This latest management scheme promises to prove IT's value by linking business and technical information in a logical whole. Can BSM live up to its billing?
For many network executives, downtime is as dreaded as an Internal Revenue Service audit. They don't know how much damage will be done, how much it will cost or how much trouble they will be in when it's over. They just know to avoid it at all costs.
When the dreaded downtime does occur, IT shops often stray from established processes in their rush to get systems back up and running. They perform ad hoc fixes and, perhaps, focus on problems that could wait while leaving more pressing issues unattended. The latest network management buzz surrounds a new strategy for alleviating this madness.
The strategy, dubbed business services management (BSM), has given rise to the next generation of management tools. BSM tools are aimed at helping network executives prioritize IT projects and address their fixes based on policies that align IT with business goals, processes and services. With their management products already collecting volumes of data on network, system and application health and performance, vendors propose the next step is correlating network health with business performance. And that's the pitch for BSM.
This is software that lets IT executives tell their management software tools which IT applications, services and processes are the most important to the business. The software then, in theory, helps IT staff monitor and protect those business processes no matter where in the data center or extended enterprise those processes reside. Should an outage occur, BSM would help IT folks quickly restore the most critical systems first. Should performance issues threaten an important business system, BSM not only would alert IT folks, but would offer suggestions on how to fix the IT problem to meet business goals.
BSM can improve the performance of important IT systems, too, while being flexible enough to let network executives realign IT systems with business-oriented goals at any given time, proponents say. This differs from its predecessor, business impact management (BIM). BIM could react at the time of a performance problem or network failure to identify the affected applications, end users and customers. BSM, in contrast, is proactive. For example, BSM would alert IT staff to an over-utilized server, based on stored usage patterns, before a performance slowdown. It would allocate more server resources to support the applications, end users and customers before any performance issues occur. It also would provide the data that staff members need to better equip the network to keep business services up and running.
BSM means combining business and technical information into a logical whole that proves the value of IT, says Benoit Thibaut, head of the instrumentation team at DSIO Auchan, a supermarket chain in Lille, France.
"BSM is a way to understand how technology can impact our business. By this, we mean we link our actual system and application management to business considerations," Thibaut says. "[BSM] enhances the way information is displayed, the way the events are correlated and how they are filtered in order to present the events in a business focus."
What it takes
BSM software typically resides on a dedicated server. Network managers use it to identify business processes, model services and set policies based on business needs. After a network executive works with business managers to determine which business services are most critical, the network executive would model those business services in the software. That model would help identify the network, server, storage, database and application elements on which the service relies.
The software could use distributed agents to collect data from managed devices or poll systems using standards such as SNMP to monitor health, status and availability. The software will monitor all the elements comprising a business service and alert IT staff when, for example, a slow server threatens to affect the overall performance of that business service.
BSM tools must include advanced correlation and analysis capabilities, meaning the software would be able to relate events from different IT systems and make sense of the data. This type of correlation continues to challenge most vendors because of the variety of events generated and data collected from multiple systems. BSM software also should provide suggestions for fixing the problem, and in an ideal world, the products also could automate some, if not all, of those actions.
For example, if the server supporting a human resources application inexplicably slows down at the same time as the server housing an online ordering application, BSM software would, in real time, tell network managers to address the latter server first because it supports an application more important to the business. The product also might suggest migrating the online ordering application to a more powerful server to prevent future failures.
Lacking business savvy
The concept of linking business priorities to the infrastructure supporting them is valid, yet skeptics wonder if management software vendors are the best folks to tackle this issue. They wonder how these vendors will incorporate business process information into tools that always have been so IT-centric.
"In particularly large enterprise companies where there is a BSM mandate from the powers that be, a single tool isn't going to cut it," says Jasmine Noel, principal with Ptak, Noel and Associates. "You need to integrate performance monitoring, analysis, configuration and process tools into a working whole."
Also unclear is how these vendors would help their customers identify critical business processes and services, define them and create policies for them. Industry experts speculate that long-term consulting engagements or multiple tools could be required to reach BSM goals.
Mark Bradley, senior application development analyst at Zurich Life, a business unit of Bank One in Schaumburg, Ill., says he is working to establish consistent service management goals across what used to be three IT departments and three businesses. Bank One merged with JPMorgan Chase earlier this year after acquiring Zurich Life. He says he'd like to see a product that could help him manage business services across multiple units and using multiple tools.
"It would be helpful to have a consistent measurement of what's critical to the business using consistent data across the IT systems," Bradley says. "Every business looks at performance a bit differently, and every IT department prioritizes differently. The challenge is in how to calculate what's critical and then get IT to work with that."
Yet he certainly isn't enthralled with the idea of a multi-year services contract with an IT management vendor to get this type of software up and working. "I would steer clear of any long-term consulting engagements because business decisions need to be made fast," Bradley says.
Getting to BSM nirvana
Of course, management behemoths such as HP and IBM suggest they have all the tools and expertise to get customers to BSM nirvana. Computer Associates and BMC Software also sell what they label as BSM software. And smaller management competitors such as Concord Communications, Managed Objects, Mercury Interactive, Micromuse and Smarts address the effect of IT events on business goals either through service-level agreement monitoring or policy-based management, which involves checking actions against pre-set rules and alerting when policies aren't met. All the products attempt to put a business value on IT events.
Industry watchers remain unconvinced. Despite vendors' claims and product news, industry experts question how well network and systems management software will integrate with business process tools and business intelligence engines - and at what cost.
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Management software in general can run into the millions of dollars. HP's recent BSM addition, OpenView Business Process Insight, alone starts at $190,000. Customers are going to want BSM tools that will make the best of what they have in place. While management vendors can collect data from multiple IT systems, assigning a business value to the data will remain a challenge. Also, to monitor how systems work together to deliver a service and automate corrective actions, integration among management software and business process engines will need improvement.
"The integration points among all these systems is critical for BSM to work," says Stephen Elliot, senior analyst with IDC. "BSM involves a massive amount of data collection across the infrastructure, processes and business systems. Capturing the data and being able to maintain, manage and make sense as to how it relates to the business will challenge many IT shops."
These IT shops are challenged enough in their attempts to define business processes as they relate to IT, Elliot says. Even with the right technology, industry watchers estimate an aggressive, leading-edge shop would need three years to get production-level BSM rolled out. "Getting IT to think in business terms will be a challenge," Elliot adds.
But maybe that's just pessimistic thinking.
At DSIO Auchan, Thibaut uses Managed Objects software to track the performance of business services across 350 stores in multiple countries. The IT team took three months to get its BSM initiative off the ground and now expects a 100-day workload for each new business service added to the system, he says.
On the other hand, Zurich Life's Bradley is moving far slower, while waiting on direction from business unit and upper IT management, he says. He uses Peregrine Systems' help desk software to track IT services, but says he would like to upgrade his management strategy to incorporate more business services. "The momentum is there. We know what needs to be done; we just need management to define alerts and escalations," he says.
Bradley, like many network executives, understands IT exists to support the business, but also must work with business managers to understand the best way to do that.
Thibaut, too, admits the challenge to begin adopting BSM rests with people more than technology.
"It's a change in the organizational structure, business and IT," Thibaut says. "For us, the pain point is in particular a 'human' one. The biggest challenge . . . is to make the IT team think about business."