IT Management Gets SaaS Options

More management tools are available in the cloud, but drawbacks abound.

Michael Biddick

August 24, 2011

9 Min Read
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IT management software has always been expensive and difficult to deploy. Respondents to our InformationWeek 2011 State of Enterprise Management Survey complain about product cost, integration struggles, and bolted-on functions that don't satisfy their needs--gripes we've heard for years. That ongoing frustration is creating a golden opportunity for SaaS-based IT management services. Upstart providers and established vendors alike are attacking cost and deployment issues head-on by offering system management and monitoring as services.

They have plenty of company. The overall SaaS market is surging, with some analysts predicting sales topping $12 billion this year. In our most recent InformationWeek SaaS Survey, we saw general software-as-a-service adoption jump 13 points year over year. It's clear that no previously on-premises-only software category is immune to incursions by SaaS providers, though for now IT management is more a slow creep than a full-on rush: 10% of respondents to our Enterprise Management Survey currently use SaaS for these functions. An additional 5% say they'll adopt within the next 12 months, and 21% are evaluating. These modest numbers are, in part, attributable to IT's overall gloomy view of these systems; respondents also expressed extreme skepticism about SaaS for enterprise management.

Vendors are working to overcome this lack of confidence. In April, startup Spiceworks, which offers IT device monitoring, help desk, and other management functions via the cloud, netted $25 million in a Series D round. Last year, Citrix snapped up Paglo, a SaaS platform for IT management, and renamed it GoToManage. And it's not just startups: Market leaders including HP and BMC have SaaS versions of some flagship management products. For instance, BMC last year launched an as-a-service version of Remedy, priced at $149 per user, per month.

Is IT management as a service for you? Areas to dig into include architectural challenges, security policies, application integration, and data storage and availability.

Are you using any SaaS Apps?

SaaS IT Architecture

In general, SaaS-based IT management offerings can be divided into two categories: hybrid and pure play. Hybrid systems typically require some kind of collector, whether a virtual or physical appliance or software agents, to be deployed on the customer's premises. Collectors gather from the network such data as device configurations and network topography.

For example, IT SaaS services from vendors AccelOps and GoToManage use an on-premises device to collect data from hardware and software systems, compress it, and securely transmit info on local operations to the providers' managed data centers. At the data centers, vendors provide application monitoring, operational data processing, and data storage. IT admins go to a Web portal to conduct status checks, run reports, and configure operational dashboards.

With a pure-play SaaS offering, the provider gathers IT data remotely. That requires the customer to open its firewall so that network devices and computers can be scanned. SAManage is an example of a pure-play SaaS provider.

The hybrid approach is most common because few corporate security policies allow external interrogation of internal systems. In addition, IT management software often requires administrative access to network and computer devices so it can get the most detailed information about these systems. Most IT shops are deeply uncomfortable with providing this access remotely. Having a virtual or physical appliance behind the firewall, and under IT's control, is more palatable.

While the hybrid model transfers storage and other requirements to the provider, you're still responsible for maintaining the collectors and ensuring that they're gathering data properly.


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A Foot In The Door

As with other services, SaaS-based IT management boasts lower capital investment and easier deployment vs. on-premises software. That can count for a lot, given that 70% of respondents to our survey say cost is their No. 1 concern with enterprise management suites, more than double the number citing deployment difficulties (31%). And the software license is just the tip of the iceberg. You also have ongoing maintenance and support, which can total as much as 20% of the purchase price, and administrators to keep the system up and running, install patches, and other tasks.

Enter SaaS. Subscription pricing reduces the capital outlay, and the provider bears responsibility for maintaining the software and infrastructure that support the service. And you don't have to give up features to gain these cost and deployment benefits. Depending on the provider, you can get a full suite of capabilities from a SaaS provider, including asset and change management, fault and performance monitoring, configuration management databases (CMDBs), and more. Better yet, in many cases, these features are holistic components of the provider's code base, as opposed to how many on-premises products bolt on capabilities acquired from other vendors--often with mixed results.

Online services can also be used to fill gaps in a company's management toolbox. You might not want to run application performance management in the cloud, but an online tool that tracks IT assets and their configurations could fit the bill nicely. For those on the fence, SaaS providers make it easy to pilot their services. Take advantage of these free trials.

