Feds embrace network management but seek technical enhancements

Federal users are pushing for more standards and functionality in network management products as they grapple with multivendor environments and emerging technologies such as Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM).

Federal users are real fans of network management technology - more so than commercial or vertical market users, according to Greg Cline, director of network integration at Business Research Group, Newton, Mass. In a recent study, Cline found that while 15 percent of network management users deploy Hewlett-Packard Co.'s OpenView product, that number jumps to 23 percent in the federal market. HP's OpenView is the most commonly used network management system in the federal government, followed by SunSoft Inc.'s SunNet Manager, according to Business Research Group (see chart.)

Vendors have met many users' needs in network management, but users still are looking for better product integration to deal with the complex requirements of heterogeneous networks. And the lack of standard notification methods makes it difficult to pass alerts among different network management products.

HP's OpenView has made moves to provide the increased functionality that users demand. Over time, the product has evolved from being Unix-centric to embracing other platforms, such as Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT. This expansion allows the product to span workgroups to enterprise networks.

"We've seen the use of OpenView growing both in DOD and in the civilian environment. As they move off the mainframe and onto client/server, users need a tool to manage the client/server environment," said Wayne Schempp, business development manager for HP's federal computer operation. OpenView is available through contracts such as the Navy's governmentwide Supermini pact and its Tactical Advanced Computer-4 contract, which is open to the Coast Guard and Marines.

Cabletron Systems Inc.'s Spectrum network-management product also has made strides to integrate its systems and network management capabilities and develop compatibility with other vendors' products.

Last month, Cabletron announced an integration strategy that links Spectrum; BMC Software Inc.'s Patrol, which provides application and database management; and Cabletron's Metrix WinWatch product, which provides desktop management.

Network management functionality increases as more companies integrate with one anothers' products, federal users report. Cabletron, for example, integrated HP's NetMetrix, a network performance and fault management tool, as a utility within Spectrum. This allows NetMetrix to show up in the Spectrum menus, making it easy to use the products and functions together, said Joe Tabaco, the network manager with the National Weather Service's Eastern Region.

Integration Challenge

Still, the growing integration of network products is not enough to fulfill the more complex requirements of disparate networks with expanding bandwidth. Neither HP's NetMetrix nor Cabletron's Spectrum allows users to see down past the IP (Internet Protocol) to connection points at the frame-relay level, Tabaco said. To get a full view of the frame-relay network, Tabaco purchased Stonybrook Software Inc.'s AutoBahn router-manager product.

"What we like about AutoBahn is that it doesn't require hardware," Tabaco said. "It uses a remote-management software feature to see what's going on at a remote site without having to deploy [local-area network] probes at those sites."

Vendors are limited in their abilities to resolve many of the problems arising from the disparate network management strategies. "The network management situation is not pretty," said Ravi Gulati, president of Stonybrook Software. "Not everyone follows the [Internet Engineering Task Force's Simple Network Management Protocol], so SNMP implementations are not the same. It's worse than the different implementations of Unix."

Gulati and others reported that network management has failed in many ways to deliver on its promise to be both robust and open. "It's a platform that was supposed to make devices work together," Gulati said. "But all products like OpenView do is launch applications. The applications don't work together. There's no common repository for the data."

In the meantime, specialty products will provide the missing capabilities. The latest release of AutoBahn provides a pager notification system that calls a beeper/pager to notify network managers of any alarms preset on the network, for instance.

While HP has done much to encourage network application integration in OpenView, there are industry problems over which the company has no control. Although HP's OpenView certification program ensures that OpenView applications will work well with one another, the company's Premier Partners generally integrate more tightly than its Solution Providers, said Bill Dwyer, product marketing manager for HP's federal computer operation.

"We don't have a lot of control over how one application presents data to another application," Dwyer said. "Most of these applications were written for a particular function and talk to the OpenView framework, but applications vendors don't usually communicate with one another to ensure that their applications work together."

With the advent of PC LANs and client/sever technology, network managers have become more interested in less expensive alternatives to traditional Unix-based network management solutions. Products based on Windows NT represent one option.

"There are reduced hardware and training costs on Windows NT because many people already know Windows, whereas Unix is not in the office environment," said Sandra Wallace, a network and systems management specialist at Mitre Corp., which provides systems engineering services to the federal government. "NetView costs $15,000 on AIX but only $6,000 on NT," she added.

Not only can buyers simplify and save by using Windows NT, they also can achieve increased network management functionality through products that are integrated on the platform, Wallace said.

Digital Equipment Corp.'s AssetWorks asset management product is integrated with Microsoft's Systems Management Server (SMS) and NetView on NT, she said.

ATM Clouds Picture

But when it comes to ATM, the integration picture becomes even murkier. The Iowa Communications Network, a statewide fiber-optic network that provides voice, data and video for state and federal agencies, is in the throes of building a statewide ATM network. The state manages its General DataCom ProSphere for ATM switches with General DataCom's NMS 3000 network management system. It manages its frame-relay switches and routers with HP's OpenView.

"I would like to see a common [graphical user interface] between NMS 3000 and HP OpenView," said Paul Jacobson, the operations and planning director for the Iowa Communications Network. "We're working with GDC on it, but we haven't set a time frame yet."

Like most users, Jacobson's top network management concern is open standards. "In the past, we ended up with proprietary network management systems and network elements that didn't work together," he said. "We want to drive vendors toward more open standards, toward an open architecture like HP OpenView. We want standard interfaces to get at and control the ATM switches, transport terminals, routers and hubs."

Hanscom Air Force Base's network control center, Bedford, Mass., is in the evaluation phase of an acquisition program whose goal is to standardize network management across the base. The network center hasn't come to any conclusions yet, but standards are a top priority. "I'd like to see more seamless operations, more standard interfaces," said Tom Houser, the program manager at Hanscom's network control center.

Much of the concern for standards arises from the growth of ATM in recent years. While products such as ATM vendor Fore Systems Inc.'s FourView manage ATM backbones, there are still no standard methods of doing so. Consequently, users employ a combination of vendors' products.

Many federal users see future data networks becoming like the telephony systems of today. That is, the data networks will be switched rather than routed. Virtual links will open and close the same way that telephone calls dial and hang up today. Rather than functioning with dedicated strands of fiber, lines will be dedicated on a reusable basis with virtual pipes that allow large bandwidth on demand.

But the broader and more flexible bandwidth will require more intelligent network management systems that look not only at circuits but also at the virtual pipes as they are created. "Network management will need to reroute virtual pipes without anything but a blip on the screen," said Steve Yantz, a telecommunications specialist, planning and programs, at the Army's Division of the Director of Information Materials at Fort Knox.

Although products such as Cabletron's Virtual Network Services are beginning to provide that, the ATM industry still has a way to go. "We would like to see quality products come out for switched networks," Yantz said. "We're concerned about when the ATM standards will come out and whether they will be stable. We need standard ATM interfaces, standard ATM switching technology and standard programming for ATM networks."

Users are anxious to see faster progress on the development of ATM standards.

And networks continue to grow more complicated, Gulati pointed out. "As routers and switches get mixed with [Integrated Services Digital Network] and frame relay, managing it gets difficult," he said. In reality, while most industry experts agree that network management has come a long way, there is still a long way to go to arrive at the smooth management of increasingly complicated, network-centric environments.


Gerber is a free-lance writer based in Kingston, N.Y.


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