A new angle on network management

A new class of network monitoring tools based on the World Wide Web has given administrators a window into the health of their networks.

Having a browser-based interface makes network device management easier because it enables network managers to log onto a system from anywhere on the network and view performance statistics in real time. Such major vendors as 3Com Corp. and Cabletron Systems Inc. and a number of small vendors have developed tools for monitoring network equipment.

Federal customers are quickly absorbing Web-based monitoring tools because the tools are easy to learn and use from anywhere on the network, and they help resolve network problems quickly.

Because of the special publishing capabilities of the Web, browser-based monitoring tools "are a major asset to enable business managers to also view reports on the current status of the network and be on the same page as the [information technology] manager," said Elisabeth Rainge, senior analyst for International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass.

But Web-based monitoring solutions are not quite mature. "It will take time to provide all of the integrated functionality customers need," said Doug Hyde, product line manager for 3Com's Transcend Network Management software.

Solving Problems

Nevertheless, Web-based monitoring tools give network managers a vehicle for solving problems faster than before. Businesses and federal agencies are looking to such tools to reduce their cost of ownership through the ability to monitor network service levels.

It is all part of understanding that the network is a core business asset, observers say. "Organizations are increasingly finding that network availability is as important as mission-critical applications to operational success," said Stephen Elliot, senior analyst for Business Research Group, Newton, Mass.

For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has 50 business and technical department managers tracking network performance on more than 200 local-area networks using a Web-based network performance analysis tool.

"Each manager views only the reports on networks that carry his department's traffic," said John Kyler, manager of NOAA's Network Operation Center in Silver Spring, Md.

The fact that so many managers can understand the reports is a tribute to the ease of use of Web-based monitoring tools and the strength of Network Health software from Concord Communications Inc., Marlboro, Mass.

"With a constant turnover in personnel, especially in network management, a network monitoring tool that is plug-and-play is crucial," Kyler said. Also, because the software was purchased under a grant, Kyler said he couldn't spend six months teaching users how to use the program.

Network Health gathers statistical information on router performance, for example, from NOAA's Cisco Works software and provides canned reports to managers on a daily or weekly basis as needed.

The Web module Kyler purchased from Concord browses NOAA's Web page and prompts each user for ID and password information; it then brings up the information assigned to that user ID, said Christine Washburn, director of marketing for Concord.

The network operations center team, composed of three full-time subcontractors and Kyler, sets up the user IDs and decides what reports each user will see. "If a manager has six networks in his department, Network Health will create a performance baseline over six weeks to compare network performance across each of those networks and show, for example, which is the busiest," Kyler said.

"We've used information on percentage of utilization," he added, "to help justify network equipment upgrades."

In the next two years, most observers maintain, Web-based monitoring will become comprehensive. That is because the advantages to monitoring or trouble-shooting a network via the Web are enormous for both users and network management suppliers alike.

Customers benefit, but the tools also enable vendors to focus development efforts on product features rather than complying with every type of client system. "This doesn't happen often, but the advent of Web-based monitoring is being driven from both sides," said John McConnell, president of McConnell Associates, a consulting firm in Boulder, Colo. This appears to be a basic reason why Web-based monitoring is catching on so quickly.

The National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., for instance, is using a Web-based monitoring tool, Cyber-Media Inc.'s Repair Engine for Workgroups, to track performance and repair Microsoft Corp. Windows-based desktop systems in three Maryland cities and in a remote office in Montana.

A team of 10 in the Intramural Technical Systems Branch is responsible for supporting about 1,100 desktop users working for the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "We examined a number of products to address user support," said Tim Barnes, the Intramural Technical Systems Branch chief at NIAID.

Barnes' challenge was to find software that could monitor and maintain about 440 Windows PCs, each of which had Internet access and users who were downloading software and running it locally on their desktop systems.

Barnes said Web-based monitoring tools make life easier because they allow him to monitor and repair systems and network problems from any system anywhere on the network.

