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Senior Editor

Net management software: Rip and replace?

Dec 09, 20025 mins
Data Center

As systems age, users face decision to squeeze more out of old packages or toss them.

When the network at Waterbury Hospital in Connecticut went from supporting 200 to 1,500 end users, CIO Jim Olson needed a way to keep managing it without spending any more money.

The most obvious route would have been trying to squeeze more out of the company’s 3-year-old Computer Associates Unicenter TNG framework, but the hospital instead took a more drastic course. It tore out a Unicenter system initially installed to manage more of a mainframe- and minicomputer-oriented network and replaced it with SilverBack Technologies’ Infocare, which was more suited to handle the hospital’s increasingly distributed, server-based environment.

Sure, the hospital had to shell out $40,000 for Infocare, but it also got to ditch $60,000 in annual Unicenter maintenance and support fees, resulting in an immediate savings of 33%.

The decision whether to keep or dump a management system is complicated, especially if the system has been highly customized or features agents distributed across hundreds or even thousands of devices. What’s more, it’s not easy to justify elimination of software that might have cost $500,000 or more. But network executives and industry watchers agree that replacing a management system shouldn’t be overlooked as a way to reduce costs, optimize network performance and lessen the load for tight network/IT staffs.

“Some users simply outgrow their management products, and some tools never get completely implemented,” says Dennis Drogseth, an analyst with Enterprise Management Associates. “But unlike in the past when tools’ shortcomings may have been accepted or forgotten, network managers are now considering removing and replacing management software as a cost-cutting measure.”

Olson is quick to point out that the hospital’s network – which expanded from a pair of mainframes to six minicomputers and then 37 Compaq ProLiant servers – didn’t outgrow Unicenter’s capabilities. However, the hospital was finding it more difficult to operate Unicenter without additional training – training it could not afford.

“As we moved from mainframe to client/server, we upgraded Unicenter, but even with the effort we made to use it, we became more and more dissatisfied with the product,” Olson says. “The Infocare functionality is not as rich as Unicenter, but for the small, financially strapped organization, it is an option.”

Rules of replacement

Six simple steps to sail through software swapping.

Timing is everything

Start thinking about replacing software when it’s time to renew your contract with your current vendor and you could potentially save in licensing fees.

Know your network

Perform a full audit of all servers, devices and desktops. To replace software, you need to know what you already have and who’s using it.

Factor in training

Consider training costs in the overall price of the software. If you have to keep staff updated regularly, the product might be more expensive than it’s worth in the long run.

Mix and match

Don’t limit your network management options to one vendor. Many software providers recently reinvented their tools to work well with products from their competition.

Account for everything

Don’t write off software you still have installed in your network. Just because you aren’t using it, doesn’t mean the vendor isn’t going to charge you for it.

Work with your vendor

Don’t discount your current vendor’s desire to keep you as a satisfied customer. Many management software providers will work with you to get their product working in your network.

Making the switch was relatively simple, taking about a week, Olson says. First his staff audited the network to find every instance of Unicenter running on servers and workstations, then uninstalled the scattered software from a central management location. The hospital and SilverBack got Infocare up and running across 120 managed devices in less than a week.

SilverBack offers multiple network and systems management tools loaded onto one server installed on the customer site. The customer’s IT staff uses the software for hands-on network and systems management, while SilverBack maintains and updates the software via a VPN.

Another view

“Swapping out network-management systems is usually a very difficult proposition, but it depends on the customization of the tools within the network,” says Glenn O’Donnell, an analyst with Meta Group. “Those who have invested heavily in integration and training will find it extremely difficult to switch. Most will tolerate some lack of capabilities rather than suffer through such change.”

Kim Kloskey, lead WAN data network engineer at Aurora Health Care in Milwaukee, says the organization almost switched from Aprisma Management Technologies Spectrum to Unicenter a few years ago, but decided not to after the IT manager proposing the change left the company.

“We hadn’t completely exhausted all the avenues of the [Spectrum] software yet,” Kloskey says. “A lot of what we needed to do was train people on the tools. We had to get over the biases people had of the old software.”

After conducting a request-for-proposal process, Kloskey determined the IT department’s money and time could be better spent fully deploying Spectrum than going with Unicenter, and she convinced the company’s upper management of the same.

Aurora uses Spectrum to manage a 100-plus site network in eastern Wisconsin that consists of 250 servers and supports a central healthcare management application along with standard office-productivity software.

Of course, some companies will choose to neither completely rip out nor replace their management systems, but rather do a little of each. Many management framework vendors have made their software more modular, letting customers turn on the features they want, keep others shut off and only pay for what they use. Computer Associates and Hewlett-Packard have even broken down their frameworks to let customers manage only network elements or application performance.

This has opened more doors for smaller vendors, such as Concord Communications and Smarts, that offer less-expensive tools to address specific management needs.

“Switching software used to be a black and white decision, but now IT departments can think creatively about how they manage their networks,” Enterprise Management Associates’ Drogseth says.