Making order out of chaos

Working in information technology, your world is getting more and more complex, and your role in the enterprise is becoming more and more strategic. In short, it's an exciting time to be involved in the technology business. That's the good news.

The hard part is that instead of simple and homogenous local-area networks, today's IT managers are faced with the Herculean task of managing a mix of LANs, intranets and extranets. And IT managers must keep up with the rush of bandwidth being sucked into the black hole of e-mail, videoconferencing and multimedia applets running across the intranet.

Network management has become part of a broader effort of enterprise management. If you're going to lead your company's enterprise management effort, you can't count on yesterday's technologies. The days of simply providing users with a copy of Corel Corp.'s WordPerfect 5 and a working Novell Inc. NetWare client connection are gone.

Your IT consumers are increasingly savvy about what technology can do for them. They're eager to see it implemented, but they have little understanding of the tactical complexities of doing so. Most end users don't see technology as a collection of wires, devices and software. They see technology as whatever application they're running, and "everything else is a dial tone" that the end user takes for granted, said Marty Fredrickson, director of federal sales for enterprise management vendor and IBM Corp. subsidiary Tivoli Systems Inc. What users care about is application availability.

At times, you may have little control over that availability, especially when the Internet is involved. If one of your routers is down in Denver and a representative of your organization is there presenting your latest Internet application, she doesn't care about the router. As far as she is concerned, the application is down.

What this means is that you need as big of a picture of your enterprise as you can get, with tools that let you analyze the impact of problems and drill down to the necessary level to solve them. This is where enterprise management comes in.

The Possibilities

So what is enterprise management, and how can it help solve some of IT's most pressing problems? Enterprise management systems are a collection of tools, most of which exist individually, integrated around a framework that ties the tools together and uses them to provide a big-picture view of your IT infrastructure.

To Donal Meynig, director of information management at the Anniston Army Depot, Ala., enterprise management means "to be able to visualize and take some action relative to any part of the infrastructure, hopefully in a proactive mode."

Suppose, for example, that an end user needs access to an application that involves a database and requires software installation. In a traditional environment, the user calls the help desk and a technician may be able to remotely control the user's machine using a program such as Symantec Corp.'s pcAnywhere. If remote control is not possible, the technician would have to talk the user through determining whether the software was present or send a support person to the user's work space. If the user needs the software, the help-desk technician might have the ability to remotely install the software, but more than likely, a service call to the desktop would be required. After the software is installed, the help-desk staff might be able to provide access to the database, but a call to the database administrator is more likely.

In an environment with enterprise management tools, the help-desk technician would call up the software inventory and hardware configurations of the user's machine. The technician would determine that, no, the software is not installed and, yes, the user's hardware can support it. The technician would then remotely install the software on the user's desktop. While waiting for the software to install, the technician would be able to grant the user limited access to the database. The technician would then reboot the user's machine so that the changes take effect, and the call is complete.

With enterprise management tools, the process takes minutes instead of hours, and one person instead of three can solve the problem.

Here's another enterprise planning scenario: Suppose the database administrator is doing capacity planning. After generating a report of the users who have been added to the database application over time, he is able to project the number of users in the future and can accurately plan hardware needs. In another example, suppose a switch in the data center is generating an abnormally high number of errors. A network administrator is warned that if the switch fails, access to the database application will be impossible. The administrator can then schedule maintenance on the switch and avoid application downtime.

This is the promise of enterprise management. Let's look at the reality.

The Solutions

Tools for managing IT infrastructure can be broken into three categories.

n On the low end, there are pointed solutions to specific problems. These might include products as simple as pcAnywhere, or they might be tools for managing users or specific assets, such as an Oracle Corp. database. Individually, these tools are valuable and can simply and inexpensively solve specific problems.

n In the middle are tools that provide a broader base of functionality, including network management tools and systems management tools. Examples of products in this category include Hewlett-Packard Co.'s OpenView and Intel Corp.'s LANDesk Management Suite. Some also are geared toward monitoring or problem-solving and general administration.

n The top tier is made up of full-blown enterprise-management tools such as Tivoli products and Computer Associates International Inc.'s Unicenter TNG. Meynig's organization, for example, implemented Unicenter TNG, and the project has been largely successful, he said.

Enterprise management tools provide a framework around which administrative, trouble-shooting and management tools are built. They can make the utopian help-desk scenario described above a reality. With these end-to-end solutions, however, comes complexity. Enterprise management solutions generally take time to implement and carry a premium price.

When choosing a strategy for managing enterprise IT infrastructure, consider three basic factors: your infrastructure, your organization and your problems.

Infrastructure can be viewed as the place where your organization and your problems meet. An organization's network may be a homogenous network with few remote locations. Or there may be small LANs spread all over creation with numerous wide-area network links. Or you may have a distributed environment with numerous client/server applications running on a variety of platforms.

Each of these scenarios calls for different tools. The more homogenous the systems, and the simpler the applications and network, the smaller the tool that you need. Complex, heterogeneous environments beg for full-blown enterprise management applications.

Hammond is a free-lance writer based in Denver. He can be reached at ehammond@earthlink.net.

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