In situations where there’s a particular management need, so-called 'point solutions' will provide the required specialised functionality. A point solution could be used to perform a system audit, automate the rollout of a new application or simply discover how much network printing is costing.
Price is a key selling point: indeed, many point solutions are available virtually free, such as the management tools that now bundled with most server hardware. Ease of use is another plus, as there's only one tool to learn -- although some care is required as over time it’s easy to end up with a clutch of incompatible management tools, possibly from different vendors, each with its own requirements and ways of working. To avoid such as outcome, it’s worth looking for products that can share information and integrate into larger suites if required.
There has been a lot of consolidation in this market recently, with many of the smaller vendors acquired by larger rivals. There’s also a lot of overlap in functionality, making it difficult to distinguish between some point solutions and modular suite offerings.
SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol) network monitoring is a staple point solution, designed to map the network infrastructure and issue alerts when problems arise. HP is a market leader here, and its OpenView software is also used as a platform for larger integrated management suites ('Management frameworks'). For simpler SME-oriented products, consider vendors such as CastleRock, Ipswitch and SolarWinds. Open source products are also available, including OpenNMS.
HP's OpenView is a leader in the SNMP-based network monitoring market.
Hardware/software inventory tools are another common point solution,. Microsoft is a leading vendor here with its popular Systems Management Server 2003 package, which can also use inventory information to manage software distribution. However, SMS is a Windows-only solution tool while other products, such as Centennial Discovery, provide multi-platform support.
Unlike Microsoft's Systems Management Server, Centennial Discovery 2005 is an
inventory tool with multi-platform support.
Microsoft’s SMS 2003 is also a popular software distribution tool, but there are many others to choose from. Indeed, software distribution is typically a key component of many management suites with Altiris, again, having a module to provide this functionality as do others including LANDesk and Novell.
Other point solutions include Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM), which is used to monitor and manage Windows servers and applications; remote control utilities from companies such as NetSupport; and specialised printer management tools like those from Print Audit. Storage management solutions from EMC and others are also available, providing specialist security management tools along with backup and recovery products.
Print Audit supplies specialist printer management tools.
Management suites attempt to meet the majority of network and systems management needs in one integrated solution, with a single interface for all the tools involved. However, the range of tools provided and the level of integration can vary considerably, as do prices and suitability for use by smaller organisations.
Suites can be more expensive and complex to use than point solutions so the trend in recent years has been towards developing modular products. Customers then save by only buying the tools they need, yet still get the benefit of the single interface, information sharing and interoperability provided by the integrated suite approach.
Desktop management suites
A lot of suites concentrate on desktop management, providing tools for collecting inventory information, distributing patches and new software and remotely fixing user problems. LANDesk is a leading vendor in this market and its LANDesk Management Suite is a popular SME solution, as is PC-Duo Enterprise from Vector Networks.
Desktop management suites like LANDesk's provide a single interface to a variety
Interestingly, Microsoft is also seen as having a management suite, because although Systems Management Server 2003 is essentially a point solution, it can be extended to provide additional management functionality.
Systems management suites
Although there’s a lot of overlap, there is a distinct family of suites that go beyond the functionality of the desktop management products. Typically described as 'systems management' suites, these provide additional tools to monitor and manage servers and server applications, enforce security and manage the complete lifecycle of networked systems, for example.
Altiris is a key vendor in this space as it has OEM agreements with high-profile hardware vendors such as HP. IBM has its own IBM Director software, while LANDesk also has claims on this market. Heroix and NetIQ are also key players here, along with Novell, which recently enhanced its home grown ZENworks suite through the acquisition of specialist developer Tally Systems.
Altiris provides a systems management suite that handles the complete lifecycle of
networked systems; it also has OEM agreements with key server vendors like HP.
Modularity is a common theme, along with cross-platform support to manage Unix- and Linux-based systems as well as Windows platforms. Support for industry standards and protocols such as WBEM (Web-Based Enterprise Management) and CIM (Common Information Model) is an important considerations, as this allows for simpler deployment and better interoperability.