Not All Rosy

There are downsides to SaaS in general, and IT management applications are poster children for integration and data management challenges. Consider that most organizations have a multitude of legacy management tools--and their associated data stores--already in place, with many having cost a pretty penny. According to our Enterprise Management Survey, 39% have four to seven tools, and an additional 10% have eight or more. If you want a holistic, service-oriented view of your infrastructure, that requires some level of integration with applications such as fault and performance management or ticketing.

This integration is a hurdle for both on-premises and SaaS vendors. But the remote data storage inherent in a SaaS service presents an additional challenge--without integration, that SaaS application becomes a silo, with critical information locked away inside. This challenge is not insurmountable, but it will require some effort on your part. For instance, if your SaaS service uses on-premises collectors, they could potentially serve as integration points, but you have to deal with coding and cobbling to make it happen.

Some SaaS vendors, such as ServiceNow, address this silo issue directly. ServiceNow includes hundreds of integrations to third-party applications and data sources as part of its service, at no extra charge. Its most common integrations are with incident, problem, and change management systems; user administration interfaces; single sign-on; and CMDBs.

Another challenge when it comes to SaaS is data storage. IT management apps generate a lot of data--perhaps the most of any operational support system. IT tends to want to keep fault and performance data around for a while, especially if we offer SLAs. This means the amount of data you store with the provider will grow, perhaps significantly. Depending on how you're charged for storage, you may find SaaS costs rising unexpectedly.

Many IT pros are also uncomfortable with this sensitive data residing outside the corporate firewall.

You'll find a huge variety of vendors in the SaaS-based IT management market; many also offer on-premises suites. AccelOps, Citrix GoToManage, GFI, ManageEngine, Netreo, SAManage, ServiceNow, Spiceworks, and others target different size companies and offer a variety of capabilities. For example, Spiceworks aims primarily at small businesses, while AccelOps is designed for midsize enterprises. Netreo and ServiceNow play at the higher end of the market.

Established vendors such as BMC and HP also target midsize and large companies with the SaaS versions of their products.

Are you using SaaS-Based Enterprise Management Tools?
Take Your Pick

SaaS-based IT management services run the gamut of options. For instance, GoToManage focuses on server and network monitoring. With features that provide availability, performance, and configuration of Windows and Linux servers, IT can track and trend key metrics like CPU load averages, memory, and disk utilization. GoToManage charges $219 a month to manage as many as 25 devices. Several providers, including AccelOps, SAManage, and ServiceNow, offer CMDBs, which maintain detailed configuration information on network devices and computers.

For instance, AccelOps' service discovers and maintains an inventory of network assets, software, patches, users, and directory objects. It automates topology mapping and management reporting, presents asset details and operational status on demand, and facilitates compliance and policy governance. With the SaaS Web GUI, administrators can define IP addresses and IP ranges to discover and subsequently monitor. Wizards facilitate the discovery and maintenance process by communicating with the local client or the vendor's on-site virtual appliance.

ServiceNow, which updates its features several times a year, provides handy capabilities, notably runbook automation, which lets IT administrators automate basic and repetitive tasks, such as virtual machine provisioning. The service also includes hands-on administrative features, such as a chat service that lets users contact the help desk for support.

Sold yet? Maybe not. SaaS-based IT management aims to alleviate some of the cost and deployment burdens of conventional management tools. However, our research shows it has limited appeal to IT professionals: 46% of survey respondents haven't bothered to look into SaaS-based IT management, and 18% outright refuse to use these services. We see the main inhibitors as data collection, integration, and security worries.

That said, we remember when these concerns were directed at SaaS categories that are now mainstream. When faced with high costs and scant manpower, organizations tend to evolve to find the SaaS model, warts and all, an acceptable alternative to on-premises systems. That's particularly true for companies not tied to a raft of legacy applications. SaaS-based IT management services also make sense for those that don't have sufficient staff to run complex in-house tools, and those with more opex than capex flexibility.

Our take: The SaaS option is well worth investigating for some functions, especially for small to midsize companies. You can start small, and many vendors offer free trials.

Greatest concerns about enterprise management suites

InformationWeek: Sept. 5, 2011 Issue

InformationWeek: Sept. 5, 2011 Issue

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