If 1996 was the year of the intranet ? and many would argue that at least that?s what it looked like in the computer industry trade papers ? then it appears 1997 may be the year of network management software.
Many of the industry?s main players ended the year spending a lot of time talking not only about the rollout of huge corporate intranet and Internet sites, but also about the management of the network that is going to host and provide access to those sites. From chip vendors such as Intel to mainstream monoliths like Microsoft and IBM, network management is all the rage.
The biggest single goal of this new focus on network management is to simplify and empower. Virtually every announcement made over the past couple of months talks about aiming for zero maintenance of devices on modern networks, with network computers (NCs), Java Stations and low-cost, sealed case PCs paving the road to this particular Nirvana.
On the server side of this equation, developments are driven by the network management facilities that Intel has built into the Pentium Pro chip. This makes it easier for anyone writing network system tools to write standard code that accomplishes much more than before.
One of the early indicators of just how important an issue network management was to become came in mid August last year. This was when Computer Associates and Intel made ?a strategic agreement? to reduce the cost and complexity of implementing and managing Pentium Pro servers throughout large enterprise networks.
The two companies created what they said was an integrated solution that consolidated data from Pentium Pro servers and correlated it into usable management information. They said it would eliminate the need to create and maintain custom interfaces to access information, thereby increasing control and reducing server management costs.
Computer Associates and Intel have provided two ways of accessing server management information: either using the desktop management interface (DMI) and SNMP-based open instrumentation interfaces inherent in Pentium Pro systems or by accessing server instrumentation available from Intel?s Lan Desk Server Monitor Module and Lan Desk Server Manager Pro.
Using Computer Associates? Unicenter TNG network management software, it is possible to remotely obtain information such as temperature status and voltage status. If adjustments can be made remotely, the software allows them to be made over the network without anyone having to be physically in front of the server.
The link extends beyond the operating system itself and takes place at the processor/ motherboard level. Because it is operating system independent, it is possible to remotely reset, reboot and power on systems that have gone down or hung completely.
In organisations where there may be dozens of servers on a Wan ? some may be located in different cities from the people charged with the day-to-day management of them ? the capability to have a processor-based, self-contained and communications-enabled diagnostic unit on the motherboard is a huge leap forward. And if the unit cannot help network managers make the necessary repairs by reinstalling software, its ability to operate independently of the main system helps to act like the black box on downed aircraft by helping managers piece together what has gone wrong with the system.
In October, IBM and Intel announced ?a broad-based effort to reduce the support costs of high-performance PCs in networked environments?. Known as the advanced manageability alliance, the deal commits the two companies to work together to define, develop, integrate and deliver standards-based solutions that aim to simplify the installation, configuration and management of networked PCs.
In the first stage of the alliance, Intel is incorporating its Wake On Lan remote management capability into fast Ethernet Lan adaptors and Lan Desk Client Manager software. The IBM PC Company, meanwhile, is incorporating those Intel products into its commercial desktop computers that use Pentium Pro and Pentium processors and has said they will be available in the first quarter of this year.
The alliance is supposed to draw on the network expertise of each firm ? Intel in desktop management and networking technology and IBM in PCs and networked systems ? to make it simpler to install and manage PCs on networks.
Intel and IBM are concentrating their efforts on three areas: PC networking management hardware, PC management software, and PC systems.
The companies say that by using integrated PC diagnostics, there will be a reduction in service calls and downtime and that they will be able to simplify desktop administration, client installation and upgrades. They believe this approach will help prevent system failures by using the same kind of alert management system developed with Computer Associates, enabling corporate IT organisations to provide system administration during non-office hours. Finally, they claim that it will be a great way for companies to be able to track PC and network assets, reduce their support costs for networked PCs and lower their total cost of ownership.
IBM and Intel are keen to make clear the deal isn?t a cosy, proprietary arrangement, and they say it will be open and customer-driven.
?Our customers are demanding that we make their PCs and business systems more manageable,? says Sam Palmisano, general manager of the IBM PC Company. ?While many of the solutions will start from the research and development that IBM and Intel will do, we will work with the rest of the industry to ensure we deliver open solutions.?
With the rising popularity of Windows NT, and Microsoft inserting itself heavily into the network operating system software sector in recent years, it should come as no surprise that the Intel/IBM announcement took place only two days after the unveiling of a similar Microsoft-led effort known as the zero administration initiative for Windows.
If the goals of this initiative sound familiar, it is probably because the mainstream PC industry sees a huge potential market for these features. Microsoft, for example, is promoting its effort as a way for corporate users to build on the existing investment they have in Windows, while allowing them to automate PC management and deploy the widest choice of applications in a controlled way.
Bill Gates, chairman and CEO of Microsoft, says there?s a huge demand for this. ?Customers want to be able to update software without touching every machine and allow users to seamlessly move from one machine to another,? he says. ?And they want to gain these benefits without introducing the unnecessary complexity of new, incompatible hardware and operating systems.?
Once again, this initiative appears aimed at giving the IT professional new levels of control and manageability over the Windows-based environments on their networks. It is supposed to help automate such tasks as updating operating systems and installing applications, as well as provide tools for central administration and desktop system lock-down.
Microsoft envisages a more flexible networked workplace will result, because network administrators will be able to let users roam between PCs without requiring their applications and files to be reinstalled each time.
Many of the same ideas that populate the Intel, Computer Associates and IBM announcements are in the zero administration initiative, with the big benefit being that Microsoft?s implementation applies specifically to Windows-based systems.
According to Microsoft, other key issues are:
- Automatic system update and application installation;
- All information about the system of an individual system is kept on server; and
- Central administration and system lock-down.
But all these features will not be available right away. Microsoft says these functions will be available to varying degrees on future versions of Windows 95 and NT Workstation, and will be supported by NT Server.
Microsoft?s pitch for the idea is laced with a heavy dose of self-interest. It wants to dissuade its corporate customers that they should resist the idea of moving to simple Internet terminals such as Sun Microsystems? Java Station or the Oracle-backed NC. In the announcement of the zero administration initiative, this point was made rather heavy-handedly by the company.
?With the zero administration initiative, customers can be assured that the value derived from their investment in Windows will increase over time as more solutions become available,? argues Microsoft.
?Currently, more than 1.7 million software developers are creating Active X and Windows-based applications because they can take advantage of the richness of the Windows environment and exploit the new opportunities provided by the Internet.?
Microsoft also hopes it will give corporate users yet another reason to buy Windows 95 and Windows NT Workstation 4.
The company went as far as citing Gartner Group and Forrester Research studies that apparently revealed high interest in features such as remote diagnosis and management of key system services, standardised system policies and centralised user profiles, and Windows NT Workstation?s ability to securely lock down system configurations.
All these initiatives offer strong and powerful ideas about how network management is likely to evolve. It is clear that it will become easier to manage networks, and that network managers will be able to do more management as opposed to wasting time trying to figure out which parts of it have gone down and why.
For dealers selling networked systems ? or selling into networked environments ? the most immediate impact will come when corporate users start demanding systems that comply with whichever implementation becomes the dominant force in the market.
It is likely, for example, that the work done by Intel and Computer Associates will further encourage a move toward Pentium Pro systems, while the zero administration initiative from Microsoft will provide a further push for corporations to make the move from Dos and Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 and Windows NT.
New opportunities will emerge for dealers with the education and understanding to sell network management software that takes advantage of these technologies.
And those skills are certain to be something that adds enough value to allow the charging of at least a small premium ? at least until the competition catches up.
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