Traditionally viewed as complex high-end solutions for large enterprises, so-called 'management frameworks' have also begun to appear in SME-orientated guise.
The difference between these framework products and management suites isn’t always clear, but frameworks generally stand out by virtue of their extensibility. Whereas point solutions and management suites deliver largely fixed functionality, management frameworks can be configured to perform all kind of tasks, using modules provided both by the original vendor and by third-party developers. Moreover, they’re not limited to simply managing the IT infrastructure, but can be extended with modules to manage a range of more complex business processes.
Vendors and features
Key framework providers include BMC with BMC Performance Manager (previously BMC PATROL); Computer Associates with the popular Unicenter platform, HP with OpenView and IBM with its Tivoli product line.
Common features across these platforms include support for a wide range of hardware and software environments, such as minicomputer and mainframe systems, as well as industry-standard implementations of Unix, Linux and Windows. Support for industry standards is another common feature, with either single-agent or sometimes agent-less delivery of the supported features.
Management frameworks like IBM's Tivoli can be configured to carry out a wide
range of tasks, often using third-party modules in addition to native ones.
As with the management suites, the frameworks can all deliver basic network and systems management functionality, including network monitoring, inventory and software distribution, patch management, remote control, helpdesk and so on. There are also modules to manage a wide range of applications, storage resources, system services, backup and recovery, and more.
Framework-based products also lead the way when it comes to monitoring and enforcing regulatory compliance and implementing best-practice standards like those defined in the Office of Government Commerce's IT Infrastructure library (ITIL).
Extensibility is a big plus with frameworks, but it can also be drawback with a huge number of products available from an equally huge number of suppliers. The framework vendors all encourage the development of third-party solutions, and advice on what to buy is therefore essential -- especially for smaller companies. In addition, deployment is best handled by specialists trained in the products concerned.
Note also that although attempts have been made to produce packaged framework products for the SME market, these tend to deliver little more than cheaper management suites.
Network security is a continuing concern, and will always be an essential part of any systems management strategy. Unfortunately, deciding what to use is far from easy, with numerous tools available to protect networks and their users -- from firewalls and VPN servers through to software to protect against viruses, filter out spam and so on. Each will have its own management interface, and these can’t always be integrated into wider management products. Similarly, although some suites boast security management what you get is often vendor- or product-specific.
SMEs will find that the best-of-breed solutions from security specialists such as Check Point, ISS, McAfee, NetIQ, SmoothWall, Symantec and others are the best option -- particularly where the vendor offers tools to handle more than one aspect of security. Look also for policy-based management with rules-based policies that can be applied to multiple security tools, so you don't have to configure and manage each firewall, virus scanner and so on individually.
'Best-of-breed' solutions from specialist vendors such as Check Point should prove
the best security option for SMEs.
Access and identity management is another key concern. The facilities provided by operating system vendors only go so far, and additional tools are required to manage access to applications, networked storage and other resources -- especially on large multi-platform networks. Most of the big-name vendors, such as Altiris, IBM, Computer Associates, HP, Symantec and Novell have products to do this, many of which are integrated into large security suites. Similarly, on larger networks, look for security management tools that can be integrated into frameworks such as CA Unicenter, IBM Tivoli and HP OpenView.
The need to administer the rollout of security patches and other software updates has led to the development of a new category of patch management tools. Functionality and platform support varies but, in essence, they all retrieve patches issued by vendors and allow them to be tested for local compatibility before being distributed and applied to systems on the customer network.
For Windows users, Microsoft has a free product called Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) that can handle both Windows and Office updates. Similar solutions are also available from Sun and open-source vendors such as Red Hat and Novell. However, these are all very specific, and for wider cross-platform patch management of both operating systems and application software you should look at products from companies such as BigFix, Ecora and PatchLink.
Patch management specialists like PatchLink provide cross-platform OS and
As companies rely more and more on e-business applications, it becomes increasingly important to monitor Web application performance and address potential bottlenecks before they become a problem. A number of specialist tools are available to do just that, providing both overall application performance metrics and the ability to monitor critical components such as Web and database servers, Internet backbones and so on, to better pinpoint problem areas.
