Just managing

With the reliability and efficiency of IT becoming critical to the continuity of business and the satisfaction of the customer, even smaller enterprises are beginning to appreciate the value of systems management.

With the reliability and efficiency of IT becoming critical to the continuity of business and the satisfaction of the customer, even smaller enterprises are beginning to appreciate the value of systems management. Fixing server collapses or network bottlenecks as they happen is vital. And it's users – inside the company and among the online customer base -- that are driving much of this need, Stephen Bell finds.

Technology may be ever decreasing in price, but in indifferent business times there is also a growing awareness of the need to minimise total cost of ownership – to know and manage your IT assets for cost-effectiveness over the long term. This runs all the way from having the information to plan equipment turnover to cost-efficient licensing of software and smart distribution.

Security is becoming a bigger term in the systems management equation, with ever more ingenious viruses and worms, hacking attempts and denial of service attacks threatening to make big holes in business continuity – not to mention electronic espionage and simple theft of information.

The small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) wants to take advantage of this, but until recently, offerings in the systems management space have been daunting in their size and the way they were priced.

Computer Associates’ Andy Cooper acknowledges that CA-Unicenter, the market leader, has been until recently "monolithic" on both counts. (The company fights it out in the market with IBM's Tivoli and, to a lesser extent, HP and Sun.) The customer organisation got the rights to virtually every facet of systems management bundled in for a single price in the original Unicenter and the second major version, Unicenter TNG.

But for the last six months, with Unicenter 3, the company has enabled the product to be split into components, so the customer gets, and pays for, just what they need. If you’re a dot-com, your critical priority will be managing the web server, Cooper says. A smaller organisation may see network monitoring as the only crucial need. Larger businesses will want to monitor the performance of their database and applications servers.

Pricing can be as low as $100/month for one server, he says, though management of larger servers will naturally cost more.

Cooper acknowledges the concept has not achieved real traction among the SME community here yet, though he claims some interest has been expressed from that quarter. “We are now opening doors we couldn’t open before in the SME space,” he says – though at time of writing these had resulted in no firm sales to that market in New Zealand.

CA is about to launch a further incentive with the introduction of the Desktop Management suite. This provides management services through partners on an rental basis, so the user pays only for what is needed when it is needed – and for the “common services layer” which runs all modules. Bandwidth utilisation measurement may, for example, be taken just for long enough to diagnose and fix a network bottleneck. In periods of particular risk, such as when going live with a new development, management and monitoring may need to be temporarily very intensive.

DM has been released in the US, but will be rolled out in Europe before CA lets the Asia-Pacific region have it. Cooper could not give a date for its possible release here.

No shrink wrap

The SME typically just does not have the money to invest in sophisticated systems management, says Logical Networks marketing general manager David Tse. Where SMEs do take systems management products and services it is usually as part of a systems integration project, and the small-scale integrators would handle the task.

Systems management tools are not exactly an “out-of-the-box” item, and require considerable expertise on the part of the user or the vendor.

With the small user, that expertise is typically not there, and often, says David Parkinson of Eagle Technology, it’s not with the resellers who typically deal with SMEs either. There is “a degree of unsophistication” on both sides, he says.

A reseller who wants to push systems management – particularly to an audience that may not be ready – has to invest in building up skills, and many are not willing to do this for a small market where sales will be difficult.

“But I think the opportunity is there,” Parkinson says. The products and services and their configuration and user interface are becoming easier to use.

A more economical option is to outsource monitoring and management, says Parkinson. This generates some economies of scale for the supplier, but for the user, the solution may still be too expensive for the amount of gear and the small-scale services being protected. A company with only one server will probably decide it can get along with seat-of-the-pants management. And there are basic management tools available free or at low cost through the internet, he says.

Logical is seeing more demand for system management in the SME sector – a desire for more sophisticated monitoring, but take-up will always depend on price and the mission-criticality of the operation. If the operation is running something like web-retail, which needs to be up 24x7, then more functionality will be sought, Tse says. Logical has its own remote management service, Sentinel.

First priorities

Parkinson sees disk and memory usage monitoring and simple fault detection as likely to be an SME’s initial priorities. “In general, you talk to them about [systems management] and they nod their heads, but when it comes to looking at the budget it’s one of the first items they decide they can do without.”

However as a small operation begins to grow its business, it finds itself at the stage where the system has slowed down and there is not enough in the budget to upgrade the server or the network. Here systems management can step in and identify poorly performing elements and suggest remedies.

Unisys systems architect Greg Limbery sees processes and policies as an essential part of systems management – “a set of tools is no good by itself.” A tool may tell the user that their mailserver is filling up, “but then they have to ask ‘what’s on there, and is it all relevant?'” Clearing the less important emails out solves the problem shjort-term, but a policy on what emails should be allowed is a more permanent solution.

Most SMEs don’t appreciate that they have issues with their IT, Limbery says. But the issues are there. They are just not recognised until the system breaks down or significantly degrades.

Currently, those smaller companies that do employ systems management “do the bread and butter stuff; device-checking, configuration management.” But the innovators among SMEs are looking for tools that help set and then enforce policies, he says.

Unisys provides remote management services mostly using Tivoli. The infrastructure and tools set up with each customer are standard, and Unisys staff can transfer from looking after one customer to servicing another, without difficulty.

But the customer here still does most of the actual monitoring and management work at their own site.

The completely outsourced model, known as managed service provision (MSP) has barely entered New Zealand yet, he says. Here, by analogy with ASP, the supplier provides the management capability at its central site, and the user calls it up when needed.

The increasing complexity of the IT environment, even for the smaller business means greater vulnerability, says Paul Williams of BMC. A business must understand the performance of this complex environment, especially as it affects the end-user.

This assessment includes performance change prediction; being able adequately to answer questions like “what would happen if I put another 300 users on?”

Systems management software needs to be carefully tailored to the needs of the organisation, he says. “It’s not something that installs itself and runs. Unfortunately, many smaller organisations expect this.

“And many still hang on to the myth that they’ve got someone called a systems administrator, who should be able to do this without assistance from advanced tools.”

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