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Moving management to the Web

Network administrators are facing a new world where they can browse an intranet just as they can the Web. But first they must endure another standards battle.

These are times that try the souls of network administrators. Faced with shrinking budgets and expanding networks and management, the last thing the IT community needed was a great new thing.

But that hasn't stopped the Internet and its corporate alter-ego--the intranet--from spreading to the enterprise management console like wildfire. The new big picture that faces information technology is a Web-based management world where an administrator can just browse the corporate network just as he can the Web with no more interoperability questions between management applications or the headaches of a variety of interfaces.

The problem is that, to achieve this, network administrators will have to endure another tiresome game of "Standards, standards, who sets the standards?"

Everybody who is anybody in enterprise network and systems management is already on the Web-based management bandwagon: Computer Associates, Hewlett-Packard, and Tivoli Systems, are just a few of the headliners. (See illustration)

"Essentially, what we wanted to do is get into this fray," said Tim Reilly, director of network management at Bay Networks, referring to the recent flurry of announcements for Web-based management tools. (See chart for list of vendors)

Current implementations of Web-based management applications offer only incremental improvements. For example, a network administrator can use a browser to view an application that monitors network performance--but only for sections of the network. The great promise of the intranet is that it eventually will provide an administrator a single management console for the entire network, including applications from different vendors.

"Eventually, Web-based management will give you the ability to manage across the board from a single station," said Greg Howard, senior analyst at the Infonetics Research consultancy. "I'm pretty optimistic about it."

But to get there, someone must set some standards for interoperability. Sound familiar? In the intranet standards battle, there are two teams. The first includes Microsoft, Intel, Cisco Systems, BMC Software, Compaq Computer, and the Desktop Management Task Force standards organization. On the other side is, all alone, is Sun Microsystems, which is promoting its cross-platform Java programming language as the answer to everyone's proprietary headaches.

In July, the team led by Microsoft-Intel announced a universal Web-based management initiative that will result in HyperMedia Management Protocol (HMMP), a new protocol that would run over the intranets but support existing communications protocols.

That furious pace of partnerships, handshakes, and general industry buzz had companies projecting that the first implementations of HMMP would appear in the first half of 1997. But the initial enthusiasm soon gave way to a lull. As Networld+Interop rolled around last month, it became clear that even the base management schema needed a lot of work, work that the Desktop Management Task Force--which was assigned the task of shaping the schema--could not accomplish with current resources.

By the time a post-Interop event hosted by Intel rolled around, task force officials said HMMP implementations wouldn't hit the streets until 1998. Bay's Reilly, whose company has come out in support of the effort, was one of several industry observers who publicly pointed out that the HMMP specification was advancing at a snail's pace.

Meanwhile, Sun's software subsidiary, SunSoft, had announced Solstice Workshop, a Java development environment for creating Web-based management applications and applets that can act as agents on a network. The latest version of Solstice Enterprise Manager will also use a new Java Management Application Programming Interface (JMAPI) specification to eventually offer centralized management that is supposed to account for both Sun products and a host of management tools on their network.

"As revolutionary as Java is for programming, Java management is for administration," said Brian Biles, Sun's director of product marketing for Solstice products. "Java eliminates the proprietary boundaries that used to exist. It's a real win for customers." Some companies, such as Bay Networks or Cabletron Systems, view browser-based functionality as a feature users want now. Others, such as HP, are waiting to see how the standards issues shake out. One thing is sure. In the not-too-distant future, everyone will be managing on the Web.

A fan of HMMP could say just about the same thing. Supporters on both sides talk a lot about "Web-based computing," with developers freed from porting management applications to a host of platforms and able to concentrate on adding functionality.

The difference is that the JMAPI specification is already in the public domain, while HMMP won't be finalized until 1998. By the time that network administrators are freed by HMMP, many developers may have already developed several applications using JMAPI. To many administrators, having to revise a management infrastructure to accommodate two new competing standards will seem like an added burden, whatever the benefits that Web-based management will bring.

The bottom line is that the goal of all vendors is to have Web-based management standards embedded in all devices and applications so that there is seamless, native interoperability throughout the network. But they do have different ideas of how to get there.

That means that over the next several months, network administrators will have to choose from several enterprise management toolsets offering Web-based applications that will use HTTP, Java, and Simple Network Management Protocol in a sort of "management protocol salad."

But never fear, unlike previous transitions from one standard to another, the current confused state of Web-based management will be made salvageable by the ubiquity and openness of the Web. Web-based applications that can be accessed via browsers can simply build on standards such as HMMP or JMAPI without the frustration involved in a platform upgrade.

Upper management: product leaders
Bay Networks The company's network management suite will be accessible via the Web in the fourth quarter. Optivity's Enterprise Command Center--which offers a summary of all sites on a network--will now be able to be viewed via a browser, along with other applications such as OmniView and Enterprise Health Advisor.
BMC Software A Patrol Knowledge Module is available now for monitoring and managing a variety of Web server traffic. Patrolwatch is a tool that enables the Patrol management suite to be used through a Web browser. It is available now.
Cabletron Systems Two products now being shipped--Web Alarm View and Web-based Reporting--alert an administrator to a problem and provide detailed reports on it via a Web browser. A recent demonstration by the company also included a Web-enabled SpectroRx, which allows an administrator to automate a solution to a network problem.
Cisco Systems One of the leaders in the Web-based management initiative of July, the company will eventually put that technology to use in its IOS internetworking software and management platform.
Computer Associates This vendor has demonstrated a version of Unicenter-TNG managing a network via a Web browser at a recent Intel event in New York. It also has reached agreement with Microsoft to use the Internet Explorer browser in its Web-based management efforts, which are also based on the HMMS initiative.
Hewlett-Packard The industry leader has pledged support for the Web-based management initiative and is waiting to see how standards efforts shake out.
Sun Microsystems The company has plans to Web-enable the latest version of Solstice Enterprise Manager via Solstice Workshop, which allows developers to write management applets using the Java Management API (JMAPI) standard.
Tivoli Systems A version of OpenView TME 10 for Windows NT that can be accessed via a browser is currently in beta. Tivoli is also part of the Web-based management initiative as well as a Web-based application management initiative. The company has also announced Tivoli/net.Commander, a Web-based application management product.

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Computer Associates recently demonstrated a Web-enabled version of its CA-Unicenter TNG at an Intel event in New York. The platform's unique interface can be navigated via a Web browser with complete browser-base functionality. Checking the status of and collecting data on systems are the first management applications to be browser-enabled by many management vendors.
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