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Ideal network management tools: still just around the corner.

Today's (and even more so, tomorrow's) networks are becoming more sophisticated. In addition, they are fast becoming a critical element in most corporate business plans, as well as a large ticket item affecting the bottom line.

When you consider the high costs of networking and the importance placed on it by top management, you can understand why it is critical to keep the network running, provide adequate bandwidth for the tasks, make certain you control the error rate and transmission delay, and be able to introduce new technology on the network without service disruption.

The increased complexity of these networks makes them difficult to manage, creating a growing problem for network managers as networks continue to proliferate throughout organizations. The tool that helps network managers accomplish their herculean task is Network Management Systems.


In discussing some of the problems with various network managers, I discovered there are several segments involved in managing networks. First, there is the segment dealing with the organization of the network management process that is internal to the company: determining how the network serves the business applications of the organization.

The second area involves the technical issues, such as single vendor network devices or multivendor environment. Then there are the support tools required to manage security issues, performance and reliability issues, addressing, configuration, and network traffic issues. Obviously, this requires highly complex, sophisticated software--software that, according to the end users interviewed for this article, isn't quite all there yet.

I talked to network managers responsible for a wide variety of networks, including a regional NSF Network serving several hundred locations throughout eight states, a public data network from a telco, several large university networks, a professor of telecommunications at a major university, and a commercial bank.

Most network managers see the ideal system as one where the network is managed "end-to-end" by a single person at a central site. That person can manage, control, remotely reconfigure and troubleshoot any device or component for all segments of the network. It is almost a paradox when networks and data processing operations are moving to a decentralized environment that network management is moving towards a centralized approach.

The new network environment merely increases the management problem, with end users adding or changing equipment on their local segment without involving the manager.

In many organizations, "turf battles" add to the problem. In the world of centralized data processing (mainframe world), the Information Systems staff had control over what was purchased and how it was used. Many clients of the centralized system resented the perceived dictatorial nature of IS departments and were upset by the long delays frequently experienced in getting what they needed to handle their job.

In today's distributed data processing world, end users take control of their operation. They make decisions about what LAN to use, what kind of personal computers to use, and what software should be purchased for word processing and spreadsheets. It is not unusual to find several different packages being used for word processing, spreadsheets and other applications from one workstation to another in the same department.

End users can and do swap hardware, add printers and install their own LANs. All of this adds to the difficulty of managing the network. Without some highlevel administrative decision on this individual ownership/control issue, the problems will magnify.

The consensus of end users interviewed for this article was that network management software still has a way to go before delivering the "ideal" package. The single biggest issue was the proprietary nature of most systems.

For example, the network manager of a tokenring network using nothing but IBM-compatible devices stated that his IBMLAN Network Manager does an excellent job. When I talked to another "Big Blue" shop, the network manager said they had experienced serious problems when trying to provide access to their network to end users working on Ethernet.

The vast majority of networks do not conform to a single product line or protocol. People responsible for managing these networks said it took several separate network management systems to do the job (especially if using non-SNMP-compatible equipment), thus increasing complexity, costs and staff. They said it was difficult, if not impossible, to manage traffic flow with data being stored in several places in a LAN environment.

Other common complaints were the high cost of the systems and the high costs of enhancements when offered, the complexity of the statistics and reports, and the lack of ability to provide an in-depth view of the network. The network manager for a major Eastern university says he used the low-end network management product because of the simplicity of the reports. When he tried the high-end system from the same vendor, the reports were so complex and complicated, he didn't have time to review them and they were far too complex for a less-technical staff person to understand.

As a result, he kept the low-end product and says it is a real workhorse. However, he would really like a more sophisticated system, but a user-friendly one with simple reports.

Each of the network managers said they really liked the graphics capability, where the network can be mapped out on the screen, making it easy to see the design and devices. Without a doubt, the mapping capability is a winner in the perception of this group.

What would the network managers interviewed like to see in a network management system? The wish list is fairly simple and with a few exceptions the same for everyone. The first is for a single end-to-end network management tool that could be used on networks that contain multiple LANS, bridges, routers, brouters, gateways, backbones, equipment from multiple vendors, and WANs that can be geographically remote and heterogeneous, resident in the host or subnet, and managed from a single centralized site.

The second wish is for improved graphics capability, such as graphics of statistical data provided in real time. Next items on the wish list were simplified reports, adequate analysis tools, more user-friendliness so management can be handled by less-technical staff, extension of MIBs to monitor CSU/DSU, terminal servers and any device on the network in real time, and non-proprietary as to equipment and/or protocol.

The single biggest shortfall in products available today is the lack of total integration of many heterogeneous network structures. Several vendors are working on Integrated Network Management Systems (INMS) and some of these products have been on the market for a while. One of the functions INMS offers is the ability to provide a consistent view of the total network management capabilities as if they were a single system.

According to vendor brochures, end users can build their own management applications that permit presentations from their own network management systems. While INMS is an improvement, it still doesn't quite accomplish what most managers want.

Sounds like a big order, but from the literature I have received from the vendors, the "ideal" network management tool might be just around the corner.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Network Management
Author:Michalecki, Ruth
Publication:Communications News
Article Type:Column
Date:Jun 1, 1994
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