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CIM creeps ever closer

The Common Information Model is already paying dividends, but more vendors need to get on board.

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Guy Wood, chief information officer of Internet Banking Communications, had never heard of the Common Information Model when he bought Manage.Com's FrontLine Manager to handle his firm's mixed bag of electronic commerce systems. But he is, nevertheless, one of the few network professionals who can testify to CIM's strengths as an integration enabler for enterprise management.

FrontLine Manager, now known as Frontline FastStart, provides all the proactive, integrated and graphical user interface-based management capabilities offered by enterprise frameworks such as Tivoli's NetView and Computer Associates' Unicenter TNG. Yet FrontLine FastStart only costs about $15,000, instead of $100,000. Furthermore, it took Wood only an hour, rather than months, to deploy the platform.

Wood is eager to beta-test the service-level management capabilities in Manage.Com's FrontLine e.M. Slated for release next month, the product is said to automatically discover, locate, diagnose and correct problems such as electronic commerce transaction bottlenecks.

What makes all this possible is the Common Information Model (CIM), a key part of the Desktop Management Task Force's Web-based Enterprise Management (WBEM) blueprint for unified administration. CIM is a set of schemas for describing and sharing enterprisewide management information. In addition to CIM, WBEM includes these elements:

  • XML, a standardized structure for presenting and structuring management information in Web page format. XML will let management applications dynamically share CIM data.

  • HTTP for common transport of management information.

  • Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, which defines a directory infrastructure for storing and accessing management information.

DMTF working groups are in the process of evolving a set of CIM schemas that describe the gamut of managed elements: servers and desktops, including operating systems, components, peripherals and applications; all layers of the network, from Ethernet switches through IP and HTTP connections; and users. Schema fields describe the attributes that apply to these objects, from the type of printer or storage medium used, to RAM and CPU capacity, to whether a switch supports the Border Gateway Protocol. CIM will also define management functions and disciplines, such as application performance measurement and policy-based networking.

One of CIM's major strengths is a hierarchical, object-oriented architecture that makes it comparatively straightforward to track and depict the often-complex interdependencies and associations among different managed objects. Such interdependencies may include those between logical network connections and underlying physical devices, or those of an e-commerce transaction and the Web and database servers on which it depends.

CIM schemas are also far more comprehensive than SNMP or the Desktop Management Interface (DMI), says John McConnell, president of McConnell Consulting in Boulder, Colo. This will hopefully minimize the sort of product-specific extensions that are eventually included in essentially proprietary SNMP Management Information Bases. "I think CIM and XML are the best shot we've had in the management realm for a long time," McConnell says.

A small but growing band of CIM-savvy users is also excited about the implications of having a common, vendor-independent language for managing increasingly multivendor systems across the enterprise.

Companies such as United Parcel Services, for example, see CIM as their best crack at that elusive, long-pursued animal - the vendor-independent management information repository.

Right now, like most companies, UPS maintains multiple, vendor-specific and often redundant sets of management information, each generated by a different management application or tool. Ensuring that changes, such as user updates or device reconfigurations, get propagated in all the right places is an administrative nightmare, says Peter Gunn, network performance manager at the package handler in Mahwah, N.J.

UPS' management framework, Tivoli NetView, provides a common repository that applications can share - provided they support the framework's APIs. Gunn hopes that a CIM-based repository will give him a broader choice of management applications without sacrificing information-sharing.

Also generating user interest in CIM is the Directory Enabled Network (DEN) standard, which defines how managed network, system, user and policy objects can be stored, associated and accessed in a common directory infrastructure. The DEN standard was folded into WBEM last fall.

MCI WorldCom sees CIM as crucial to its DEN strategy. "In a directory-enabled world, we don't have to know what type of system it is or the physical location of it to get information." says Glenn Tindall, internal enterprise data networking group director at the Washington, D.C., carrier.

CIM and WBEM's vendor-independent infrastructure will help MCI WorldCom's IT staff deal with a slew of incompatible systems that the company has been left with as a result of multiple mergers. For that reason, the network services giant is calling for WBEM support in its management-related requests for proposal. However, Tindall says his firm will have to prototype CIM because so many schemas are still incomplete.

