<B>Feature:</B> Hype or Hope: System Management Solutions

The costs of desktop PCs have plummeted to under $1,000, but the total cost of ownership doesn’t seem to be declining at all.

The reason is that system management and end user support costs are hard to control. For example, GartnerGroup reports that over 70 percent of total PC ownership costs are for management and support. Even Microsoft Corp., which has no reason to inflate its numbers, says a Windows 95 system costs $4,965 annually in management, support, downtime, communications, and end user IT.

Though Microsoft is clearly concerned about the cost of administration and is promising solutions with its Systems Management Server and IntelliMirror, there is plenty of room for third party vendors to provide management tools. "Microsoft is attempting to make the best of a bad situation," says Paul Mason, analyst with International Data Corp. (Framingham, Mass.). "They know the typical desktop is too expensive to maintain, and that they have to do something to help out, but they are not going to be the only solution we will need."

For an astonishing number of software vendors, it smells like opportunity: build a management package that costs $100 per seat per year and promises to cut total cost of ownership (TCO) by 10 percent -- or, using numbers from the GartnerGroup, cut it by several hundred dollars -- and voila! A product that can’t lose. Add to that promises of increased server uptime, improved application availability, increased end user satisfaction, remote diagnosis, reduced headcount and rapid returns on investment, and how can system managers possibly resist?

"There is so much hype in this market because the problems and solutions are well understood," says Ray Paquette, a GartnerGroup analyst. "System management is not a new issue, so vendors can articulate customer needs and how to address them."

Management solutions tend to fall into two categories: management frameworks and NT-oriented point solutions. Management frameworks, such as Computer Associates Int’l Inc.’s CA Unicenter TNG (Islandia, N.Y., www.cai.com,), Tivoli Systems Inc.’s TME (Austin, Texas, www.tivoli.com), and Hewlett-Packard Co.’s OpenView, offer to solve just about everything, but are proving hard to implement.

On the other hand, NT-oriented point solutions, such as LANware's NTManage (Houston, Texas, www.lanware.net), Seagate/Veritas Software Corp.'s Manage Exec (Scotts Valley, Calif., www.seagate.com), and Hewlett-Packard’s OpenView ManageX, to name a few, are easy to implement but are limited to doing a few tasks well.

Developing an appropriate systems management strategy therefore involves trade-offs concerning ease of use, deployment time, scalability, standards compliance and return on investment (ROI).

Who’s Who: Sorting through the Vendors

For now, the trend appears to be away from large frameworks. Paquette has been particularly critical of framework solutions. "Seventy percent of large-scale enterprise management implementations have failed, and 70 percent will continue fail," he says. "It is rare to find a vendor with less than a 70 percent failure rate."

Such criticisms are pressuring vendors to redesign their frameworks to make them easier to implement in pieces. "There are a lot of customers who need quick point solutions, not humongous consulting-based rollouts," says Bob Ure, product manager for HP OpenView ManageX.

Other companies, such as Platinum Technologies (Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., www.platinum.com), are compromising between frameworks and point solutions by offering product suites. "The seductive nature of the frameworks is that for managers facing too many tactical decisions, they promise that you don’t have to worry about them, that they will be solved," says Chip McAvoy, Platinum’s vice president of marketing for Provision. "But no one has the end-all solution for everything -- you will end with a mixed environment from multiple vendors."

Another important distinction is between products oriented toward managing thousands of desktops, and those built for server and application monitoring. "The most visible pain is the desktop area because it is a larger expenditure, but biggest exposure is on the server and database side," McAvoy says. "If you lose a desktop one person is out of work, but if you lose the server handling the inventory application there can be a much greater business impact."

Though SNMP remains the dominant standard for many management tasks -- particularly those involving network equipment -- other technologies, such as the Web-Based Enterprise Management (WBEM) from the Desktop Management Task Force (Portland, Ore., www.dmtf.org) and Intel's Wired for Management initiative, are becoming increasingly important. "SNMP is becoming a dinosaur in the NT space," Ure says. "The way to get NT system information is via WBEM, the Microsoft Management Console, and DCOM. Don’t buy any system without a Web component."

Finally, some companies are building system management products that are aimed at entirely different types of users and organizations. For example, there are products oriented mainly toward helpdesks and desktop support, others at networks and network administrators, and still others at servers, NT, and database administrators. Getting these different types of products to communicate is one of the next frontiers.

New Players, New Technologies

In addition to the established players, there are a number of intriguing new venture-backed companies, including Manage.Com (Santa Clara, Calif., www.manage.com), Motive Communications (Austin, Texas, www.motive.com), FirstSense Software Inc. (Burlington, Mass., www.firstsense.com), and Tioga (Palo Alto, Calif., www.tioga.com).

