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Network monitoring vendors sell SMBs on usability

Ease-of-use is the key to SMB hearts when it comes to network monitoring. A new release from SolarWinds might just be tough competition for the market leader, Ipswitch.

Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) want network monitoring tools that are easy to use but not so simple as to be utterly useless.

To many vendors, these demands may seem to be at odds. And for that reason, the SMB market has few tools to choose from.

Many experts say that Lexington, Mass.-based vendor Ipswitch has owned the SMB network monitoring market for years with its WhatsUp Gold product.

"We're the world leader in SMBs," said Ennio Carboni, vice president of sales for network management at Ipswitch. "We are successful because we have a secret sauce: usability. That's their most pressing need."

Other than WhatsUp Gold, there are few network monitoring options that fit well for small businesses. Tracy Corbo, the senior analyst for IDC's network and service management practice, said many SMBs look to open source products as an affordable option, but she said these technologies lack some of the features and finesse of something like WhatsUp Gold.

"The SMB market is underserved," Corbo said. "The network management market is very mature, but there's not a lot [available to smaller companies]. Some open source options have come a long way, but they are not as polished."

SolarWinds, the Austin, Texas-based network management vendor, beefed up its presence in this market last April when it bought ipMonitor Corp., vendor of ipMonitor, a network monitoring product for SMBs with fewer than 500 devices on their networks. On Jan. 21, SolarWinds will release version 9.0 of ipMonitor, the first new version since it acquired the product.

Mark, a system administrator who requested anonymity, has been using ipMonitor for just over a year. Before that, his organization had no network monitoring solution in place.

"We wouldn't know what drives went out until it was too late," Mark said.

"You can go and do all this manually," Corbo said. "There are some tools that come with Cisco that allow you to do each thing individually, but it is more time-consuming and error-prone. What [these vendors] are trying to do is offer a view from a single console, a single pane of glass. This brings consistency, and if you have one view [of your network], there's less room for error."

"Ease of use really is a big issue," said Eric Siegel, senior analyst with Burton Group. "What classically happens with things like these multi-hundred-thousand-dollar products is, you buy the thing, it costs staggering amounts of money, takes weeks to get working, and then if you change something, it stops working. You have to send a guy to training in order to get it working. And then he leaves in a year -- and what do you do?"

Siegel said there is a delicate balance to be struck, however. Though SMBs are looking for network monitoring tools that are easy to use, they don't want tools that are so simple they don't offer robust features.

The new version of ipMonitor features a new user interface that is easier to use, but it's not just about simplicity. The new release also includes "SmartMonitor" technology that automatically discovers IP-based network devices and recommends monitor settings for each device, much as WhatsUp Gold does.

"Normally, when you have this type of product, one of the challenges is figuring out what needs to be monitored," said Andy Salo, SolarWinds director of product marketing. "SmartMonitor goes out and identifies devices, figures out what they are, and recommends what should be monitored."

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The tool also monitors end-user experiences with networked applications by executing synthetic transactions. This is a feature that higher-end monitoring products have offered enterprises for years, Corbo said. But SMBs haven't been able to afford such a feature before.

Siegel said user experience monitoring will be extremely attractive to SMBs.

"What people tend to do is … simply measure the stuff that they think is easy to measure, such as 'CPU busy,' " he said. "They can get that from SNMP [Simple Network Management Protocol] and hope that this will tell them how to diagnose things. But it's better to measure the services you're using. Yeah, you can check if Microsoft Exchange server is up. Just ping it. But it doesn't tell you much. Or you could try to send an email from the thing. That's what SolarWinds is starting to get into."

Carboni of Ipswitch said his company will be releasing a new version of WhatsUp Gold in mid-2008.

"I can't get specific," he said, "but you're going to see us build a lot more intelligence into areas of predictive analysis, such as how … I help my SMB administrator not only manage for the current environment but how … I make that administrator be really smart with what could happen in seven, 10 or 30 days from now with mission-critical devices."

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