Indeed, until very recently, CIM was more prototype than actual reality.

Manage.Com, for example, had to write its own home-grown schemas as place holders for CIM models that the DMTF has not yet defined. And with few vendors supporting CIM, Manage.Com also had to provide its own CIM agents - software to convert existing SNMP or Desktop Management Interface (DMI) information to CIM - on key e-commerce servers.

While a truly impressive roster of vendors has worked on the standard and promised to support it, only a handful have shipped CIM-compatible products. Of the available products, most are designed to manage Windows and Windows NT desktops.

This isn't surprising because systems management has by far the most fully defined set of CIM schemas, and Microsoft is CIM's original instigator.

CIM is now shipping with Microsoft's Win32 Registry, which tracks and reports software assets on Windows and NT systems, and with Microsoft's Systems Management Server (SMS) 2.0.

More important, Microsoft is so far the only systems vendor to ship a CIM object manager (CIMOM).

CIMOMs are keystones of the CIM architecture, acting as liaisons between management applications that request information and the various agents managing different elements of that system.

Microsoft's CIMOM, the Windows Management Infrastructure (WMI), is included in Windows 98 and in the service pack for NT 4.0; it will also ship with Windows 2000. Many desktop vendors, including 3Com, Compaq, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel and NEC, are writing CIM "providers" that take information from their existing management agents and send it to WMI. Meanwhile, several CIM-compliant desktop management products, such as BMC Software's Pilot 3.3, Computer Associates' Unicenter TNG, Microsoft's SMS, Tivoli NetView and NetIQ's AppManager Suite, can use WMI as a single point of contact for all the information they need about a desktop.

Early users report several benefits to being able to manage Microsoft desktops via CIM (see story, this page). In order for CIM to fulfill its potential as an enterprise management standard, however, it must break out of the Microsoft desktop management niche and achieve a critical mass of vendor support.

Right now, CIM is at a kind of crossroads. At its annual conference last week, the DMTF released several pieces of the WBEM/CIM architecture. CIM Version 2.2 adds logical networking and user-related schemas, as well as DEN-specific CIM extensions. DMTF spokespeople predict that by year-end, CIM schemas for key areas of management, including applications, systems, networking and users, will be complete enough for vendors to implement. There will also be CIM extensions that address more specific types of systems, such as mass storage and Unix.

While network and systems management schema rapidly fall into place, the DMTF still has a long way to go when it comes to defining critical areas of application management. What's more, application vendors will have to define product-specific extensions - no easy task, given the complexity of applications, the newness of CIM models and the lack of helpful tools, says Bob Kruger, vice president of Windows NT Solutions at BMC in Houston. After all, even Microsoft hasn't yet announced CIM support for its applications.

In other recent news, the DMTF last week released the first round of XML specifications. And Sun announced Solaris WBEM Services, a Java-based CIMOM that runs on Solaris systems. The CIMOM will be included in the next release of Solaris, due out next year; Sun also plans to license it to other vendors. In the meantime, Sun's Easy-Access Server Solaris bundle, slated for release in August, is expected to fully support CIM.

A Unix-based CIMOM can perform the same coordinator/liaison services as WMI for the disparate elements of a Unix system. Desktop vendors, such as Compaq and Intel, have already indicated their desire to write providers to Unix-based CIMOMs.

Compaq plans to develop CIM object managers for its Digital and Tandem operating systems, and to push partners such as Novell and The Santa Cruz Operation to do the same for their products, says Ed Reynolds, Compaq's director of product marketing. "The operating system is the logical place where management instrumentation can come together because drivers have to deal with it."

And network hardware vendors want a choice of Unix- and NT-based CIMOM models to support their management applications.

One crucial missing component that the DMTF plans to introduce this fall is a CIM- and WBEM-compliance testing program.

Indeed, vendor support of CIM will be gradual and unending, as is the process of defining CIM schemas and associations. Cisco, for example, implemented the completed CIM network asset schema in CiscoWorks last fall. The management platform can now send configuration information to frameworks such as OpenView and Tivoli NetView.

"We are deciding what the most valuable pieces of information to expose first via CIM are," says Joel Strassner, Cisco architect.

