Network management on the cheap

As networks grow and the numbers of users and devices increase, maintaining them is ever more time-consuming and costly. One solution to this expansion is to install a network management system large enough to surround the enterprise.

But whenever people talk about large-scale network management tools, they inevitably mention dollar amounts that have lots of zeros behind them. It appears to most people that for a network management tool to be very useful, it has to be wide-ranging and expensive.

But there are cases in which a product with broad scope and high cost is not the correct answer. In some past reviews, I've admitted my admiration for certain inexpensive network management products. When my manager asked: "Why should we spend money on these low-cost tools when we have an expensive, wonderful, dedicated, and professional network management package in place?", I had to justify my position.

There are several good arguments for taking the low-cost road. To start with, if you ask a dozen people what network management is, you'll get more than a dozen answers. The term "network management" covers a lot of territory. If you're the network manager, whatever happens on the network is your fault. In many shops, desktop control, software distribution, server maintenance, router configuration, network and server performance, change management, cable plant integrity, and security get lumped together. Appropriately, there are a lot of network management tools available, and they cover a lot of territory.

Sometimes this causes members of upper management to think that every time they turn around, you want a new toy ... er, tool. After a while, convincing management to sign a cheque for yet another tool can be difficult.

The personal touch

So why are small network management packages useful to even large companies? These offerings are more focused on an issue, and they are usually a pure expression of one person's philosophy of how to handle the problem. The big packages all too often lack the character, and even the usefulness, of a more focused tool.

The personal touch extends into support. With most of the major, big packages, support is an extra cost, and support is very impersonal. With most of the packages mentioned in this analysis, support is included in the purchase price.

When you do have trouble, you'll often be speaking to the programmers of the software. They often own the companies, are determined to help you, and fixes are usually only hours away.

Moreover, the inexpensive packages - and the companies behind them - deliver a level of flexibility that the larger packages and companies often can't or won't match.

Company changes, upgrades

A recuring fear on the part of network managers and their upper management is that the company they bought the software from might go out of business. If the product requires ongoing support, such as an antivirus package, then this question is a serious one.

If the product is working well then there is no real problem. Perhaps when you upgrade your operating system, you'll have to purchase a new product, but we all know that's often part of the cost of upgrading OSes.

The perception that small companies come and go, leaving their customers orphaned, is one concern. Of course, large companies can drop products from their offerings with as little notice as small ones; just ask users of 3Com switches or Lotus's Symphony. Those products suffered sudden market strategy changes, leaving users in the lurch. It's not just the small companies that suddenly stop supporting their products; larger companies are often guilty as well.

Because of the complexity of network management, not even a large suite will meet all of a network manager's needs. One main reason for using an inexpensive tool is to fill in, at an affordable price, the holes left by another product.

Network monitoring help

Even the best network monitoring tools are useless if they can't connect to the network they are supposed to monitor. Whether they can't connect because of a hardware problem, a software upgrade gone wrong, or unexpected cable problems causing signal fade, your centralised monitor sometimes can't see a remote site.

Large network monitoring packages are often priced according to the number of nodes they monitor, which could make helping your clients or partners with their network problems an expensive proposition.

Some companies just don't want to spend the money required to buy a large network management package. They view the network as an expense, not a profit centre, and so minimising cost is essential.

Other specialised packages can save the network manager time that could be better spent making progress instead of fighting fires. Many NT managers find they spend time shuffling from one management utility to another.

Certainly, there are capabilities the heavyweight management suites will have that the less expensive products will not. The low-cost products do not integrate with help desk software, and there is precious little artificial intelligence in these packages to help you unravel your network problems.

Nevertheless, low-cost network management products deliver an amazing bang for the buck, and may well deserve a place in your management toolkit.

Low-cost network management products

Business case: many inexpensive network management products provide very good alternatives to more expensive products. Moreover, low-cost tools can fill important niches, enabling your staff to do their work with less disruption to the enterprise as a whole.

Technology case: inexpensive tools allow the technical staff to perform network management with a minimum of frustration. These tools can also fill needs otherwise left unaddressed.

Pros:

+ Inexpensive

+ Smaller companies more responsive to your input+ Meet needs otherwise unaddressedCons:- The small size of vendors can make management nervous

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