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Device management draws a crowd

Most network admins loathe dealing with devices, and a number of upstart vendors are trying to ease their pain. One network manager explains how device-management tools have helped him solve network problems faster.

They say that the devil is in the details. Ask most networking pros, and they'll say that when it comes to device management, that idiom is certainly accurate.

In most sizable enterprises, one of the network manager's primary duties is making sure that hundreds if not thousands of distributed devices are configured, updated, tested and secured on a daily basis. It may not seem so hard, but when you consider the number of devices, and that they come from multiple vendors, perform different tasks and need varied levels of attention, it's suddenly easy to see why figuring out the last time a specific router was configured can be daunting.

The job is even more stressful when the devices belong to someone else. San Diego-based Network Insight LLC, an infrastructure management firm, is in the business of keeping other companies' networks up and running. The service provider manages thousands of devices for dozens of organizations, including Microsoft, Nokia Corp. and the city of Beverly Hills.

Even though the company's high-profile client list is a testament to its network management aptitude, Matt Stoyka, Network Insight's vice president of operations, said that administering changes to network devices is a huge challenge.

"It's highly manual. You have to have a project plan in place, locate all the places where you have devices, and then use a manual check-off process to ensure every location is changed properly," Stoyka said. Complicating the process, he said, is the fact that before making a change, every device must be backed up individually.

This is a common scenario in today's capacious companies, so it's no wonder that a new segment of vendors -- including AlterPoint Inc., Gold Wire Technology Inc., Voyence Inc. and Rendition Networks Inc., to name a few -- has emerged to offer enterprise-caliber, heterogeneous network device-management tools.

Glenn O'Donnell, a program director with Stamford, Conn.-based analysis firm Meta Group, said that demand for device-management products is skyrocketing, not only because the number of devices on the average enterprise network is increasing, but also because it's getting increasingly arduous to deal with the many patches that need to be installed quickly, "and there are obvious risks from not doing it properly."

Though dominant hardware vendors like Cisco Systems Inc. and Foundry Networks Inc. offer device-management tools, O'Donnell said that it's the newer toolmakers that excel at managing many of the ascendant vendors' devices.

"They do configuration and change management on a broader basis," O'Donnell said. "In many cases, you want to perform a change across the board, setting some attributes on all of your devices," regardless of which companies made them.

Stoyka's company recently began using AlterPoint's DeviceAuthority Suite, which is being officially released today. The suite bundles the company's three network management tools: Audit Module, which offers real-time information on device hardware, software and configurations; Update Module, which enables change management through the use of automated scripting and process validation; and Server, which provides user-control functions and facilitates integration with other enterprise management systems.

Before using it on customers' devices, Stoyka's staff tested the tools internally on a few dozen devices. They quickly realized that the product enabled them to become more "scientific" in their approach to solving network problems.

"What AlterPoint allows us to do is capture all our changes in the order they occur," Stoyka said, "so we have a complete history of any audits or changes that were made, in the order they were made," which enables his team to pinpoint configuration errors more quickly.

Today, Network Insight is using AlterPoint's suite to manage about 1,000 of its clients' devices, offering the suite as a value-add for customers who demand an increased level of configuration management, change control and backup support services. Stoyka has already labeled the implementation a success because his engineers no longer need to spend most of their shifts backing up and configuring devices.

Still, Austin, Texas-based AlterPoint is just one player on a crowded, competitive field. Just in the past week, Gold Wire added security compliance verification to its offering, and Voyence augmented its product with more detailed audit trails.

O'Donnell said that, with so much market share up for grabs right now, vendors are struggling to one-up each other with new features, such as increased scalability, support for a broader range of devices and extended functionality to handle tasks like server management.

Though he said a market consolidation is likely -- especially as Cisco and Nortel Networks Inc. take more interest in the space -- demand for device-management products won't decline anytime soon.

"If there's an opportunity to automate network management in a way you can have faith in, by all means, we should be doing it," O'Donnell said. "It makes the process quicker, more secure, and you'll have a better level of confidence in the changes you're going to make."

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Browse our Topics on network configuration.

Download a free chapter from the Tips and Tricks Guide to Network Configuration Management.

Read more stories by News Editor Eric B. Parizo.

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