Repair Engine isn't the first Web-based monitoring tool Barnes has used. He also performs Web-based network monitoring via an Apple Computer Inc. Macintosh-based SNMP monitoring product called Intermapper, from Dartmouth College. This tool allows him to examine live network maps via a browser to view data on network performance enterprisewide.

Even though every major network management solution now has a Web-based monitoring feature, most are still limited in the information they can provide and by the security of the supplier's network management platform and the customer's intranet environment, observers said.

Most Web-based network monitoring tools provide a limited view of the network. That is partly because the tools that offer the greatest Web-based functionality do not necessarily come from the major network management suppliers. In fact, most of the major suppliers have partnered with smaller companies to offer specialized monitoring or analysis tools with Web-based functions. And all are scrambling to provide the features of their traditional network management environment in Web-based tools, analysts said.

Also, many Web-based tools are not completely integrated with traditional network and systems management frameworks such as Hewlett-Packard Co.'s OpenView, IBM Corp./Tivoli Systems Inc.'s NetView, Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Net Manager and Cabletron's Spectrum.

"I still don't see Web-based monitoring replacing Spectrum's Enterprise Manager or Element Manager anytime soon," said Ovando Prescod, network manager for Environment Canada's Atmospheric Environment Service, Toronto. The Canadian equivalent to the National Weather Service has 1,400 nodes in a single location and is replacing two traditional LAN routers with Cabletron SmartSwitch Routers. The AES also has two wide-area network routers and many hubs and other network devices that must be monitored.

Cabletron has partnered with Concord Communications to offer Network Health on its Spectrum Network Management platform. But for now AES is using a SmartSwitch router that features a Java-based application that runs on the router to configure and monitor performance.

While the Web-based interface is easier to use, Prescod still prefers an integrated network management software solution that provides multiple views of the network. "While the new system does give us reports on the performance of the router, I'm not sure how it will integrate that with information on other routers and systems that provide other views of the network," he said.

Of course, network monitoring suppliers maintain that they are well on their way to providing integrated functionality across multiple platforms and network management frameworks. Geneva Software Inc.'s AlertPage Enterprise, once Novell Inc. NetWare-only, now offers Windows NT, SNMP, Internet Protocol and NetWare IPX support, said Kirk Fallbacher, president of Geneva Software, Northbrook, Ill.

But analysts maintain that integration struggles will continue, and customers must also use care when implementing Web-based monitoring to ensure that proper security measures are taken.

IT managers are willing to use Web-based technology within the enterprise where it can be protected inside an intranet, but when it comes to remote locations or home offices, they are far more hesitant about such tools.

Network managers know that if the wrong people are able to access networks, they could wreak havoc on performance, Elliot said. In fact, security is such a powerful concern that Elliot maintains customers may be hesitant to fully commit to Web-based monitoring tools, despite their early use and understanding of the value of such tools.

Despite the need for planning to ensure that tools operate in a secure environment, most users and analysts agree that the advantages of Web-based monitoring outweigh concerns. "Web-based monitoring tools are all we build these days," said Al Etterman, director of Enterprise Network Services for Cisco.

Improvements such as the adoption of Java's Management Application Programming Interface (MAPI) should enable suppliers to more easily integrate Web-based views with other views provided by traditional network management platforms. "Today a browser is best used to monitor one device at a time or to provide reports on the historical performance of the network," consultant McConnell said.

The problem is that most network managers need data from many sources at once to do effective network performance analysis.

Over time, tools such as Java MAPI will help users reduce the difference between using a network monitoring console and a Web browser to manage the network, he said.

-- DePompa Reimers is a free-lance writer based in Germantown, Md. She can be reached at bdepompa@aol.com.

****

AT A GLANCE

Status: A number of network equipment vendors and independent software vendors now provide tools that allow administrators to get information on network devices through a browser-based interface.

Issues: World Wide Web-based tools are catching on because they allow a network administrator or other IT managers to access information from any desktop, not just a network console. But these tools have limited functionality, and security has become a concern.

Outlook: Very good. The continued investment in Web-based monitoring tools by the major players— including development of tools using Java— appears likely to address the limitations.

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