The Next Wave for Open Source: IT Management

by Robert Fanini

The $7 billion worldwide market for IT management software is on the cusp of a dramatic change, and once again open-source solutions are driving the transformation. Much like Apache during its initial rise to prominence in Web servers, open-source IT management products, such as Nagios, have matured rapidly and now offer competitive functionality and greater flexibility over proprietary platforms at a fraction of the cost.

It's no secret that proprietary IT management platforms are criticized for being monolithic, inflexible, difficult to use and expensive to manage. But until recently, CIOs looking for a simple yet robust IT management solution at a better price had few alternatives. In 2005, however, the dynamics of this market are shifting. With companies such as AOL, Cingular, Siemens, TicketMaster and TimeWarner Cable already embracing and relying on open-source IT management products, the category of open-source IT management solutions is poised for mainstream adoption.

Proprietary Problem: Functionality Overkill

One of the core challenges and criticisms associated with proprietary IT management platforms is functionality overkill. The four platforms that now dominate the market--from BMC, Computer Associates, HP and IBM--all were designed for the upper echelon of the Fortune 100. The result is an overload of capabilities and features that the majority of companies don't want or need. Many Global 2000 firms now pay license costs for IT management software that reach seven figures. Deployment and system administration of these proprietary systems are even more expensive tasks, typically costing five to eight times the initial software-licensing fee.

One of the central complaints of IT teams using commercial IT management frameworks is the inherent difficulty in customizing and configuring these proprietary systems. Getting a product such as HP OpenView or IBM Tivoli configured and deployed often takes months, even years in many cases. Once the system is installed, users face rigid vendor lock-in scenarios.

The issue, as every IT veteran knows, is configuring and deploying an IT management system is never a one-time effort. Corporate networks are changing constantly, which forces IT teams to reconfigure continually proprietary frameworks that were not designed for easy customization or rapid deployment.

In the open-source world, the network-upgrade scenario plays out differently from what happens with proprietary products. Mainly, there's a high probability that the add-on functionality you need is available for free for download, thanks to the Open Source community.

Of course, there are no guarantees that the functionality you need is written and available from the Open Source community. But even in situations where you are the first company to develop open-source code to address a specific need or problem, you still maintain the distinct advantage of utilizing an open, standard protocol instead of a proprietary API. For IT managers, this makes good business sense for two reasons. First, it enables you to tap into the pool of talented open-source developers rather than relying on specialists who work with a closed API. Second, it ensures a solid return on investment from every dollar spent training your IT team, because those skills will be valuable and applicable over the long term.

Open Source, by Definition Flexible and Easy to Integrate

Open-source IT management solutions have three core characteristics that make them well-suited to the task of monitoring and managing heterogeneous IT environments: they provide open interfaces; they are built on component architectures that are highly configurable; and the open-source code is transparent and designed to be modifiable.

This combination makes an open-source IT management solution an ideal "manager of managers." The reality is that most companies have several different IT management systems in place already, each monitoring different aspects of the network at any given moment. One system monitors application performance, for example, while another focuses on databases and still another manages routers and other network devices. Numerous companies have decided to deploy an open-source solution as their master IT management system, capable of tying disparate monitoring and performance management systems into a single, cohesive whole. By providing a consolidated view across the entire IT infrastructure, this manager of managers approach enables better IT performance and more timely IT decision-making.

At the same time, an open-source solution also can be integrated easily into the network as a peer to an incumbent IT management system. Because they are compatible with existing enterprise technologies, open-source solutions mesh tightly with legacy solutions without requiring major infrastructure modifications. That means companies are able to embrace open source incrementally without making any significant and costly changes to their environments. Once installed, open-source IT management solutions prove to be stable and reliable, in large part because they've been tested and peer-reviewed on a global scale.

Main Driver: Lower Cost

Although the abilities to integrate easily and play the manager of managers role set open-source solutions apart from proprietary offerings, the fact remains that lowering costs is the primary driver in the growth of open-source IT management. Open-source solutions lower both the upfront cost and the long-term TCO of IT monitoring and management in several ways:

  • No licensing fees: With open source, software is essentially free. Customers pay only for enhancements, services and support.

  • Lower deployment costs: Because open-source solutions don't install unnecessary features, deployments are completed quickly and easily. Companies save money by paying only for the features they need. Whereas a proprietary solution may run in the six figures and offer 100 different features, a company needing only 20% of that functionality can pay only for those requirements if it goes with an open-source product.

  • Low system administration overhead, because you manage only what you've installed: Because they are efficient without offering gratuitous features, open-source IT management solutions don't require expensive vendor-specific consulting and training.

  • Low hardware costs: Open-source products typically run on inexpensive, industry-standard boxes, further lowering overall costs.

