Systems management seeks fresh ground

Systems management vendors are eager to push the technology envelope, whether it's embracing wireless networks, corralling mobile devices or cultivating self-healing capabilities.

Product announcements and technology initiatives in recent months underscore the pace of development. IBM Corp.'s eLiza program seeks to inoculate an organization's infrastructure with technology that anticipates and addresses problems before an administrator's console starts blinking red. Computer Associates International Inc. (CA) recently released products for the wireless world. LANDesk Software Inc., Novell Inc. and Microsoft Corp. are among the companies launching products that extend device management to mobile computing. Tool vendors also are enhancing security (see box, this page) and pursuing directory integration.

Federal agencies, however, appear to favor the old-fashioned virtues of systems management over new-fangled features. In some cases, agencies' security concerns prevent them from embracing some of the newer developments. Other agencies are simply more interested in time-tested features that give them a quick-hitting return on investment.

Jean-Pierre Garbani, a research director who follows systems management for Giga Information Group, said the disconnect between vendor innovation and customer indifference is a complex issue.

"Vendors are working to broaden their revenue, and the game consists [of] creating a potential demand by exploring new avenues of potential progress," he said. "It is usually a focused effort. Clients, on the other hand, have a bunch of problems in a universe that is not focused and where the mundane has the same priority [as] the very advanced."

That said, vendors are banking that federal customers will eventually grow into the newer capabilities of their management frameworks and specific products.

"Very few [customers] come looking for a comprehensive management solution," said Robert Naegle, director of marketing development for LANDesk, a recent desktop and device management spinoff from Intel Corp. "They go after a couple of pain points initially" and later consider the longer-reaching impact of management products.

Working Concerns

Ask customers what they most care about in systems management and a pattern emerges: asset management, software distribution and remote diagnostics. Agencies are drawn to those areas for their cost-savings and return-on-investment potential.

"Enterprise systems management is such an expensive process in the beginning," said Jim Kennedy, program manager of enterprise systems management at the Internal Revenue Service. "You have to get a fairly quick" return on investment.

To that end, the IRS has focused on inventory management and software distribution, Kennedy said. The IRS uses IBM Tivoli Software management tools for its Windows infrastructure and most of its Unix infrastructure. The agency recently upgraded to the latest releases of Tivoli Inventory and Software Distribution, which have been consolidated as Tivoli Configuration Manager 4.1. The ability to electronically handle such tasks as distributing antivirus patches saves the agency hundreds of thousands of dollars in labor costs, according to Kennedy.

The potential for payback also influenced how Los Alamos National Laboratory's Los Alamos Neutron Science Center, or LANSCE, employs its systems management tools. Brad Sorensen, a network administrator at LANSCE, said he uses NetSupport Inc.'s NetSupport Manager primarily as a "trouble call utility," although the product has other functions. NetSupport Manager's remote control facility enables technicians to diagnose Windows PC problems remotely. That's an important feature given that Sorensen's users are scattered throughout 30 buildings. The tool "pays for itself" because technicians are able to handle more user calls, according to Sorensen.

Tommy Avants, network administrator at the National Ice Center, also identifies the ability to fix things remotely as a key payoff. The center, which tracks iceberg activity in key shipping channels, uses LANDesk Management Suite. The product enables technicians to troubleshoot computer problems from a distance and electronically deploy a Microsoft service pack or security update, he said.

Vendors acknowledge that time and budget issues are driving systems management initiatives.

"Chief information officers in the federal government are much more interested in the quicker turnaround projects," said Jim Russell, business unit executive at IBM Tivoli's federal division. The strategy is to "cordon off quick hits to show an almost immediate time to value." And those quick hits, he adds, typically are found in situations "where we can go ahead and do the inventory and at the same time plot our path for software distribution."

Although the market seems to be indifferent to bells and whistles now, management vendors are nonetheless pursuing a number of technical developments.

The management of wireless networks and mobile devices is a particularly active area, at least in terms of recent product announcements. CA, for example, began shipping Unicenter wireless products in October.

One such product, Unicenter Wireless Network Management, identifies the wireless access points in an organization's network and builds a wireless local-area network topology. The product's automatic-discovery function is designed to "prevent rogue access points being brought into the enterprise," which can subsequently become security vulnerabilities, explains Sumit Deshpande, technology strategist for CA's chief technology officer's office.

But some federal customers are not ready for wireless technology, much less wireless network management. "Wireless is a ways out for us," said the IRS' Kennedy. "The organization is not comfortable yet with the level of security on wireless communications."

Kennedy said a bigger issue for the IRS is "infrequently connected or remotely connected clients." The IRS has field agents who use virtual private networks (VPNs) to connect to its closed network. In addition, the agency must keep tabs on 40,000 laptops, which travel from office to office. Kennedy said the latest versions of IBM Tivoli Inventory and Tivoli Distribution "do a much better job at managing those devices" than earlier versions do.

IBM Tivoli is not alone in extending software distribution and other attributes of traditional systems management to mobile devices. This month, CA released Unicenter Mobile Device Management, which offers software distribution, asset management and virus protection. It also includes a VPN client. Initially, the VPN feature will only be available for laptops, but Deshpande said CA would roll out a "secure communication channel" for personal digital assistants soon.

In September, Novell released ZENworks for Handhelds 5, which manages Palm Inc. and Microsoft Windows CE and Pocket PC devices. The product manages application distribution and device configuration, said Paul Hartge, director of mobile management products at Novell.

Also in September, Microsoft released its Systems Management Server 2003 Beta, identifying mobile device management as the product's primary improvement. The product has the ability to provide software updates to mobile PCs that connect via slow lines and travel along multiple locations, according to Microsoft officials. Eventually, the company will offer asset management and software distribution for handhelds and desktops running Windows CE, Pocket PC or Windows XP Embedded.

LANDesk Software is also making mobile moves. In September, the company began shipping LANDesk Mobile Manager as an option for its LANDesk Management Suite 6.6. Features include distributing applications to mobile devices and managing device configuration. "Most people we find are primarily interested in major computing assets — desktops and laptops," Naegle said. But customers, he added, are "more and more worried about the proliferation of personal and handheld devices.

Self-healing is another direction various vendors are talking up. IBM's eLiza project, according to company officials, aims to "build autonomic computers that can anticipate and recover from problems without human intervention."

Such self-healing developments will shape the future of systems management, vendors say. Tivoli products already have autonomic capabilities in performance management, availability management and software distribution, said Bob Yellin, vice president of technology at IBM Tivoli.

As autonomic features take over routine systems management chores, vendors will seek to add value beyond monitoring devices and resources, according to industry executives.

Peter Marshall, assistant vice president of systems management at Candle Corp., believes customers can expect autonomic computing to initially take hold in an organization's basic networking infrastructure: operating systems, databases, middleware and the like.

The integration of directories and systems management tools is another area of vendor interest and, not surprisingly, Microsoft and Novell are among those pushing tighter links among the two. Microsoft, for example, said its Systems Management Server 2003 Beta features "improved integration with key Windows services such as Active Directory."

Richard Whitehead, Novell's product manager for desktop and handheld products, said the company continues to invest in directory integration. He said that the company's latest handheld management product is directory-enabled so that a customer has a central location for managing devices. Novell's ZENworks for Desktops 4 links with the company's eDirectory, but also supports Active Directory in Windows-only environments. Whether it's directory integration or self-healing capabilities, vendors hope some of their new features will capture customers' imaginations.

"Vendors have a natural tendency of looking forward, as a way to differentiate themselves from the competition, and educating the market on future problems," Giga's Garbani said.

Moore is a freelance writer based in Syracuse, N.Y.

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