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There's More To Open Source Net Management Apps Than Cost Savings

Staff expertise is needed, because installation and support can be an adventure.

One of the thornier aspects of networking is managing the products that you have. Network management offerings run the gamut from products that monitor uptime and network utilization statistics to enterprise application suites that provide device command and control. Vendors such as BMC, CA, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM dominate this segment by offering it all, product suites with a management and reporting interface driven by a back end that discovers network devices, builds network models, discovers and records applications, correlates events, and manages configuration changes.

Open source options won't deliver the same sweeping functionality as big-name vendors, but companies should consider these lower-cost offerings, since the staffing to support and install them might not be that different from proprietary options.

A network management system, or NMS, can automate menial tasks and simultaneously present executives with an overall picture of IT health and stability, while giving technicians the detailed information needed to manage and troubleshoot network servers and services. However, under the dashboard is a spaghetti-like substrate of agents, protocols, procedure calls, applications, and services. Commercial network management systems that do this are expensive to acquire and deploy, typically starting at around $100,000, and they still require dedicated employees to keep them up and running.

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An open source network management application generally isn't an NMS in the same sense that an HP OpenView or BMC platform is. The offerings from HP OpenView, BMC, and IBM/Tivoli can perform network device configuration management, maintain a configuration management database (CMDB), create Layer 3 or Layer 2 topology maps, monitor systems, and correlate events and device status to support monitoring and troubleshooting functions.

In contrast, most open source network management systems don't perform device configuration functions, or even configuration management. Rather, open source products monitor IT systems, send alerts when systems fail or surpass a threshold, and generate trending graphs. Integration with other systems such as HP OpenView, help desk software, and CMDBs usually is possible.

YOU'RE NOT ALONE
Just because products are open source doesn't mean you have to go it alone when it comes to support. Network management systems from the likes of GroundWork, Hyperic, Nagios, OpenNMS, Zabbix, and Zenoss offer commercial support in addition to their community forums. Some sponsors of open source network management, including Hyperic, GroundWork, and Zenoss, maintain both open source and commercial products. Their commercial versions may include closed source enhancements such as advanced monitoring of Windows systems, and support for distributed monitoring, or their community members may have integrated the commercial products with other open source applications, for which you pay an additional fee. The commercial enhancements also include support contracts with phone and e-mail support.

Pricing varies based on the software vendor. For example, GroundWork Pro lists for $25,000 for the software and includes enhanced event processing and reporting as well as telephone support and access to its knowledge base. GroundWork Enterprise, also $25,000, includes support for distributed installations, where each child server is $10,000. There are no separate charges for managed nodes--servers and switches.

Zenoss has a per-node pricing model. The Silver support level for Zenoss' Pro version is $100 per managed node per year with a 100-node minimum--or $10,000. Zenoss' Enterprise with Platinum service is $180 per node per year with a minimum of 250 nodes, for a starting price of $45,000 per year.

Zenoss Enterprise includes distributed installations and a few other enhancements, such as enhanced reporting, modeling, integration with Remedy help desk, and thresholding.

BEFORE YOU GET STARTED ...
The bottom line? Open source software costs, even the enhanced offerings, are far lower than those of comparable products from BMC, CA, and HP. But up-front costs aren't all there is to worry about.

flags
Network Management
Benefits
  • Software costs, even for the enhanced offerings, are far lower than comparable commercial products
  • Some offer fee-based support
Risks
  • Getting the application installed and running can be hard
  • Documentation varies widely and often assumes a level of experience with open source components
Key Vendors
  • GroundWork, Hyperic, Nagios, OpenNMS, Zabbix, Zenoss
You'll need some personnel familiar with Linux and common Linux applications such as MySQL and scripting languages. And they need to know how to work in a Linux environment because none of these products installs easily. There are numerous dependencies that have to be satisfied, and none of the open source documentation covers all the possibilities.

In fact, the documentation of the open source NMS packages ranges from acceptable to dismal. The assumption is often that you're familiar or can get familiar with some of the underlying components commonly integrated into the open source network management system, such as Nagios, MRTG, RRDtool, and the base scripting language of the NMS.

However, once you have an overall grasp on the system, possibilities open up. With relative ease, you can extend the NMS functionality by doing customization or adding your own features. Kevin Riggins, a Principal Financial Group senior information security analyst, used Saint--which is now Nagios--to automatically restart failed services and fire off an alert to HP OpenView. "Being able to drop into a command shell and run commands is a powerful way to work outside the GUI," he says.

Open source network management systems offer advantages such as extensibility and customization at a cost far less than that of commercial offerings. Open source software isn't free--you still have to commit resources to get the application installed and running. Of course, this is something you have to do with commercial network management systems, too. And with the support packages offered for some of the open source products, you can benefit from expert help when you need it.

Photo illustrations by Sek Leung

Photo illustration by Sek Leung
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