Is Network Management Ready for the Real-Time Enterprise?

Real-time network management has been around for years. Just ask any IT manager and he’ll quickly show you thousands of real-time metrics pouring in from countless devices throughout the LAN or WAN. But with e-business innovation bringing about the real-time enterprise (RTE — a Gartner Group term that describes a business that can be monitored and run in real-time rather than based on metrics such as monthly or quarterly statistics), the capabilities of management systems are being stretched to the limit.

“The real-time enterprise will put pressure on network management to deliver increasingly business-relevant sophistication in terms of network performance monitoring and intelligent filtering and correlation of network events,” said Debra Curtis, an analyst for Gartner Group.

Instead of being asked to define what is happening at switch X or router Y, IT is being challenged to demonstrate how network and system events relate to business operations and priorities. Not only that, it is being asked to provide the data in real-time. And in most cases, they fall short.

“We are focused on finding, notifying and fixing problems,” said Jeremy Griffin, IT Manager at Patco Construction, a residential and commercial construction company based in Sanford, Maine. “Most network management gear doesn’t even deal with what it takes to support the necessary infrastructure, never mind what the costs are and how everything relates to business processes.”

Gartner characterizes IT organizations in terms of a five-level IT maturity model (see Figure 1). At the bottom of the chart is chaos — a large number of isolated help desks trying to keep users happy without the backup of a properly formed IT department. Next comes the most common grouping — reactive IT management. It this category alerts are many, as are trouble tickets, alarms and fires that network personnel constantly have to troubleshoot. The name of the game is minimizing downtime after the fact.

Figure 1. IT Management Process Maturity Model
Level IT Management
Process Maturity
Management Processes Implemented
4 Value IT/business metric linkage
3 Service Capacity planning, service-level management
2 Proactive Performance, change, problem, configuration and availability management; automation; job scheduling
1 Reactive Event up/down, console, trouble ticket, backup, topology, inventory
0 Chaotic Multiple help desks, nonexistent IT operations, user call notification
Source: Gartner Research

“Many enterprises manage their networks at the reactive level by monitoring the status of when network components are up or down and alerting network technicians via console, e-mail or pager when a network device or circuit is down,” said Curtis. “Fewer enterprises have achieved the proactive level.”

Proactive IT management, the next level up, attempts to prevent downtime from occurring. Relatively few organizations have achieved this zone by benchmarking the network’s performance characteristics, setting baselines and thresholds, and dealing with indicators of potential problems before downtime actually takes place.

But even proactive management, long the goal of many in IT, may not be enough. To keep up with the needs of the real-time enterprise, network management has to be able to tie availability and performance metrics together with business processes. And that takes work — not just mapping each and every business process that impacts IT, as well as the physical labor of giving business relevance and prioritization to every aspect of network operations — there is also a cultural side, i.e., getting IT to think in terms of business value instead of bytes, utilization and latency.

The tools to achieve this are also lacking. IBM Tivoli Business Systems Manager, CA Unicenter Managing On Demand Computing and Managed Objects Formula are a few examples of products that are making progress towards the higher levels of the scale. Such tools document the relationships between network components and business processes, aggregate network management data and translate into a business-oriented view, and present network problems in terms of business impact. According to Curtis, however, these tools are most appropriate for early adopters as the technology itself has yet to establish its full enterprise credentials.

One company attempting to make the transition is freight transport provider CSX Corp, a company that operates the largest rail network in the eastern United States. “We are implementing CA Unicenter to enable the transition from a technology-centric to a business-centric IT organization,” said Cynthia Luman, vice president of operation at CSX. “It has helped us provide the company with an end-to-end view of train systems and their overall relationship to the supply chain.”

While quick to trumpet their latest real-time, enterprise-oriented features, most vendors admit they are only at the early stages of this latest stage in network management evolution. Unicenter, for instance, has had “business process views” for several years. Until recently, this was a laborious manual process where IT and business managers got together and tried to capture the dependencies and relationships between business flows/sequences and IT elements. Now, technology is beginning to appear to automate the data gathering step. But it is far from a fait accompli.

“Automating the relationship mapping — known as dynamic dependency mapping — is very new and currently it is not possible to automatically identify every business process and relate them to infrastructure components,” said David Hochhauser, CA’s vice president for Unicenter Management. “The big challenge is capturing any changes to these business/IT
relationships as they occur.”

Bottom line: vendors are taking baby steps northward on the IT Management Process Maturity Scale. Some mapping of business and IT relationships can now be accomplished automatically, but there is still a long way to go.