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The ‘music’ in network management

Apr 05, 20044 mins
Data CenterMicrosoft

* How RealNetworks and Microsoft are like network management companies

Sometimes it’s worthwhile, and hopefully a little bit fun, to speculate on analogies between network management and other industries. In this vein, the legal battles between Microsoft and the EU over the bundling of digital media players and the evolution of companies like RealNetworks have triggered some analogies with network management.

While the European Commission has helped RealNetworks win one of the major skirmishes in its battle with Microsoft and other potential software giants, its future is far from certain. If RealNetworks remains primarily a software provider, it may well become vulnerable to larger competitors. However, RealNetworks has evolved beyond its focus on software for playing music and video streams delivered over the Internet to PCs, to include service subscriptions for music, computer games, and streaming video for Nascar races. And this evolution well beyond its software roots could turn into a saving grace, competitively speaking.

So what does this all mean for network management? For me, at least, it led to some speculation on how management software should be packaged (bundled or unbundled), as well as what services might arise from the currently arcane and technically intense realm of network management.

First of all, the analogy of an operating system with a management framework is a provocative one. Operating systems provide foundational services for a wide variety of user applications. On a general level, that’s exactly what a framework should do. Ideally, users would get to choose from applications developed by the framework brand and those developed by other, competing brands. From a buyer perspective, this would be a solid plus – and just getting network management to the point where the Microsoft case would be directly relevant would be a big step forward.

Should we ever get to that wonderful place, it’s probably safe to assume that framework providers won’t bundle – for free, at least – critical or highly visible management applications. These applications require too much R&D for “free” to apply. In fact, in the old days of the “paleoframeworks,” single-brand purchase was facilitated by sheer force of marketing and sales coercion, with minimal to no “out of the box” functionality. Buyers were expected to sign up for a kind of “brand religion” and were expected, as with some other religious observances, to make serious sacrifices of time and money to participate. 

Our conversations with vendors give some cause for optimism that those large providers of management products are planning suites of services to support an array of applications, including third-party brands. While this awareness is further along with some companies than others, it’s probably safe to say that unibrand totalitarianism is virtually a thing of the past. Future progress will depend on standards and protocol support in a wide array of areas beyond SNMP to emerging points of integration such as WSDM, XML and CIM.

RealNetworks’ evolution away from a pure software play to more of a provider of content-driven services (in this case music and video), underscores the fact that high technology really isn’t just about technology – it’s also about enriching (hopefully) human behavior, human desire, and human satisfaction.

The music in network and infrastructure management will start to come – many years down the road, most likely – when analyzing business behaviors and interactions that occur increasingly through technology transports become as prime to IT reporting as infrastructure health. If this does come to pass, it will demand an entirely new set of skills and radically new organizational leadership.

Ultimately, IT will face a choice: Will it merely be the organization that enables reports of this behavioral “music,” or will it leverage its own technologies to step up to a leadership position within the broader business it serves? To do this would require an ability to combine insight into technical performance issues with analysis of organizational and individual business dynamics. This means cultivating brand-new careers, with mixtures of technology, business, organizational and social science skills. Is this culturally even possible for IT, or is it something that hardened, empiric IT techno-skeptics will simply reject? The answer is, as they say, “written in water.”