Make that open-source alternative a hosted offering, and you lighten the load even further, freeing the IT staff of server and network management duties.
For Cliff Bell, the chief technology officer of Phoenix Technologies Ltd., a Milpitas, Calif.-based BIOS software manufacturer, something had to be done to better monitor his internal systems.
"What I told my department was, I don't think we should be good at fixing things, I think we should be good at not making them break," Bell said. At Phoenix Technologies, internal IT maintenance had taken precedence over pushing out better products.
Bell wanted an application that allowed him to monitor every aspect of his data center so that his IT department could shift its primary focus from troubleshooting to working on applications that would garner more business for the company. Like all c-level executives, he also wanted to save money.
Bell began by vetting proprietary options from vendors like Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM and CA Inc., but their products were expensive and had unnecessary features.
"We could not afford HP OpenView and applications like it that were $100,000," Bell said. "For $100,000 I would want no downtime, but with [those applications] our machines would still break."
Thomas Lamb, the chief technology officer of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was also in the market for a server and network management tool. "Over the last three years, we had evolved from an old mainframe system to a more complex server-based environment. We changed our OSes, ERP packages -- changed pretty much everything we did," he said.
But in making those changes, Lamb said the number of complexities rose exponentially, and managing them all became difficult for his staff. He needed an end-to-end application for monitoring that mitigated the complexities his evolving data center had created.
Lamb looked into IBM Tivoli, Compuware Corp. and most notably, HP OpenView for managing and monitoring his array of Sun Solaris and Windows servers.
"We're a big HP customer, so we had a look at OpenView, but the price seemed to grow and grow with each meeting. It also appeared as though it would have taken a small army to run it, and that's something we were trying to avoid," he said.
Monitoring and reporting done the open source way
So, when confronted with exorbitant costs and staffing requirements, what's a user to do? Outsource your server and network management.
At Phoenix, Bell started by looking at Nagios, an open source network monitoring application, and ended up with a commercialized version from San Francisco-based GroundWork Open Source Inc.
"GroundWork had this idea to take an open source project [like Nagios] and turn it into a company. We are an SMB with our own small staff. We wanted to know that [our monitoring and metrics] were going to be outsourced to GroundWork," Bell said. "We called it open source with adult supervision."
Updates and upgrades
UNC Chapel Hill's Lamb also eventually found his way to GroundWork and has been working with the company to deploy the product for the better part of 2006. Lamb and his staff worked with GroundWork employees to set up the application on his servers in "a matter of weeks." From then on, the process was a series of rolling upgrades as GroundWork added components to the software. There was also some custom console work Lamb and his staff had to complete that was rolled into the GroundWork deployment later in the year.
"We had some custom work, and we basically wanted one-off views, so [GroundWork] worked it up in conjunction with the manager that runs that for me," he said. That job took about three months, Lamb said, which was about what he had expected.
Back at Phoenix Technologies, Bell was impressed with a new reporting feature that GroundWork introduced in September as part of version 5.0.
That said, Bell would really like to see GroundWork come through with Sarbanes-Oxley compliance support in the near future. It's one of the few areas he sees as a challenge in his data center when it comes to monitoring, reporting and metrics. He would also like to be able to use a secure shell, or SSH, to log in to his environment.
In fact, ensuring basic security for services and data is still a key concern for firms deciding whether to buy or outsource, said Stephen Elliot, a vice president with Framingham, Mass.-based IDC. And with smaller, developing companies like GroundWork, Elliot said, addressing these areas is still a work in progress. But for small to medium businesses, going with a company like GroundWork might make a lot of sense, especially when compared to the OpenViews of the world.
All in all, Lamb is "reasonably satisfied" with his deployment. And, today at Phoenix Technologies, Bell said GroundWork provides "about 90% of the functionality of applications like OpenView for a tenth of the cost."
Lamb has had a similar experience, but was not as specific regarding how much UNC had saved. "The pricing and performance was as expected," he said -- "an order of magnitude" better than the proprietary alternatives.