SAN MATEO (05/08/2000) - If network managers got stock options every time they heard the words "seamless interoperability," they could all retire. Yet for most, NOS interoperability is not the problem that it might have become, thanks to the widespread adoption of Internet protocols and, to a lesser extent, the ODBC standard. Instead, the pain of running a mixed network is in building and keeping the IT staff to support it.
Alan Leinwand, CTO at Digital Island Inc., in San Francisco, says he's no stranger to the multiple-NOS environment. His company hosts Web sites and Internet applications for customers who want e-commerce capabilities but don't want to maintain the systems themselves. Typical customers want custom applications, running on Windows NT, to connect with a Web server and database on the back end, Leinwand says. Usually these back-end systems are one of many flavors of Unix, such as Solaris and HP-UX, or Linux.
"[But] interoperability is usually not a problem, even in these highly heterogeneous environments," Leinwand explains.
However, hiring IT staff to support the company's systems is problematic.
Leinwand says an ideal job candidate would have a solid Unix background and good NT credentials, preferably as a MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer). But he has discovered that this is almost never the reality in the job market.
Leinwand's solution has been to duplicate personnel, hiring a separate set of programmers and administrators for each OS that Digital Island supports in-house.
"We maintain separate staffs, one for NT and one for Solaris. We provide regular cross-training for both of these, but when I hire, I look for someone who is a specialist in just one area," Leinwand says.
Cross-training is key
Larry Elwood, associate director of production automation at Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., in Los Angeles, also cross-trains his staff to support his multiple NOS environments. However, Elwood has more to contend with than Unix and NT.
"We are a large NetWare 4 shop," Elwood says. "We need people who are ready to move to NetWare 5 and who have solid NDS and ZenWorks experience."
Meanwhile, Fox also has seen an explosion in the number of Windows NT servers it runs.
"We went from two NT servers to 60 in the last two years," Elwood says.
Throw some Unix and AS/400 into the mix, and Elwood is presiding over a truly heterogeneous environment.
"Our NetWare, Unix, and NT systems often need to talk to each other or share data between ERP [enterprise resource planning] systems," Elwood says. "But IP and ODBC really makes this fairly straightforward."
Although it would be nice to find people with both solid NetWare and NT skills, Elwood does not expect to. For him, it's more important to find good talent than to look for a jack-of-all-trades, especially when it comes to maintaining business-critical systems.
"We are stretched very thin," Elwood says. "We have to be up 24-7. If we are down for an hour on Monday morning, we lose a million bucks. We need the best people we can get."
Microsoft is trying to convince Elwood to convert his entire network to NT, he says, but a more homogeneous world would not ease his staffing requirements.
"The cost of such a conversion would be huge," Elwood says, "and NT is not necessarily better or easier to manage."
To standardize or to outsource?
There are places, however, where IT does choose to standardize NOS environments when it can. For example, cross-platform skills are not a high priority for those running the computer networks of the Tucson Unified School District, in Arizona.
"We are driven by Microsoft," says Liz Whitaker, director of technology and telecommunications services at the school district. "So when we hire technical support staff, we look for MCSEs. For programmers, we place a high priority on people who know SQL Server."
Whitaker still runs some NetWare on servers at the elementary schools, whereas the middle schools have the newer Windows NT systems. Plans are under way to phase out the Novell servers altogether and replace them with NT systems.
Whitaker doesn't worry about maintaining separate staffs to support the legacy NetWare systems. With an existing staff of NetWare savvy technicians, it's a safe bet that the Novell equipment will disappear before the expertise does.
But as do most shops, the school district also runs some Unix. The district uses Solaris to run its Nortel Passport network, an integrated voice and data switching system. But Whitaker solved that potential headache by outsourcing the system and everything connected to it to telecommunications provider Williams Communications.
"They also take care of all our Unix service and support," Whitaker says.
None of this means that NOS interoperability issues have vanished. Vendors such as Houston-based BindView still turn a profit selling cross-platform NOS management tools. But interoperability concerns are not what they were several years ago.
"Five years ago it was really tricky to integrate NetWare with an IP-based system," says Eric Pulaski, chairman and CTO at BindView. "You needed special skills and the stars had to line up just right. Now that stuff is all right out of the box."
BindView customers now use the product to simplify cross-platform administration.
"BindView gives us an efficient way to manage user accounts on a global basis," Fox's Elwood says. "This kind of administrative job is where the pain of having more than one NOS comes into play now."
Interoperability issues have changed. Internet and database connectivity standards have given network managers some of the most important tools they need to make heterogeneous environments work. The bottom line for most managers overseeing their team's networking skills is that they should strike a balance between specializations and cross-training once the right people are in the door.