Computerworld

SolarWinds is doing something right

SolarWinds spices up network management marketplace

SolarWinds is an example of how dramatically lower price points and faster time to value are catching on in a sea of more complex, costly, and albeit usually more richly functional network management products.

SolarWinds isn't the only example. AdventNet and Ipswitch come to mind, and AdventNet in particular will be worth watching in the coming weeks and months as it brings its broader portfolio together. And there are plenty of mid-tier solutions with unique and worthy advantages such as Netcordia, CITTIO and Apparent Networks.

But SolarWinds, which just went public earlier this year, has emerged from being a "lifestyle" company in its earliest instantiations, to one of the fastest growing product sets in the network management marketplace. With US$62 million in sales in 2007, 60% net operating margin, and 40,000 customers, SolarWinds would seem to be doing something right.

One of the things SolarWinds seems to be doing right is providing low-cost, fast-time-to-value software to mid-tier and small enterprises. With a portfolio in which no single component has a starting price of more than $3,000 - its price point stands out in contrast to many implementations that can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But SolarWinds is also selling into larger enterprises -- not necessarily as a replacement for other, more pricey competitors, but more often as a quick-start, nimble adjunct, especially in branch offices and remote locations.

Within SolarWinds' portfolio, the dominant product relevant to these adoptions is Orion, which SolarWinds describes as a "modular, web-based Fault and Performance Management Platform for networks and enterprise systems." Orion can be expanded to support NetFlow traffic analysis, application monitoring, wireless monitoring and VoIP monitoring.

SolarWinds also offers Cirrus for network configuration management and LANsurveyor for diagramming networks and networked devices. This July, SolarWinds introduced an Enterprise Operations Console to support a more scalable, three-tiered deployment of Orion targeted at the enterprise buyer.

Interestingly enough, I stumble onto SolarWinds customers fairly often in doing research and consulting with IT organizations otherwise unrelated to SolarWinds in any respect. To be honest, this, even more than SolarWinds' significant growth, has made an impression on me -- especially when the dialog is with a large enterprise or service provider, accounts where I had pretty much assumed no one ever considered low-cost solutions as a matter of culture and politics.

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Here are a few examples of accounts that I stumbled upon quite on my own:

-- One telecommunications provider with $10 billion in revenue with a strong focus on quality -- or what it calls "continual improvement" -- is using SolarWinds in conjunction with network management solutions from HP, NetQoS, Fluke and others. Apparently in this company, each business unit can select its own brand. And SolarWinds is used because of its usability and adaptability and the belief that, "smaller companies tailor their offerings to individual requirements better than many larger vendors." This might seem to contradict conventional wisdom, given the breadth of functionality and a design optimized to support customization characteristic of most top-tier management solutions. But I suspect what's at play here is that ease of administration is winning out over infinite choice and infinite options.

-- A healthcare services organization with $20 million in revenue is using SolarWinds in conjunction with CiscoWorks, NetScout's Sniffer, and Ethereal/Wireshark, among others.

-- A North American manufacturer with a billion in revenue, and so mid-tier, is using SolarWinds in conjunction with BMC's Magic for helpdesk, Microsoft's MOM, Compuware's Vantage for application management and CiscoWorks. Without any provocation on my part, they actually told me that the network guys consider SolarWinds to be "their most strategic investment."

Now, don't get me wrong. I think that if you're a large company, or even a mid-tier organization, and you don't invest aggressively in the best management software for your organization, you're somewhat delusional -- given the cost ratios of software versus operational overhead, and the operational efficiencies that good management software can bring you.

If you let cost dominate your choice you are probably "cutting off your nose to spite your face" to pick a rather ugly, hackneyed, but appropriate cliché. But what SolarWinds is showing -- and in the first two examples cost expressly wasn't a factor -- is that focused, deployable solutions that have sufficient portfolio breadth to support management process requirements -- do have some real advantages even in large companies.

While I'm a champion of trends such as CMDB initiatives that probably do reflect a love of new and often complex technologies, I never cease to be amazed at the industry-wide complacence regarding administrative overhead and time to deployment. (Last week I spoke to one happy platform user whose service desk software required 16 fully dedicated administrators. This platform offered process automation capabilities far outside the current reach of SolarWinds, but nonetheless the poor gentleman had to repeat the number "sixteen" to me three times.)

We're living in changing times even more than usual when it comes to IT -- with trends like ITIL process adoptions, virtualization, and process automation. There are cultural as well as technological changes underfoot, most of which are for the better. But if we as an industry are going to face the challenges these changes pose, it would seem to me that the age-old complacence, nearly canonized in the late '90s, that good management platforms must always need small armies to deploy and administer them - should be something we learn to challenge. So it's good to see a still relatively small company like SolarWinds making some big waves in some surprisingly large accounts.