Further complicating vendors' CIM support strategies is the issue of what role existing standards such as DMI and SNMP will play in CIM- and WBEM-based management.

Right now, CIM "providers" and software from vendors such as BMC and Manage.Com let SNMP and DMI agents coexist and interoperate with CIM object managers. The danger is that CIM never quite comes into its own, remaining an adjunct to the older standards.

Leading management platform vendors such as CA, HP and Tivoli are treating CIM as a complement or alternative to SNMP and DMI. "In core network management, we don't see anyone implementing WBEM to replace SNMP," says Jim Haselmaier, marketing manager for HP OpenView Network Node Manager.

SNMP Research plans to have its forthcoming application and systems management applications support CIM as a means of sharing information with other applications, says Jeff Case, company founder and chief technology officer.

However, SNMP Research will continue to use SNMP Version 3 for the actual management. He insists that SNMP 3 is just as good or better than CIM.

MCI WorldCom's Tindall disagrees. "SNMP and DMI do standardize management definitions some, but we still have to write our own scripts to pull information together and do our own correlation," he says.

Another cloud on the horizon is the question of when, or even if, vendors will adopt XML as the standard way to access CIM information. XML is key to CIM because it ensures that different management systems and applications can exchange and use each other's CIM-based information, McConnell says.

At this point, however, few management vendors have announced XML support. Companies such as BMC and Microsoft have indicated that XML will be just one of several methods they'll use to present and exchange CIM data (Microsoft's Component Object Model being another). Vendors such as Compaq are waiting for XML specifications to stabilize, which Reynolds predicts will happen in the third or fourth quarter.

What's needed right now, analysts and vendors agree, is a strong contingent of CIM-savvy companies such as MCI WorldCom to elicit whole-hearted and broad industry support of the standard.

The DMTF has recently accelerated its CIM education efforts. The group hosted sessions at this spring's NetWorld+Interop '99 trade show and founded a CIM Customer Forum, whose members will hopefully spread the CIM gospel.

For the moment, at least, vendors aren't exactly trumpeting the news about CIM. UPS' Gunn, for instance, heard about CIM at a Network World Town Meeting. "None of the vendors I deal with have approached me on the subject," he says.

It's not surprising, then, that a current CIM user, such as Internet Banking's Wood, can appreciate the benefits without realizing that the standard is responsible.

Of course, SNMP, too, was once an esoteric network management standard whose subtle nuances were understood only by Internet Engineering Task Force product engineering gurus.

CIM schema status update

Systems management: Largely complete now.

Applications management: Some common specifications describing applications completed. Application-specific schema and application performance schema are in the works with no scheduled timeframe for completion.

Networks: Asset configuration schema fairly complete. Physical networking schema fairly complete. Physical network schema is included in CIM v.2.1. CIM v.2.2 contains logical schema and DEN extensions. Network topology: still in works with no scheduled timeframe for completion.

User schema: included in CIM v2.2.

Database and event models: Due out with CIM v.2.3, scheduled for release in October.

CIM policy definitions for class of service, security, and device configuration: Expected to be 95% complete this summer.

Configuration: Completion expected by late 1999 or early 2000.

Topology schema: Not yet in committee.

Network event schema: Expected to be defined by mid-year.

Application schema: Basic application configuration schema is done. Application performance schema due out in next month or two.

Storage management specifications: Some announced with CIM v2.2. StoreX, a storage management standard expected out by summer's end, is built around CIM.

Unix system schema: Under development by the Open Group with no timeframe for scheduled completion.

Policy schema: Expected to be complete this fall.

RELATED LINKS

Horwitt is a freelance writer and consultant in Waban, Mass. She can be reached at EHorwitt@ compuserve.com.

Nabisco eats up CIM
User case study. Network World, 6/21/99.

Building a common management model
Network World Tech Update on CIM. 2/22/99.

Web-Based Enterprise Management Initiative
Technology overviews and organization info.

CIM FAQ
From the DMTF.

Time to pay attention to CIM and XML Network World Fusion Focus on Network/Systems Management, 11/2/98.

Compaq and WBEM
From Compaq.

DEN Ad Hoc Working Group
Mailing list, overviews.

Moving Forward with DEN
Cisco paper.

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