"Venture capital is the sign of a healthy market," Paquette says. It’s also an indication that few have faith the established vendors are going to solve systems management problems any time soon.

Motive, for example, says the total cost of support is $69 billion a year, and that it plans to reduce that by $25 billion by 2005. "In the last 10 years, auto companies have reduced their support costs 50 percent by building engines that can spit data into diagnostic tools," says Mike Maples, Motive’s vice president of marketing. "Now mechanics with few skills can take the place of master mechanics; it’s ironic the auto industry is ahead of the computer industry in this."

"Enterprise system management has been a deployment tar pit," Maples adds. "The bones of the CIOs who bought this stuff are 10 feet under the surface."

Some users opt to combine the new products with established frameworks. For instance, Jeff Kubacki, vice president of MIS at Essilor Lenses Inc. (St. Petersburg, Fla.) is using FirstSense Software’s FirstSense Enterprise to monitor and improve server performance. Essilor is also running Sylvan Associates’ (San Jose Calif., www.sylvan.com) helpdesk package, Tangram’s (Cary, N.C., www.tangram.com) Asset Management package, and planning to install Computer Associates’ Unicenter TNG for event management, electronic software distribution, and remote support.

"Response times of the Oracle applications increased when we moved users from the AS/400s, and we needed a tool to figure out what was causing the problem," Kubacki says. "We’re now able to be proactive in solving problems, rather than waiting for users to call the helpdesk, and we can find problems without searching through logs and using sniffers."

One of the most interesting technologies in desktop management is Pre-Boot Execution, which is offered by Intel’s LANdesk product and by ON Command CCM from On Technology Corp. (Cambridge, Mass., www.on.com). "You can now take a brand-new PC from a vendor such as Dell out of the box, plug it into the network, and CCM will format and partition the hard drive and then install and configure an operating system with all applications, completely unattended, from a centralized NT server," says Phil Neray, ON Technology Corp.’s director of product marketing.

Early users are clearly impressed. For example, GTE Internetworking deploys about 300 new PCs per month. Prior to its adoption of CCM, the company used ghosting technology to make snapshots of disk configuration. But that meant fixes had to be done in person using a CD, not over the network. With CCM, GTE Internetworking support technicians can repartition disks and load a new operating system and application software over the network.

"The preboot technology is jaw-dropping awesome," says Jay Corinha, GTE director, IT business planning and communications. "We can even do Windows 95 to NT migrations over the network. It drives down TCO tremendously and eliminates lots of end user operations."

A Management Problem?

Clearly, some users achieve enormous benefits from system management software. Unfortunately the 70 percent who fall into the "failure" category are less eager to share their experiences. Still, there are some common problems cited by consultants, vendors, and end users that are worth noting.

"The history of support automation is not encouraging; companies have repeatedly made major hardware and systems investments based on numbers like these [from GartnerGroup] and a year later they look at costs and little has changed," says Jeffrey Tartar, publisher of the Soft Letter (Watertown, Mass., www.softletter.com). "Any vendor who promises to reduce costs should also talk about reducing the budget of the support department, because that doesn’t happen by itself. There is a resistance in any department, to having the budget cut."

Solving social problems is critical. "Technically, management’s not that complex, but the politics can be gruesome," Paquette says. "What is scary is that a lot of people buy monitoring tools just to prove something is not their responsibility. It’s important to isolate problems, but to say ‘it’s not my problem’ is woefully insufficient."

Paquette suggests that managers need to first define the problems they are trying to solve -- are they looking for an NT only solution? Then it’s necessary to define the services that will be made available. Finally, there are organization and process questions: How will change management be handled? Who is responsible for what? "You should spend 75 percent of your budget on organization and processes," Paquette says. "You can be successful with any software if you have a good solid organization and processes."

The best place to address these issues, and to tie desktop, server, and network management together, is the helpdesk. "We think the consolidated helpdesk is the critical and most strategic of network and system management," Paquette says. "It is the embodiment of organizational structure and process, and it is those which are critical to success."

The good news is that capabilities once available only to large shops willing to spend heavily are now becoming universally available. "Ease of use and ROI are getting better, so systems management is now an option for most sites," says Kevin Coughlin, product manager for Seagate Software’s Manage Exec product.

With hardware and software becoming an ever smaller portion of IT budgets, management will become increasingly important in reducing PC ownership costs. Unfortunately, solutions to management problems are not simply technical fixes from a single vendor. Instead, these solutions require developing new processes and the judicious selection of a few tools from the dozens now available. -- Jeff Ubois is a San Francisco-based consultant and writer. His work has appeared in ENT, Information Week, Upside, and Interactive Week. He can be reached at jubois@netcom.com.