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Pros, cons of premises- vs. provider-based network management systems

IT expert David Davis outlines the pros and cons of premises- versus provider-based network management.

In an era where "cloud this" and "cloud that" dominate the headlines, it's easy to forget that hosted applications have been around for a long time. The idea is simple: Someone has a costly or complex software product, and they sell access to it in some form over a network. Through this approach, you have someone else doing something for you that you prefer not to do or can't afford to do for yourself. This is becoming more and more common across just about every type of product or platform you buy today. Companies are hosting your email for you, your tax data and even your family photos. In its simplest form, the heavily marketed "cloud computing" is really just a variety of different types of hosted access. Whether they're termed "hosted," "cloud" or "provider-based," they are all essentially versions of the same thing.

That said, all applications are not the same. While uptime and availability are important considerations underpinning every application running on your network, network management software could occupy an even more critical perch. So, how do you choose whether or not to implement your own network management application versus going with a provider-based alternative?

In the years I served as a network manager and IT manager, I evaluated a number of different hosted applications and compared them to existing or planned network management options. Rarely was my decision a difficult one, so let me share with you the pros and cons I used to help me decide, in hopes they will help you to make the right decision for your operation.

Considering premises-based network management systems

Premises-based network management effectively means that you do it yourself. That's not to say that you won't get some help in the form of consultants, or that you won't hire a few new staffers to manage the application. Still, the responsibility for the success or failure of these products falls on you. That, as the saying goes, is a double-edged sword. In other words, you are in total control of the network management platform, and depending on whether it's a huge success or a massive failure, you will be either commended or demoted. As a "do-it-yourselfer" in most areas of IT, I personally relish this idea of total control, and you may too.

These are the pros of premises-based network management systems:

Cost. In many cases, the cost of a premises-based option is less (of course, providers would argue differently). You already may have a server to run it on, the software may be licensed per CPU socket instead of per node, and you may already feel comfortable with implementing it. In most cases, unless there is a huge initial capital expenditure, it's usually less expensive to do something yourself (assuming you have the time and expertise).

Control. Because a premises-based application is your software, configured by you, run on your servers and in your data center, you have total control. It's up to you to back up the server and troubleshoot it if it doesn't work. On the other hand, that total control breeds pride, interest and expertise in the network management software that you own, versus just accessing someone else's.

Customization. With your own software, you can customize it as needed and integrate it with other products. A provider might impose limitations or restrictions on how its software can be customized, in order to keep its customers and configurations normalized.

These are the cons of premises-based network management systems:

Time. In many cases, IT staffers are already maxed out on their available free time for a new project. Companies usually have mission-critical IT projects for IT pros to work on, and network management systems aren't usually among them. Plus, you have to question the best use of the time that is available.

Liability. If your own software goes down or doesn't work as you had envisioned, you only have yourself to blame. It's likely there isn't even a guarantee, as you might have with a provider. If the database becomes corrupted and the system is down, it's up to you to get it back up (and let's hope you were backing up the data).

Aging and refresh. One downside to owning your own system (like owning your own hardware) is that at some time, it will be old and you'll want to refresh it. In fact, you might even grow tired of the software and prefer a different product. However, until the platform you bought depreciates, it might be unlikely that you'll be able to swap it.

Considering provider-based network management systems

On the flip side of the premises-based approach is the provider-based system. With a provider-based system, you are paying for access to a product run at someone else's location and accessing it over the network. While your provider may have specialized expertise in network management, and its product may be the best in the business, the provider may also have server troubles or a data center outage, or you could lose network access. That said, the pay-as-you-go model has strong proponents.

These are the pros of provider-based network management systems:

Speed. A provider that specializes in hosted network management should be able to get your system into production dramatically faster than you could if you were doing it yourself.

Features. In many cases, a hosted system can capitalize on the vast experience the provider has cobbled together from its diverse base of customers and industries, and having done so, offers a product with more features and functionality than a shrink-wrapped application purchased and implemented internally has.

No Capex. Because most hosted applications are sold as Software as a Service, or SaaS, provider-based network management products usually require no up-front expenses. This may enable a quicker return on investment and thus eliminate any roadblocks that can occur when you're attempting to get a large capital expenditure approved.

These are the cons of provider-based network management systems:

Liability.  Just as you incur a liability in conducting network management yourself, you also incur a liability in entrusting someone else to do it. The provider can have the same problems as you, and there is no guarantee it can resolve them any more effectively than you can. Problems and outages happen; demand a service-level agreement that offers monetary damages for outages or poor performance.

Stability. Regardless of the provider's size, it could still go out of business. And regardless of the provider's plans to ensure continuous operation, network connectivity issues can occur, costing you control. To that end, carefully consider the negative impact that provider-based network monitoring might have on your company if the application is inaccessible -- or worse, no longer available.

Licensing. Most provider-based products are priced per device or per node, where a node could even be every interface on a device that is being managed. To that end, you might have many more devices than you planned on, and the pay-as-you-go cost for this could end up surprising you. On the other hand, if it turns out you don't need to monitor as much as you used to because of business conditions or other external factors, the monthly cost could be reduced.

What should you do?

If I had to boil it down, I would recommend making your decision based on these considerations: First, whom do you trust more (yourself or the provider)? Second, which approach appears to be the most reliable? Third, which option costs the least?

Finally, and this is key: Talk to other IT pros who have used the product you are considering, be it premises-based or provider-based.

This was last published in August 2013

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A fair presentation of the pros and cons. I would add that another key benefit of provider-based solutions is that they may integrate with another of the service providers offerings, such as is the case with network performance management tools, and provide a true end to end view that is not available (or is likely more limited) than can be obtained with off the shelf packages.
A fair presentation of the pros and cons. I would add that another key benefit of provider-based solutions is that they may integrate with another of the service providers offerings, such as is the case with network performance management tools, and provide a true end to end view that is not available (or is likely more limited) than can be obtained with off the shelf packages.