A Growing Open Source Ecosystem

A number of open-source IT management products are gaining traction, including Nagios--660,000 downloads since 2001--for availability monitoring; MRTG (Multi-Router Traffic Grapher) for network device statistics; Nmap for network scanning and discovery; Ntop for network traffic analysis; SyslogNG for log file analysis; and Cacti for SNMP analysis and performance graphing. These products provide strong core functionality for an enterprise-class monitoring solution.

Equally important, a growing ecosystem of companies is now in place with a track record of delivering professional-level consulting, integration and support services that many CIOs require before making the move to open-source IT management. Companies such as SourceFire, GlueCode and GroundWork, for example, now offer a range of services from deployment and configuration to ongoing support, along with extensive documentation and knowledge bases that capture repeatable best practices. These kinds of product enhancements and packaged services result in a more complete enterprise-ready IT management solution.

For Many Users, a Sense of Urgency

As is often the case with a new, emerging open-source category, some users have a greater sense of urgency than others to make the move to open-source IT management, depending primarily on the business imperatives they face and their comfort level with open source. The companies moving aggressively today to open-source IT management often fit into at least one of the following categories:

  • Facing a corporate mandate to lower IT costs significantly: seeking ways to manage IT assets more efficiently in order to pull money out of their IT operations.

  • Involved in a merger or acquisition: looking for a simpler, lower cost approach to monitoring and managing a newly merged IT environment.

  • Experienced a significant crash or failure: recently learned the hard way that the existing proprietary system is not capable of delivering the performance promised; tend to find the low cost, rigorous peer-review and testing of open source compelling.

  • Public sector organizations facing an open-source mandate: required by law to include open-source products in their software evaluation and selection process.

  • Actively seeking a manager of managers solution: proactively looking for a means to tie various IT management solutions together so they can see everything in one place.

  • New CIO committed to open source: a change in IT management brings in new leadership that understands the advantages of open source.

Today's open-source IT management solutions have a track record of addressing customer needs in each one of these scenarios.

Delivering on the Promise

As the market for open-source IT management solutions accelerates toward mainstream adoption, companies will move at their own pace to embrace this new category of open-source solutions. Some will take a cautious, incremental approach while other companies already have opted for a more aggressive, wholesale switch to an open-source IT management system. But regardless of how a company chooses to adopt this new model, the benefits are the same--greater flexibility, faster deployment and highly competitive functionality, all at a fraction of the cost of the proprietary frameworks that have long dominated this market.

Case Study: AutoTradeCenter Gets Results by Going Open Source

AutoTradeCenter, Inc. (ATC) manages customized, private-label Web sites for auto manufacturers and financial institutions, including companies such as Ford Credit, American Honda Finance and DaimlerChrysler Financial Services. Given the nature of its business and its focus on hosted Internet solutions, ATC needs a reliable and highly available network to deliver quality service to its growing list of global customers.

In 2001, ATC did not have a solution in place to monitor its network, servers or applications. Instead, the IT team addressed network issues only after they became a problem. In some cases, customers provided the first notification to the team that the customer's site was down.

To compound this problem, ATC was enjoying a rapidly expanding customer base. As the company added more customers, the IT infrastructure was taxed with a growing number of buyers, sellers, searches and orders. According to Jorge Borbolla, ATC's CIO, a single new customer can mean 1,000 incremental network activities each day. ATC's IT team lacked adequate visibility into the network infrastructure; they couldn't track usage trends and therefore couldn't plan well for anticipated growth.

In early 2002, Borbolla determined that the company needed an effective network monitoring solution that would satisfy two objectives. First, it must provide notification of any problem before it affects the customer, and second, the system had to monitor service level agreements that stipulated 99% uptime.

Solution: Open Source IT Management

Initially, Borbolla and his team evaluated commercial monitoring solutions, but these were going to cost six figures simply to get started. After testing several open-source solutions, the IT team turned to Nagios and was impressed with its escalation and notification features. Borbolla also understood the need for a smart installation, and elected to work with GroundWork Open Source Solutions to ensure accurate configuration and tuning. Today, GroundWork Monitor, which extends Nagios with several open-source components and advanced features, evaluates everything from network connectivity, CPU loads, database availability and the status of each custom Web site.

Results: Higher Availability, Stability and Visibility

Since investing in open-source for IT infrastructure monitoring, ATC has realized significant results. Although the company battled outages and slow network response times in the past, ATC now is achieving more than 99% uptime, a figure that exceeds the company's service level agreements. This higher availability also is improving productivity within ATC, because mission-critical applications such as e-mail and file storage systems are more reliable.

Using an open-source IT management approach also has improved ATC's ability to detect problems before they happen. Previously, the IT department usually would hear about network outages from customers. Now, it is able to detect and fix problems before they become serious enough to impact service.

Robert Fanini is the founder and CEO of GroundWork Open Source Solutions, a leading provider of open-source IT management solutions, based in Emeryville, CA.

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