Rollout: Monolith Takes On BSM Establishment

Startup goes open source to tangle with the big boys, but its mSuite offering has some growing up to do.

January 12, 2008

7 Min Read
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THE UPSHOT

CLAIM: Monolith Software's mSuite ITM Core 3.2 network management software sports a consistent, open architecture and functional design. Monolith says its offering is highly scalable, is easy to use and maintain, and costs a fraction of what larger software vendors charge for rival BSM systems.CONTEXT:Few new vendors are developing software from the ground up to meet the network management requirements of large organizations, instead ceding the field to HP's OpenView, IBM Tivoli's Netcool, CA's Spectrum, and EMC's Smarts, the dominant players for large shops where scale, redundancy, and customization are key for BSM. Zenoss, like Monolith, is working to develop scalable network management platforms based on open source that could meet the customization needs of enterprises. CREDIBILITY: Many of mSuite's features, especially its dashboard, will impress IT operations groups. However, the company has significant work ahead of it: mSuite lacks the ability to create a network topology and automatic service-based root-cause analysis, and while less cumbersome than the Big Four vendors, the deployment and customization process is not without complexity. In addition, the documentation lacks polish.

Monolith Software is an upstart in a business service management, or BSM, market dominated by BMC, CA, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM. A glut of acquisitions has helped the Big Four cobble together costly BSM behemoths that are usually bears to implement and maintain. By contrast, Monolith built mSuite ITM Core 3.2 from the ground up to enable BSM-like capabilities using a single architecture. Best of all, a typical installation costs $80,000--often less than the annual maintenance fee for a traditional suite.

We tested mSuite, which is based on the open source LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) architecture, in our Real-World Labs and found it a good value and, for some shops, a reasonable alternative to traditional network management products like OpenView.

However, mSuite lacks a few key modules that include service-based root-cause analysis and network topology. In addition, organizations that need user and admin documentation must rely on a sparse online wiki, and most will require installation and configuration help.

WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR?

BSM is all about showing how IT operations affect the business. The goal is to reduce downtime of critical services, such as e-mail or customer-facing apps, by grouping all relevant physical devices and software into logical units based on business function. BSM encourages us to break away from managing assets using traditional IT categories, such as Windows servers and Oracle databases. In theory, BSM-oriented operations groups can more quickly understand why a service is down and resolve the problem faster.In practice, though, IT groups using BSM software often experience considerable frustration grouping devices into logical services. Unfortunately, like larger vendors, Monolith does little to ease this angst--though mSuite provides a grouping function, it's a manual process.

Once we accomplished that task, we were most impressed with the product's dashboard engine. MSuite let us create widgets that are visually layered on other widgets. This makes creating dashboards similar to working in Visio. You can send objects to the background or foreground at will and generate graphical representations of devices or groups of devices in a flash. We have yet to see an easier-to-use dashboard engine.

For its display, Monolith uses Scalable Vector Graphics, or SVG, so Java, ActiveX plug-ins, and heavy client interfaces are just bad memories. Because SVG is an XML application, the SVG file is a simple text file that can be easily viewed and edited. The dashboard performed like a race car in Firefox, with instantaneous updates, and offered several options for look and feel. For Internet Explorer, however, you may require an SVG plug-in.

The ability to create containers within the dashboard means IT can group similar network or application elements into business service views tailored by audience. We set up these dashboards in minutes.

While all data is stored in a single MySQL database, Monolith let us segment access to the data in a variety of ways. This lets service providers limit customer visibility or create different views based on user, geography, or device function. New in this release are a Web-based dashboard engine, redundancy capabilities, and an IP service-level agreement reporting engine for collecting, storing, and graphing data.

MANAGING MANAGERSMonolith also shines as an event manager of managers. With its ability to receive syslog and SNMP traps as well as feeds from any other management system, mSuite can discover and poll devices on a regular basis. In environments where SNMP isn't supported, Monolith offers a TL1 collector/aggregator that can dramatically reduce costs by letting a single collector manage multiple TL1 devices. In addition, mSuite can read SNMP SysOIDs; this lets you manage and group just about any device you can communicate with. Cisco serial numbers can also be discovered and imported into the system.

One feature we really liked is the ability to set a device priority, say for core infrastructure boxes or systems with SLAs, that can be multiplied by issue severity and produce a score. This ensures that the network operations center focuses on critical outages when they occur.

The discovery process is initiated from an IP range or by scanning a seed file. Monolith will discover WMI devices, NT event logs, and the rest of your network infrastructure. IT can easily track devices using an included contextual search capability.

Unfortunately, this version of mSuite does not provide root-cause analysis or topology information, although they're on Monolith's road map. These are major omissions given that Monolith is chasing large BSM vendors, for whom topology and root-cause analysis are table stakes. Midsize environments may be able to get by with manual network topology development, and the Monolith dashboard can be used to suppress events. However, large, complex deployments should look elsewhere or wait for Monolith to catch up.

Monolith has a performance management and metrics manager that can take the place of products like InfoVista, SolarWinds, or eHealth. It can also augment those apps as a manager of managers. Our installation included the Metric Manager availability and performance component, although we received a PHP Exception error that required opening a support ticket when launching.Metric Manager lets IT see average bandwidth and peak utilization, discards, and a host of other useful metrics, as well as host usage and IP SLA data. You can run with the more than 30 predefined metrics, covering latency, jitter, packet loss, CPU load, and more, or define custom metrics with a click of the mouse. We could control performance polling here, but the application doesn't have bandwidth-throttling capabilities. This would be nice to see. We also ran our installation inside a virtual machine, something we wouldn't recommend because we had polling performance issues.

SMOOTH SAILING

The difficulty of maintaining network management systems once they're deployed is the stuff of IT nightmares. Happily, Monolith integrates administration into a single interface, so you'll never need to open a command line for an admin function--everything is done via the GUI. IT can integrate user access into Radius and LDAP in seconds, so you don't even need to worry about setting up new users.

For those with existing device rules, a simple conversion process is provided. You may need a day or so of cleanup per 20 to 25 rules files. The rules file architecture also supports a three-tier structure consisting of base rules and subfunctions, as well as a lookup to a database of rules files. This could be handy for large organizations that want to store rules in a master configuration system.

Notification and filters can be created without any knowledge of SQL. A simple point-and-click GUI defines the types of events and alerts to be sent when there's an outage. Reporting is also very straightforward.As mentioned, a typical installation is $80,000. Pricing is based on individual components of the product you choose, and Monolith also offers a flexible, device-based pricing model. While the company is gutsy to compete against the Big Four, mSuite's rough edges will concern large organizations. However, if you already use open source products--or simply can't afford the up-front costs of more established vendors--and are willing to work with Monolith on customization, mSuite is worth a serious look. Those with strict standards on operating systems, database usage, and documentation, however, should stick with the larger vendors until Monolith matures.

THE REPORT: Pull Yourself Together

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