End-user experience is key

Kim Jahnz doesn't like to brag, but she says that over the years she has mastered managing network and systems performance and availability at Aurora Health Care in Milwaukee. However, Jahnz knows she faces a bigger challenge in 2006.

"I can threshold network and server performance, and we can meet those thresholds. But we've learned that doesn't mean performance is acceptable to the end user," says Jahnz, lead systems management analyst. "What I need to do this year is integrate the systems we have, tighten our monitoring tools and take it to the next level, which for me is meeting the end-user expectation of performance."

Like many other network managers, Jahnz is hoping to bridge the gap between silos in IT shops and integrate management data so she can deliver optimal IT services to users. The tricky part is that network managers don't necessarily oversee other IT groups such as applications, security, storage and systems, but they must have links into all that management data.

Network management vendors are widening their horizons to help make this possible. For example, Cisco is showing that it understands the importance of application performance with its Application Oriented Networking (AON) strategy, which is designed to optimize Cisco networks to run Web services.

"One of the areas of network management that will expand this year is service-centric performance monitoring," says George Hamilton, director of enterprise computing and networking at The Yankee Group. "This requires network management vendors to understand the services that run on the networks and not simply the distributed devices. Vendors will have to start reporting on service levels and move away from traditional threshold alerts."

To understand which services are running on a network, network managers might need to invest in new technology - such as network configuration management products, network topology tools, network access control technologies and user application performance-monitoring software - but they will also need to better integrate tools they already have.

"Network management has changed from a device-centric approach to managing the network as a context for service delivery," says Dennis Drogseth, a vice president with Enterprise Management Associates. "IT buyers want a central, strategic source of intelligence and integration with good enabling technologies while still being able to choose from multiple vendors."

Show me the slowdown

Jahnz always has paid attention to performance of network devices, wide-area links and back-end systems, in an effort to deliver optimal performance across the healthcare organization's distributed network of some 180 locations. But she says that approach wasn't cutting it.

"Performance would be going to hell, response times for users going up by 10 or 15 seconds, and in no one place could we see the problem," Jahnz says. "I want to have my systems integrated to the point that I can walk up to one console and say, 'Show me the slowdown.' "

Jahnz, a longtime Aprisma Management Technologies' Spectrum user, says the software reports on service levels to some degree, and she couples that with an application response product from Concord Communications. Both vendors are now part of CA, and Jahnz says she is hopeful about future integrations from CA.

For now, she is focused on bringing all her management data - from the WAN, back-end systems and client desktops - into a console that can show her "what is actually happening at the point in time of a degradation on a client machine."

Jahnz thinks updating the technology she uses to capture application performance on client machines will help, as well as exploring new technologies.

Vendors such as Reflectent Software and Coradiant offer products that provide data on application performance on a workstation and user experience with Web applications, respectively. But at the base of it all, she is going to do a lot of integration work with existing tools. She uses management software from Aprisma and Concord, as well as tools from Intellitactics and Attention Software. The integration requires that she regularly meet with the heads of other IT groups, and she is confident she can tackle it in 2006 with the technology and staff expertise she has in-house.

"You can see a failure; you can't always see a slowdown," she says. "I need to quantify what users think is normal and what they think is slow performance, and configure the network to deliver on their expectations."

Measuring degradation

Make no mistake, this isn't about traditional desktop management, says Martin Webb, manager of data network operations for the province of British Columbia, in Victoria. It's about application and network service management from a critical perspective.

"We are trying to move toward an organization that understands it delivers shared services to meet a specific business need, which means acceptable end-user performance," Webb says. "Part of our new network management approach is always knowing when something on the net changes and moving beyond monitoring simple availability to understanding the performance characteristics of those changes."

He figures it will take more than a year to reach that point using existing technologies.

"It's much easier to manage the network in terms of failures than performance degradation, and then to be able to measure the degradation from the user perspective. That is going to take some work," Webb says.

No quick fix for Nix

For Michael Nix, assistant director of IT services and communications technologies at the Kansas University Hospital Authority in Kansas City, Kan., all the pieces to better manage his network for user performance are available; he just needs to better integrate and assemble them.

"This isn't going to be a 'Eureka!' technology. It's an incremental evolution and integration of technologies that already exist," Nix says. Building bridges among tools from NetScout, SolarWinds and others help him to track network and application performance, and he is evaluating new software from NetIQ to integrate the user perspective.

His staff uses products from NetScout to monitor the hardware on the network, look at traffic flow patterns and analyze how servers respond to application requests. He says products that could help him understand user performance could also give him data needed to engineer the network better, purchase equipment better-suited for users' needs and reduce the time and energy spent on manually tracking performance metrics. For example, an e-mail application could degrade an 800MHz PC more often than a 2GHz PC, which could influence Nix's PC purchasing decisions.

