Network management company Smarts promises IT managers the ability to manage networks across heterogeneous domains, as it launches a new product in a sector that is unsure whether the future is with service providers or end-users. Smarts has made a bid to position itself at a higher strategic level than established rivals such as Micromuse with the launch of "Smart Adapters" that import data from other vendors' products into its InCharge product, to provide management across heterogeneous domains. The struggle is taking place in the "service assurance" sector of the network management market, sometimes called "fault management", a sector which has become strategic to vendors and users, said Darren Prince, technical director of EMEA operations at Smarts. It has certainly seen a series of ever-more-ambitious promises (from vendors such as Riversoft, Micromuse, Concord and Hewlett-Packard) over the last few years. "Theoretically (Smart Adapters) should be very useful," said John Holden, research analyst at Butler Group, of the new feature. "I was impressed with their product InCharge 4.0," he added. "Its proactive approach to problem management using root cause analysis, its out-of-the box deployment, and its future proofing all appealed to me." Fault management requires a system that can sort the real problems from a storm of alerts produced by equipment in the network -- the basic problem being that when one component goes wrong it will produce a confusing burst of fault reports from every single device connected to it. "Upstream event suppression" uses a knowledge of the hierarchical structure of the network to weed out these secondary alerts but, as Prince pointed out: "networks are not hierarchical any more." Smarts' InCharge discovers the network structure in real time, according to Prince, and continually updates a matrix of faults and symptoms, to identify any fault from a pre-calculated fingerprint of symptoms. Rival products, he said, rely on building rules and assuming a static network. Importing data from those other products is easier with the vendor's co-operation, said Prince, but quite possible without it -- for instance in the case of Micromuse. "Our Micromuse adapter can do all Netcool Object Server does," he said. "We can leverage any installed base of Netcool probes -- including custom probes created to pass fault information to Netcool." Other products Prince hopes to displace from their central place include the recursively named Tivoli TEC (Tivoli Enterprise Console), HP OpenView, Netcool and Aprisma Spectrum, which spun out of Cabletron. Network management promises are only borne out over years by customers (sometimes), though Smarts' claim that it is already profitable sets it apart from some competitors. With a customer base equally divided between enterprise and service provider customers, Smarts has been insulated from the worst effects of the collapse of the service provider industry, said Prince: "A year, ago we would have expected to have 80 percent of our business with service providers by now -- the growth of the service provider sector seemed to have no upper limit." Despite the failure of this prediction, he said Smarts' service provider customers are still growing, and he expects their proportion of the business to continue to grow. "Service providers are spending millions of dollars on this. For them it is a core competency. At the enterprise it is also a core competency but it is not seen as the concern of senior executives." Smarts' presentation is self-consciously earnest, perhaps to make up for the excesses of glossy competitors during the dot-com frenzy. The company makes much of its heritage in early 1990s distributed computing endeavours that everyone else has forgotten (it was founded in 1993) and it has registered a series of trademarks (including Codebook Corellation, Authentic Problems, Instant Results Technology and Graphical Visualization) whose lack of frills looks suspiciously like self-deprecating humour. Smarts' first big break was creating the network management system for the ill-fated (but still just-about existing) Iridium satellite phone network. Prince points out that a rapidly changing network of satellites required an approach which discovers and deals with problems remotely. Current customers include BT Ignite and Cable and Wireless, and third parties include Cisco, which has built Smarts' tools into its CiscoWorks management product.