New software tools help manage servers, networks

As agencies grow, so do the data centers and networks that support their information technology, and so do the hassles that managers face in keeping the machines running smoothly. New software tools from niche vendors offer relief from repetitive chores.

A key part of the value proposition for management tools is cost savings. Although agencies are always sensitive to cost, the need has become dire as federal budgets tighten. Earlier this month, outgoing Office of Management and Budget Administrator Mitchell Daniels Jr. warned that funding for IT projects is likely to remain scant at least through 2005.

Their increasing scale and the ever- rising bars for security and speed make networks progressively harder to maintain, said consultant Robert Woods, president of Topside Consulting Group LLC.

"The processes and procedures we've put in to keep them secure have made them hard," he said. "You end up with a pretty labor-intensive process."

Among recent efforts to save labor costs, Gold Wire Technology is launching an appliance, the Formulator 200, which automates the replication of changes across a network. If the manager tweaks a setting on one server, for example, Formulator makes sure the change is made on all of them. The product is a network appliance, a physical box that becomes part of the network's hardware.

Opsware Inc., led by Netscape Communications Corp. co-founder and President Marc Andreessen, is rolling out software that can cut server-provisioning and upgrading time from days to hours. Managers can apply a security patch to one server in a data center, and the software will spread it to all the servers that need it.

Consera Software is testing a server management product it plans to release in the summer. The company earlier this year signed a joint marketing agreement with Lockheed Martin Corp., which will make the software available to the Defense Department and other agencies.

"People have tight dollars right now," said Jonathan Wolf, president and chief executive officer at Gold Wire. "They're not going to just rip things out. They have to live with the old as they bring in the new, and that makes management a challenge."

Gold Wire's Formulator 200, and its companion, the Formulator 200 High Availability, have only just become available on the general market. The San Diego Supercomputer Center has been using an early version, however, and Director Kevin Walsh said it shows great promise.

The center is using Formulator to replicate changes through the Performance Reference Lab, a laboratory network set up specifically to test software, he said.

"In a large environment, where there were a number of ongoing changes, and more importantly where the consequence of error is high, it would be a useful tool," Walsh said. "In the federal sector, [with] employees having a mix of experience levels, one thing you try to do is have uniform standards for your organization."

Opsware, founded in 1999 as Loudcloud Inc., has built a track record in the private sector, and the company's customers include government contractor EDS. Opsware rolled out its software and opened a federal sales office in Bethesda, Md., last fall.

The company has two federal customers, one of them the Energy Department. "Given that we're a brand-new software company, it's [a] tremendous [presence]," said John Menkart, Ops-ware's director of government sales.

Like Formulator, Opsware's software automates repetitive tasks and tracks changes networkwide. Although it boasts only two federal customers so far, Andreessen said his experience with Netscape suggests that agencies will buy.

"Netscape had a very large government business," he said. "The government agencies in my experience are extremely aggressive technology adopters. They know they've got the problem, and they've got the money. They can do it."

Consera, too, is offering technology to manage growing numbers of servers.

Agencies "are looking for reduction of ownership costs," said Roy Bishop, director of ruggedized infrastructure products for Lockheed Martin Tactical Systems, which will soon begin testing Consera's beta software. "The tools embedded in your infrastructure need to be dynamic. You need to be able to bring up new servers quickly. You can't afford any downtime."

Lockheed has already demonstrated Consera's abilities to DOD customers, using an early version of the product, he said. The beta version has just been released.

Consera sees the government as its primary market for at least the next 18 months, said President and CEO Frank Artale. Artale, a Microsoft Corp. veteran, founded Consera in 2002 after his experience developing Microsoft's server operating systems.

"If you look at spending trends, the government market is outstripping anything in the private sector today," he said.

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Saving by consolidation

Companies that consolidate data centers reduce costs and labor savings, company officials say. Opsware Inc. officials say they can help agencies consolidate 10 data centers into four, thereby reducing labor costs by as much as 90 percent.

* It typically can take six days to load software on Unix servers spread across 10 data centers. By consolidating the networks, that task can be done in three hours, the company said.

* It can take seven days to install a database and cluster across those 10 data centers. Network consolidation software can trim that time to three hours.

* It can take 40 hours to patch 25 Microsoft Corp. Windows servers. With network consolidation software, that period is slashed to 30 minutes.

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