"It's the next step for network management to expand its reach beyond just network devices into areas like storage, security and desktops. [Network management] is a mature technology and it needs to be put to use where it makes a difference in supporting applications and the business," Nix says.

Jon DeLaCastro, IT director at TripPak Services in Denver, agrees that integration and data sharing could be the key to better network management in 2006. He uses Spectrum to monitor the imaging company's distributed network, which allows vehicle fleet drivers to scan paperwork into systems while on the road.

Spectrum helps DeLaCastro monitor slowdowns and will alert his staff to potential degradation, but he wants to be able to share that management information with other systems better and ultimately provide the data to customers. He also thinks management software could support more automation to better ensure service levels are met.

"All of the monitoring that we have of our applications and services lets us know when something is wrong because of the thresholds we set," he says. "More automation is the only way to meet the demand for more uptime and reduce mean time to repair."

Scott Richert, director of network services at Sisters of Mercy Health System in St. Louis, is kicking off a three-phased approach in 2006 to better relate network performance to user experience. Working with Compuware, he says his network team is integrating data collected from the network and server infrastructure to get a picture of the client experience. With 300 WAN sites and 45,000 network ports managed, Richert says the priority is shifting to improve the network service performance for 26,000 users.

"Our healthcare organization depends on network technology extensively. We have voice, we have wireless, and we want to raise the availability of all our services," Richert says. "We want to find an enterprise console that will show us everything in one screen from application traffic to top talkers, as well as perform event correlation and report on service levels. We hope a vendor can get us at least 60 percent or 80 percent there."

Take my device, please

Like Richert, many network managers will be looking to new technology to solve at least some of their problems.

"It has to be a large vendor that has the presence in multiple IT areas to help manage across the entire stack," Nix says. "It's a big leap to integrate all these pieces, so I could see an HP or IBM or even Cisco acquiring or at least partnering to become that type of management provider."

The shopping list for network managers in 2006 includes network change and configuration management, network and application topology mapping, and identity management and network access control. For example, vendors such as AlterPoint, Intelliden and Voyence continue to incorporate support for more devices and change management capabilities into their configuration management tools. Topology technologies will help network managers better understand how devices, systems and software interact and depend upon one another, and network access control tools will help secure the more integrated systems by managing network access based on preset policies.

"Configuration and management of changes in the network will be critically important for network managers and for the large management vendors to have in heir suites," says Rich Ptak, principal analyst and founder at Ptak, Noel & Associates. "The network teams are also going to have to try to apply the automation that has been working across server environments to their devices."

Vendor consolidation

Cisco's recent partnership with Opsware is a good example of how network managers could get more than one technology from a single vendor. The partnership has Cisco distributing Opsware's Network Automation System software under the Cisco brand, and the two vendors will potentially collaborate in the future on network management technologies. Opsware complements its systems automation tools with network configuration management it acquired from Rendition Networks.

The push by IT managers is causing a major shift among vendors who hope to deliver integration, cross-platform support and advanced IP application management capabilities - either through partnering or acquisition. Management heavyweights BMC, CA, HP and IBM seem to be shopping constantly, and other vendors such as Cisco, EMC and Symantec have added management technology to their shopping lists.

For example, the demand for integrated management tools drove system-centric IBM to acquire network-centric Micromuse. And network analysis vendor Network General acquired Fidelia and incorporated business service management capabilities into Network General's Sniffer line.

Other acquisitions, such as CA's purchase of Concord, which also gave CA Aprisma, show the importance of networks to large systems management vendors. Symantec this year picked up Relicore for its data center automation technology, and EMC has been working to integrate Smarts network management technology across its storage software offerings.

"When a market is about to take off, you see a level of consolidation take place and large players snatch up the innovators," says Jean-Pierre Garbani, vice president at Forrester Research. "The network is a technology-laden element of IT, different from the systems the management vendors are familiar with. These large network management vendors know, to continue to expand to manage, say, [VoIP] applications, they need a network renewal. To do that they are acquiring all the pure-play network management vendors."

Pure-play network management vendors such as Network Instruments, Network Physics and NetScout could persevere in serving smaller customers, but industry watchers agree that the fight for network management dollars in 2006 will come down to which company has the expertise on the network; has the ability to integrate the network tools with systems to manage servers, applications, storage and security; and can help network managers understand how that data relates to the user experience.

"Out of the big-four management software vendors [BMC, CA, HP and IBM], BMC is the only vendor that does not have a strong network management position," says Stephen Elliot, a senior analyst with IDC. "The others have either acquired or developed strong network management tools. The next challenge is to integrate across domains, for example applications and storage, and then integration with Cisco is becoming increasingly important."

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