Opsware: Taking the Pain Out of Network Management

Opsware brings its automation-centric focus to network management

For most of its existence, Opsware Inc. has focused on automating data centers. Thanks to the heterogeneity of the average enterprise data center, this is a Byzantine-enough practice all by itself.

Late last year, however, Opsware acquired the former Rendition Networks, a purveyor of network change- and configuration-management software. With the Rendition acquisition, some industry-watchers concluded (quite reasonably, as it turns out) that Opsware intended to bring its traditional automation-centric focus to network management.

Last week, Opsware announced Network Automation System 4.0, the first Opsware-branded version of Rendition’s flagship product. True to form, company officials say the revamped product includes enhancements designed to automate many of the activities associated with network management and monitoring.

There’s a special exigency in this regard, insists Eric Vishria, director of product marketing with Opsware: According to market research firm International Data Corp., enterprises were using almost 40 million network devices last year—and this number could grow to nearly 50 million in 2005. What’s more, Vishria claims, for every dollar organizations spend to acquire networking gear, they’ll spend an additional $6 to $8 managing it over the course of its three-year life cycle.

In this respect, he argues, while today’s network management tools do a lot to help automate the routine tasks associated with network management—e.g., provisioning, changing, patching, scripting, auditing, deploying, and reporting—they don’t address the more esoteric requirements of many IT organizations. “What we’re seeing now and what we keep hearing from customers is, 'That’s great, these network management tools deliver value, but how do we take that to the next level?'” Vishria notes. “That’s really what this product is all about, and it’s really about changing configuration management to true automation.”

Even though Opsware only just completed the Rendition acquisition last month, the new NAS 4.0 release isn’t just a rebadging of that company’s own technology, Vishria stresses. In fact, he says, Opsware is sticking with Rendition’s own release schedule. Because of this, there’s minimal integration between Opsware’s own data center automation tools and Rendition’s network management suite. In the version NAS 4.0 timeframe, Opsware has concentrated primarily on enabling automated discovery of servers, software, and network devices across its data center and network automation product stacks. In addition, says Vishria Opsware is delivering unified reporting on assets, activity and compliance between both products, too.

To this end, NAS 4.0 boasts new workflow automation capabilities that enable administrators to automate and enforce approval processes. It also ships with a new “Compliance Center” designed to automate policies and best practices associated with compliance efforts. Also in the compliance arena, NAS 4.0 features a new access-control manager that automates and standardizes network security management across devices from more than 250 different vendors. Finally, the revamped NAS 4.0 ships with a fully Web-based client, which requires no client-install or client-side Java components.

“We were talking to a prospect a couple of weeks ago, and he sort of suggested that they didn’t need this, because they already had change management windows and supposedly really followed their change management process,” he says. “But when we went through it with them, they realized that there was a lot more to it than that. You need to codify the policies and knowledge and best practices so that any Joe Schmo administrator can actually manage effectively.”

As Vishria tells it, today’s network management tools do one thing very well: They provide a vendor-independent solution that’s able to track and make configuration changes across routers, switches, and firewalls. But where they come up short, he argues, is that they don’t codify knowledge or domain-specific expertise so that any administrator of any skill can effectively implement policy. Instead, they require users to be domain-policy experts.

In the age of Sarbanes-Oxley and other compliance requirements, this is an unacceptable shortcoming, Vishria argues. As a result, he says, there’s an increasing need for network management solutions that can also automate compliance management—for both regulatory (SOX, GLBA) and corporate (ISO 9000) compliance initiatives—and automate the workflows associated with best-practices and business processes.

In this respect, he says, NAS 4.0 offers both out-of-the-box and custom reports. It includes a “Compliance Center” that supports automated auditing and reporting for Sarbanes-Oxley, ITIL, HIPAA, and COBIT.

Han Solo once famously observed that flying through hyperspace isn’t like dusting crops, and the same can be said for data center and network management: It’s one thing to offer a breadth of capabilities on a single platform, or on a few core platforms, but it’s very difficult—if not impossible—to deliver administrative granularity across all of the conceivable devices in an organization’s network infrastructure.

For this reason, Vishria says, Opsware tries to use native management functionality (e.g., CiscoWorks) wherever possible. “Just philosophically, if there is an underlying technology that does what we need, we should take advantage of it. That’s always been our philosophy in the data center,” he says. “One of the things that’s striking about Rendition is that they’ve taken a similar philosophical approach. The way that Rendition will make a change on a networking device is going through the same interface that if I were doing it manually I would use.”

Opsware counts several dozen prominent Fortune 500 companies as users of its data center automation software, and touts several Fortune 500 adopters of its NAS software as well, including Countrywide Financial, which uses that offering to automate 6000 network devices across 2000 branch offices. In addition, says Vishria, the Microsoft Network (MSN) is using NAS to automate management for more than 10,000 devices across seven global data centers.

In phase two of its plan to integrate its data center automation and network automation product lines—which is pegged for Q4 of 2005—Opsware promises to deliver a unified visual representation of an organization’s application environment; integrated workflow so that companies can orchestrate changes across servers and network devices; a central data warehouse for all asset information, configurations, and change history; and an integrated UI.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.