Why NCCM is more important than ever

As many of you know, I believe that the network management industry as a whole is in a state of redefinition - or just raw chaos. But one of the brighter spots has been the growth of network change and configuration management (NCCM). Even if it hasn't grown in dollar market value as fast as some areas, like WAN optimization, NCCM is more strategic in my opinion and an ultimately richer and more empowering investment.

In the past, network configuration management had been relegated to an element-management approach associated with the “care and feeding” of new network devices. However, new NCCM products are helping to reshape network management as a more process-aligned discipline with a widening range of values. These include supporting service integrity and service performance, minimizing risk, optimizing security and compliance, managing network assets more holistically, and achieving what in the past were undreamed-of new levels of operational efficiency.

The spate of acquisitions of NCCM vendors in the second half of 2007 reinforces the importance of NCCM technologies. The acquisition of Opsware by HP in July was followed in October with BMC’s acquisition of Emprisa and EMC’s acquisition of Voyence. This left AlterPoint and Intelliden as the two most conspicuous “full-function” NCCM vendors still freestanding in the market, but in our solution center on NCCM, http://itsolutions.emausa.com/ we are or will be also including NCCM solutions from AdventNet, ArcSight, CA, Dorado, Netcordia, OPNET, SolarWinds and UpLogix.

Each of these offers a distinctive footprint – with unique advantages and radically different price points ranging from a few thousand dollars to well into the six figures. Some offer out-of-band support (UpLogix). Others support performance and capacity planning (CA, OPNET and Netcordia). Some are focused on governance, risk management and security – such as Intelliden and ArcSight. Still others, such as AlterPoint, have invested heavily in analytics and governance for lifecycle network asset planning.

After the network build-out in the 1990s, element-specific uni-brand solutions for configuration management had proven unable to keep pace with accelerated needs for scalability, operational efficiency and functionality. In general, element vendor solutions have been command line interface-specific and proprietary in design, and they require a high level of device-specific expertise.

In some instances the knowledge required to effectively leverage element vendor solutions for configuration has been so high as to render the software all but unusable. The NCCM market emerged over the last seven years with solutions that are typically demonstrating value in environments with 50 or more network devices.

Most NCCM investments address at least a meaningful subset of the benefits below:

• Remove the need to know several command syntaxes – which helps to…

• Reduce the high rate of human-introduced configuration errors

• Enable mass multiple updates of device configurations

• Support advanced root cause and event management through event integration across the full infrastructure

• Support enhanced performance management through similar integrations

• Store device configuration changes histograms for failure analysis and disaster recovery purposes

• Alert on non-policy-compliant changes

• Provide more consistent access control and audits which support both security and compliance initiatives

• Increase control of configuration change process through multiple user level authorizations

• Perform some level of inventory and discovery and support asset management and inventory requirements through integrations with other data sources

• Support event and workflow integration at some level

Many of my interviews with NCCM adopters indicate that doing ROI seemed superfluous, given that the results of NCCM deployments could be so dramatic. For instance, in a number of customer environments, uptime improved between 99.3% and 99.9%.

More commonly, outages due to performance and security issues that resulted from misapplied configurations were reduced from 90% of the problems to 10% of the problems and in some cases, with strong process initiatives, configuration errors neared 0%. Similarly, time to assess the impact of change on the network could in some cases be reduced from multiple hours to minutes. And operational advantages might enable updates, such as patches, to be performed with a dramatic rise in efficiency – from 20 an hour to up to 10,000 an hour.

This isn’t to say that all these solutions are already fully the wonderful performers that they aspire to be. This is a still young industry with lots of room for improvement and growth. And based on EMA research from August 2007, (Network Change and Configuration Management (NCCM) Adoption Report), there remains some real dissatisfaction with many NCCM investments. However, in all fairness, many of these investments were not the more advanced solutions mentioned above, but more legacy tools with inevitably far greater limitations.

It would appear that, overall, NCCM is truly beginning to fulfill its promise, albeit after an early bumpy start. In hindsight, you might say that NCCM clearly came into its own in 2007 with acquisition activity and accelerating growth overall. And with the advent of SOA and Web services and increasingly distributed application components across the network, managing the network cohesively in the face of change won’t be just a nice-to-have.

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