Service-based delivery is common: Keynote, for example, can deliver performance metrics gathered via a network of monitoring stations around the world. Such solutions enable performance to be monitored from a customer perspective and are a good choice for smaller businesses looking for an on-demand solution with minimal deployment costs. They can, however, be limited when it comes to nailing down actual problems and aren’t always easy to integrate into wider systems management strategies.
Some information can be extracted by hosted solutions from server and application logs, but local software will be needed for complete end-to-end performance management. This can take the form of monitoring agents reporting back to either hosted management stations or locally deployed management servers. Leading vendors include Mercury Interactive, WebTrends and Quest Software, all of which have extensive product ranges offering cross-platform compatibility and agents to work with a wide variety of applications.
Agent-based performance monitoring software such as WebTrends can work with
a range of platforms and applications.
Note that these tools can also be used to help test and identify performance problems before applications are deployed. Specialist test tools are also available, such as those from Empirix, KeyLabs and OpenDemand.
The more generalised management suites often also include performance monitoring and management tools. However, these tend to target individual servers and other infrastructure components, and have limited facilities to collate and consolidate captured performance data. Point solutions, such as Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM), can be used to consolidate information from multiple servers, but platform support is often limited and integration with other management tools can be an issue.
Higher up the scale, performance monitoring and management tools are available for HP OpenView, IBM Tivoli, CA Unicenter and other management frameworks. Aimed at the larger enterprise, these products also often target individual servers and applications, although wider performance management products are on offer, both from the framework vendors themselves and specialist third-party developers.
More properly referred to as IT Service Management (ITSM) applications, helpdesks are an essential component of any systems management solution. At their most basic they provide the ability to log and track user support calls (often referred to as problem or job tickets). Typically, these programs have the ability to assign tickets to particular operators, prioritise and escalate problems, and generate management reports and statistics. However, helpdesk solutions can do a lot more.
Links into phone and email systems, for example, are now commonplace, as is integration with other systems management tools and utilities. Indeed, the more integration the better; other monitoring and management tools can then alert support staff automatically when problems arise. Support operators can also use integrated inventory tools to retrieve configuration details for the desktops and servers they’re dealing with, and use software distribution tools to fix problems and apply patches. Access to integrated remote control tools is a useful addition, not only to help fix user problems but also to manage servers and applications remotely.
Recently there’s been a trend towards Web-based helpdesk tools, with browser interfaces rather than custom management consoles. Support for mobile devices and wireless infrastructure is also on the increase, along with conformity with ITIL best practices.
Point or suite?
Helpdesk applications can be implemented as specialised point solutions or as part of wider management suites and frameworks. However, there’s a lot of overlap between the different models, with the point vendors widening the scope of their products and suite vendors buying in helpdesk functionality. Long-time market leader Remedy, for example, is now a part of BMC, while specialist helpdesk vendor Richmond Systems and others have broadened their portfolios with inventory and other management tools.
Helpdesk specialist Richmond Systems now offers inventory and asset
management, remote control and security functionality.
Enterprise helpdesk solutions can be expensive and complex to deploy, but there are plenty of affordable SME-oriented products available, both standalone and as part of reasonably priced management suites. A Web-based helpdesk module, for example, can be had for Vector Networks' PC-Duo Enterprise suite, while the NetSupport DNA Helpdesk application can be combined with either a complementary inventory tool or implemented as part of the complete NetSupport DNA management suite.
NetSupport DNA Helpdesk can be deployed along with an inventory tool or as part
of the wider NetSupport DNA management suite.
Elsewhere Altiris recently released a new Web-based helpdesk application that can be integrated into its popular management suite, and there are many helpdesk applications for use with other management suites and frameworks.
Finally it’s worth noting that, like other systems management tools, helpdesks can also be outsourced. This can either cover just the software -- which can be hosted remotely -- or the complete operation, including personnel.