Network Management Ripe For Startup Vendors

The ability to see into the network and identify and monitor hardware and software assets is as critical for midmarket customers as it is for sprawling enterprise IT shops. But enterprise products such as IBM Tivoli, OpenView from Hewlett-Packard and competitive offerings from Computer Associates International, BMC Software and Compuware can lurk beyond a midmarket clients' ability to pay for or support them.

>> Solution providers can profit by selling customers on one key concept: visibility.

So VARs catering to the midmarket say they are leveraging network management offerings from vendors such as Neon Software, Network Instruments, Altiris and SingleStep and are even taking advantage of advances from Microsoft to give clients the network visibility they need.

One such VAR is Bruce Warner, owner of Operative Software, a Los Angeles-based solution provider who said he closes most of his deals with midmarket customers managing 100 to 400 nodes.

"Most of our SMB customers come to us in a very similar condition. They'll have virtually no tools on their network to understand what causes problems, and because they don't have any visibility, their only solution is to go around plugging and unplugging stuff," he said. "It's amazing how many SMB customers we talk to who have all the budget in the world to replace all their switches, but they have no baseline to understanding their network."

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Warner said he has seen customers cringe at the price tag of even a scaled-down, barebones version of OpenView. "About as small of a startup package [as] I've priced for OpenView runs about $15,000," he said. "Where with Neon, for example, a 100-node job runs [for less than] $2,000, and even in the largest enterprise, it's hard to push the price of Neon past $12,000."

Over time, Warner said he has discovered that just one or two complimentary products designed for smaller networks can deliver almost 80 percent of the functionality of an enterprise platform.

"The Neon product line has incredible network mapping and inventory systems for both Windows and Mac networks—all the way down to node monitoring," he said. "And you really need both monitoring and inventory capability."

The pervasiveness of Microsoft Windows in the midmarket often means satisfying a midmarket customer's network visibility needs with products from Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft, said David Tan, CTO of Chips Computer Consulting, a VAR in Lake Success, N.Y.

A small business's insistence on maintaining a homogeneous fleet of clients can sometimes "make it almost impossible" to interest them in non-Microsoft technology, Tan said.

So Chips has found ways to give its midmarket clients network mapping, asset management tools, and software and patch deployment capabilities by using Microsoft's System Management Server (SMS) and Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM). The pending arrival of the delayed Microsoft System Center Console, which combines the functionality of SMS and MOM, should make life easier for midmarket clients looking for network visibility and monitoring via Windows, Tan said. System Center Console is due this quarter.

Acting as the eyes and ears for midmarket IT shops by offering network management as a managed service is another route to providing SMB customers with network visibility, said Victor Kellan, president of LAN Solutions, a Singlestep partner and strategic IT outsourcer/VAR in McLean, Va.

In fact, a wave of new offerings from vendors such as Singlestep, LPI Level Platforms, SilverBack Technologies and N-able can turn a VAR into a network monitoring MSP, solution providers said.

LAN Solutions chose the Singlestep solution because it engages the sophistication of IBM Tivoli to provide an a la carte menu of automated, managed services. "We can provide network monitoring to a customer, or if they have a small IT staff, we can deliver monitoring to them and help automate their procedures," Kellan said.

For SMB customers, LAN Solutions also is looking to offer IP traffic monitoring, enhanced, proactive security monitoring and flow management. "Everybody in the midmarket is different and all over the map," Kellan said. "Some have brilliant infrastructures but not enough bandwidth. Others need staff augmentation. It's an interesting market to develop a product set for."