Too Much of a Good Thing
Using network management software to address the problem of software bloat, Central Maine Power has found a simple, cost-effective way to reduce network management costs statewide to a quarter of what they were.
Despite that old saying, sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. The National Institutes of Health publishes a report at least once a year saying we're eating too much good food. For network managers, the problem lies with bloated management software.
"Network management software is something to help you do your primary job," says Phillip Morneault, networking specialist for Central Maine Power Company (CMP), in Augusta, Me. "But if running that software takes up most of your time, it defeats the purpose."
Morneault came to that conclusion after attempting to use Aprisma's Spectrum network management software in conjunction with several performance management tools by Concord Communication. While these were excellent products, they represented extreme overkill for the company's 1,400 PC environment. In the end, they proved too difficult to maintain for the overall value they provided.
"For us, Spectrum meant one full-time person just to keep the system running smoothly," says Morneault. "Analysis revealed that we were spending more time and money managing and maintaining it than it gave us valuable information."
Somix Technologies Inc.
The company began searching for a simpler solution that was less expensive and easier to operate than existing software. The new product needed alerting functions, remote management capability, auto configuration and the ability to monitor NT, Unix and AIX devices anywhere on the network.
After reviewing several products, CMP settled on WhatsUp Gold 5.0 from Ipswitch Inc., a network mapping, monitoring and reporting application. An open-standards-based product, WhatsUp Gold is designed to work out of the box without needing a consultant to install it. It took Morneault about twenty hours to set up every device and custom service he needed throughout the CMP network.
The Price is Right
At under $1,000, the product met the company's cost criteria. While still on the earlier system, for example, CMP was quoted $10,000 to put a Web front-end on Spectrum, and that only included the matrix. On top of that, CMP would have to purchase additional hardware. With both Spectrum and Concord, CMP paid annual license fees for each of the agents used on each piece of equipment. WhatsUp Gold came without the burden of these recurring expenses.
"Spectrum and other proprietary systems required an agent on the server or a plug-in module to monitor a particular device," says Morneault. "But because WhatsUp Gold is an open-standards-based SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol), we don't need to purchase additional modules or client licenses."
WhatsUp Gold includes a hierarchical mapping feature that makes it easier for IT administrators to view complex network topologies and large numbers of network devices. Additionally, a Crystal Reports Runtime plug-in lets IT operators monitor applications from the office or a remote location.
While WhatsUp Gold met most of Morneault's needs, it still fell short. The primary piece missing from the network-management puzzle: performance monitoring.
|The Central Maine Power network: Central Maine Power integrates WebNM with third-party mapping and monitoring utilities such as WhatsUp Gold. It derives network information such as IP addresses and community strings by extracting this data from the third-party utility.
Morneault turned in a purchase order for WebNM, an open-source-based network, application and computer management platform from Somix Technologies Inc., but was told it wasn't in his budget. Fortunately, a disk utilization problem in the server group eventually led to him getting what he wanted.
"It seemed like there was always some kind of emergency, a server needing disk space and our Server Group didn't know about it," Morneault explains. "They couldn't get enough disk space to keep up with demand and they had to continuously monitor and decide which areas needed more or bigger disks."
After presentations from several vendors, the Server Group settled on WebNM, the same product Morneault wanted. That meant he could piggyback network device monitoring onto the same server used for disk management.
A Somix consultant set up the software and trained the server staff over the course of one day. After that, CMP employees proceeded to set up all the graphs and reports needed, over 700 in all, covering all the servers, routers and switches throughout the network. Service Level Agreement reports are run directly in WhatsUp Gold.
WebNM also solved another problem for CMP. The company has a wireless LAN for mobile dispatch consisting of old pre-802.11 wireless devices. These devices were constantly locking up, but replacing them would have required replacing all the handsets, which was beyond the current budget. The company soldiered on with the old wireless system, which meant having someone drive out to a location every time a device locked up.
To solve this problem, CMP came up with the idea of placing the devices on SNMP-controllable power strips that could be monitored by WebNM. Now, when a wireless device misses a poll, WebNM sends a command to reset the power strip and bring the device back online.
"We used to have to drive all over the state to reset these devices," says Morneault. "Now we don't even get called at night anymore."
Morneault points out that the combination of WhatsUp Gold and WebNM doesn't provide a superfluous set of monitoring tools that come with more expensive network management packages. But Morneault adds that he doesn't miss any of the bells and whistles, because they were never used anyway. In his mind, the key is knowing what you actually need and then having the vendor provide exactly that, rather than letting the vendor dictate how you use the product.
"You definitely need to have a detailed plan of what you want monitored," he advises. "Otherwise, the vendor will fill in the gaps and set it up the way they want. That usually ends up with you paying far more than you need to."
Team leader: Phillip Morneault, Networking Specialist
Organization: Central Maine Power Company, part of Energy East Corporation
Location: Augusta, Me.
Web Site: www.cmpco.com
Goal: Manage the network without wasting time and resources managing the management software.
Scope: Corporate Intranet with over 200 switches, hubs, routers and servers. About 1,400 PCs and 150 servers at 20 sites connected by ATM and private fiber links.
1,400 desktops running Windows 95/2000, plus several Macs
150 servers running:
Mainframe runs O/S 390
AIX on RS/6000 servers: used for databases, DNS and DHCP
RedHat Linux: used for Web servers, system administration and firewalls
Windows NT4.0/2000: used for file and print sharing
Palm PDAs running Netscape calendar program for conference room scheduling
Proprietary wireless handheld devices for meter readers
Locations connected through Cisco ATM and direct DDS or T1 lines.
Previous management software included:
Aprisma (formerly Cabletron) Spectrum
CiscoWorks device-management software
Concord Communication's performance management software for device availability
Microsoft's PerfMon for NT machines
IBM's AIX Public Domain Monitor
Netscape Directory Services
Solution: Replacing costly proprietary network management systems with lower cost open-standards-based technology.
Products: WhatsUp Gold, Ipswitch Inc.: $795 ($1,090 with one year service agreement); WebNM, Somix Technologies Inc.: Approx. $30,000 including installation and support.
Results: 4X reduction in network management costs. No longer takes a fulltime equivalent to run the software.
Business/Mission: Providing electricity to 540,000 commercial, industrial and residential customers in central and southern Maine.
VARs/Integrators: Somix Technologies for the WebNM product
Future Challenges: Expanding the monitoring to include the radio network, microwave group and PBX.
Cost Savings: WhatsUp Gold costs less than $1,000, while just the matrix to Web-enable Spectrum would have cost $10,000.
Interoperability Issues: Had problem getting WebNM to work with AIX. Wanted to use an AIX agent but one wasn't available. Went instead with a freeware BSD agent and this did the trick.
Lessons Learned: "Definitely have a detailed plan of what you want monitored. Otherwise the vendor will fill in the gaps and set it up the way they want. That usually ends up with you paying far more than you need to."
Other Products Considered:
Castle Rock Computing Inc.'s SNMPc
Aprisma Management Technologies Spectrum
Hewlett-Packard Co.'s OpenView
Computer Associates International Inc.'s Unicenter TNG
Evaluation Requirements: Cost, alerting functions, remote management, simplicity, ability to monitor NT, Unix and AIX devices, auto configuration.