Network management systems remain the preserve of large enterprises, and might remain so, till an economic turnaround.
One would be surprised by how much the field of network management solutions (NMS) has changed over the last year. This expansion has been fuelled by a growing maturity in the regional market together with a focus on business processes.
"We believe that NMS is continuing to evolve to become more advanced and comprehensive. NMS solutions need to offer comprehensive monitoring, reporting and investigation tools to enable enterprises to improve their IT management and cost efficiencies.
Enterprises can take advantage of this downturn in a round-about way. Eventually the economy will turn around, things will start improving and companies that are smart and proactive enough to deploy an NMS are much more likely to exit the downturn in a much better situation.
They also need to improve security by minimising risks. As enterprises become more global, we also believe that scalability and flexibility have become much more important. In fact, we look today at NMS as a business enabler and not just as a simple configuration management system the way it used to be earlier," says Tarek Abbas, senior systems engineering manager at Juniper.
While there have been minimal alterations and improvements in the functionality of the systems, it is doubtless that most of the notable changes have occurred at the level of customer awareness and approach to NMS.
"We've seen that not only in the past year, but over several years, there has been a definite increased interest in network management, that lead to various changes in approaching network management," says Duha Younes, enterprise voice sales manager at Nortel.
"From the consumer side, they are becoming much more aware. People are looking at much more cost effective solutions that do what they have to do, and equip them sufficiently from different vendors. The customer is realising that there is a functionality which is deliverable by more than one vendor," says Mohamed Hamedi, CEO and founder of Sphere Networks.
"Technology has not changed much. The biggest change happened in the industry. One of the first things we saw was the need for cost reduction, so a trend that you are seeing today is companies want to outsource their network management to service providers. This is one of the changes that we are seeing and a trend that we are seeing moving forward. The reason is obvious. When the resources get stretched in a company, they cannot look after the whole network so they will just give it to somebody else to look into it for them," says Tarek Houballah, systems engineering manager at Cisco.
To cater appropriately to the many changes occurring in the market, vendors have tuned their approach to customers as well. Some of them are retraining sales personnel to ask customers the right questions, and provide solutions that are tailored to their specific requirements. Others, like Sphere Networks, have changed their sales delivery options and are working to offer a variety of choices in this area, including traditional licences, subscription-based licences and even NMS as a managed service along with a regional provider.
Despite all the various improvements, however, adoption of NMS among enterprises in the Middle East remains in the single digits as far as percentage terms go. The reasons for this are multiple.
Size does matter
NMS implementations in the Middle East remain almost exclusively restricted to the sphere of really large enterprises. Small to medium sized enterprises, and even medium to large enterprises often do not deploy an NMS. This is largely because most of these enterprises still believe that they can manually run their networks without having to bring in a management solution, and they are also put off by the perceived cost and complexity of NMS.
"Typically larger enterprises see the need to implement NMS more than smaller to medium enterprises. Large enterprise does not necessarily mean a huge number of employees. You also need to look at the nature of the organisation itself, whether it is in one single building, whether you are speaking about enterprises that have multiple offices, have hundreds of branches, the nature of the business and the technologies they have all these are all factors that need to be taken into the formula," says Juniper's Abbas.
"Smaller enterprises rely traditionally on individuals to manage their network rather than on NMS. Ideally as networks evolve and become more complex they need to be more flexible and adaptive. At this point smaller enterprises will start to realise more and more the importance of having a network alignment and management," he adds.
"Traditionally NMS has been very cumbersome to deploy and use. And it has been proven to be very expensive. The reaction from medium level enterprises has been to not even look in that direction because they believe they can't afford it or they do not have the staffing for it," points out Hamedi.Even as vendors try to open up this market to deployments, challenges with NMS even at the larger enterprise level remain. Much of this complexity arises with improper project scoping in the initial stages.
"Customers need to know what they want from the solution and I think there is a joint responsibility there from both the customer and the vendor's side. Customers need to insist on what they need exactly, and avoid over-subscribing," explains Justin Doo, VP of sales and marketing at Sphere Networks.
According to industry experts, enterprises often buy more than they need and end up not utilising many of the features that come along with their chosen NMS. Other complications arise when organisations fail to watch out for certain details.
Customers need to know what they want from the solution and I think there is a joint responsibility there from both the customer and the vendor’s side. Customers need to insist on what they need exactly, and avoid over-subscribing.
Cisco's Houballah adds: "Companies need to choose protocols for the network and enable it across all devices for network management to work. You also need to make sure that whatever NMS you choose can work across your heterogeneous systems, if you have a hybrid architecture, and can overlook every constituent in the network."
"Changing the mindset of the people who handle IT infrastructure is very important with an NMS. You have to ensure that they shift from single or silo device management into approaching the network for a more global enterprise vision, a policy-based approach to management, understand the different components that interoperate and interact in a network and extend to the adaptive solutions," says Abbas.
Moreover, enterprises need to understand and be sure to remember that the NMS is just a tool, like much all software and can be used to accomplish only so much in the company network.
"If your network is not configured properly or does not function on a proper architecture, whether you have an NMS or not, it will not solve your problems. You have to use a recommended topology for a particular network and all of this has to be configured the right way to make sure that the NMS functions in the way that you want it to function in," explains Houballah of Cisco.
Apart from the prevailing mindset and the challenges that face each NMS deployment, the economic downturn, some believe, might affect the sector adversely in the region. However, many others believe that the downturn could prove to be a blessing in disguise.
"With limited IT staff running the network, IT managers will need the help of more tools to support them on their networks. What they don't need is unnecessary tools, so things that are only nice to have will be eliminated. But the things that will allow them to run a network efficiently, send an alert on time, correct the network, they will invest in it," says Houballah.
"Enterprises can take advantage of this downturn in a round-about way. Organisations now have to eliminate wastage and really increase efficiencies, they have to sit back and think on how they can optimise their solutions. Eventually the economy will turn around, things will start improving and companies that are smart and proactive enough to deploy an NMS are much more likely to exit the downturn in a much better situation than competitors who do not deploy such solutions," says Hamedi.
Despite these reassurances, with the prevailing mindset of a majority of organisations tuned against NMS systems and the recession clipping budgets region-wide, chances are the industry will have to wait for the year to end and 2010 to roll around to really witness a widescale adoption of network management solutions.
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