Web-based remote management tools offer substantial benefits to both users and integrators.

"Consoles are fine if all you care about is managing hubs and routers," countered Richard Villars, director of network architectures and management at market research firm IDC. But many services offered today by integrators -- such as desktop configuration and diagnosing server problems -- are more cost-effectively delivered remotely. "Web-based tools are ideal for that," said Villars.

Vendors, too, benefit from lower development costs. A browser interface eliminates the need to write half-a-dozen operating-system-specific interfaces for various flavours of server and desktop environments. A Web interface provides immediate and sufficient access to management functionality through key operating systems, plus the myriad other device interfaces in the market.

Pressure to standardise remote management interfaces is coming from unanticipated sources, too. Cisco, for instance, is re-engineering its entire line of management applications.

Onboard now

After acquiring many new companies, Cisco was saddled with a collection of stovepipe management tools for the acquired products, along with those for numerous in-house applications.

Because the products weren't integrated, network managers were forced to load and use each product separately.

"We designed the Common Management Framework to provide a single access point to all of our management apps," said Bill Erdman, product line manager for campus management at Cisco. The company is using Internet technology to make its entire suite of management applications accessible via the Web.

Another vendor investing heavily in Web-enabled remote management is Computer Associates in the US. The common Windows NT-based interface for Computer Associates' Unicenter TNG management framework has been replaced by a Web interface.

Written in Java, the Web interface provides two-way functionality that supports all the management capabilities found in Unicenter TNG, such as the ability to change configurations and settings, as well as system monitoring.

What do integrators think of this trend? Exodus Communications (ECI), for one, couldn't be happier.

The US-based firm provides data centre services to large and midsize companies, and Unicenter's adoption of a Web interface meshes nicely with a service ECI calls Collaborative Enterprise Management.

ECI uses Unicenter TNG to manage its data centre, but clients may tap the Web interface to check on the health of the network. "Clients needn't become TNG experts to monitor their applications," explained Prabakar Sundarrajan, ECI's director of research and development.

This points to another trend spawned by the Web browser's legendary ease of use: the rise of non-technical users of network management information.

Concord makes a line of LAN/WAN analysis and reporting tools called Network Health that allows users to easily assess network characteristics, including baseline performance, bandwidth utilisation, network volume, traffic, and performance tendencies, via a Web Interface.

Since Concord retrofitted its product with a browser interface, the vendor has seen a sharp rise in business users accessing network-management information for their own tasks, such as budgeting, planning, and departmental management. They can even define the level of information desired, from an overview to a drill-down, as needed.

Cost-effective delivery

"You'd never catch these users at a management console," Conklin observed. The implications of a broadening role for remote-management tools are interesting indeed. Like many integrators, Compute Intensive has seized upon Web-based network management as a way to deliver remote services more cost-effectively.

Clearly, Web-based remote management is becoming more than just a cheaper way to deliver services. The technology is bringing business users closer to their underlying IT infrastructure -- and in the process may change who your target customers are for remote management products and services, as well as how you sell them.