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Best of breed vs. suite approach in systems management

In systems management, which strategy trumps the other: best-of-breed tools or choosing tools from a single vendor?

For as long as large vendors have battled small players, the debate has raged. Should IT managers go with a single vendor for systems management needs – and thereby risk getting locked in -- or is it better to choose best-of-breed point solutions, though potentially sacrificing some interoperability in the process?

As with many arguments about specific approaches to technology, the answer is highly subjective. Whether an IT shop goes with a suite of systems management tools or with a hodgepodge of point solutions depends on both an organization's needs and where that organization sits on the IT maturity curve (that is, how ingrained operational processes are within the IT department and the perception of IT department within the organization at large).

"Traditionally, IT operations have gotten [systems management] tools so they can react to problems," said J.P. Garbani, a vice president at Forrester Research Inc. "For more mature IT departments -- those that seek to provide services -- getting tools that support an overall management strategy is more of a driver."

And it's in the latter case where the one-vendor philosophy holds the most sway.

Modernizing the data center
For the outsourcing division of Ciber Inc., an IT services firm based in Greenwood Village, Colo., ditching various point solutions for a bevy of tools from CA was central to a modernization project in its four data centers. "Our goals of modernization were to increase service levels for clients and decrease operating costs for clients," said Tony Ferrigno, the vice president of global sales and strategy for the outsourcing division.

Integration is a key benefit, and you're always going to get better integration inherently from one vendor.
Tony Ferrigno,
VP, global sales and strategyCA

As Ciber's outsourcing division grew, the company found itself relying on a smattering of some 30 or 40 systems management tools, such as those for networks, help desk, virtualized environments, applications, security. Ciber used both niche tools from Solarwinds and eG Innovations as well as more comprehensive tools such as BMC Remedy Service Desk, HP OpenView and Microsoft Systems Management Server. About three years ago, the division embarked on a modernization project to replace all those tools with various tools from CA. "We had a myriad of tools to deliver services, so the impetus was to provide a platform end to end," Ferrigno said.

Ironically, Ciber replaced its 40 tools with 60 tools, including CA Unicenter Network and Systems Management, CA Unicenter Service Management and CA Client Management Solutions. "In upgrading to the platform, we added capabilities and services," Ferrigno said.

Ciber also implemented CA's configuration management database (CMDB), and over the next year Ferrigno says the company will integrate that with systems management information from the various CA systems management tools. "Our plan is to be able to collect all the information from our network and automatically update that into the CMDB," he said. "Integrating the CA Spectrum tool Ciber uses to manage its network is on the horizon."

In one respect, Ciber's decision to go with a single vendor was relatively straightforward. As an outsourcer of IT infrastructure services, Ciber's internal IT operations don't enable the business; they are the business. As such, IT operations at Ciber are attuned to managing services strategically. "Providing end-to-end management really allows us to differentiate our services," Ferrigno said.

Still, when IT is so critical to a business, does it make sense to go with one vendor for all critical systems management needs? Does that put a company at the mercy of a vendor?

Ferrigno doesn't think so. "For us, integration is a key benefit, and you're always going to get better integration inherently from one vendor," he said. As for missing out on best-of-breed technologies, Ferrigno says that in his case it ended up being a moot point. "A lot of the technologies that CA has – like eHealth network management – are best-of-breed technologies that CA acquired."

For more on systems management tools:
Capacity planning for virtual servers: New risks, new tools

Mainframe change management tools ease compliance burden

Change management tools become more comprehensive with ITIL v3

The best-of-breed route
At medical device and diagnostics company Hologic Inc., in Bedford, Mass., SVP and CIO Dave Rudzinsky is taking a more of the best-of-breed approach to systems management -- at least for now.

"We have a variety of different tools including ones from Cisco, Microsoft and Nagios for alerting our network managers," he said.

The case for best-of-breed came to the fore particularly When Hologic rolled out enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management applications. "At the end user's desktop, someone would call when there was a problem or something was slow," Rudzinsky explained. "We'd look at the servers in the data center and from IT's perspective everything was running fine."

So to monitor application performance from the end user's perspective, Rudzinsky deployed the Frontline Performance Intelligence tool from Aternity Inc., a provider of desktop monitoring software in Westborough, Mass. The tool is easy to install on a server, and it uses desktop-based agents to monitor end-user performance; the performance data is available to IT operations staff via a console in the data center.

For Rudzinsky, Aternity's tool provides another level of monitoring in the IT departments efforts to focus more on internal customers. The tool monitors other end-user applications such as email and intranets. Eventually, Rudzinsky would like to use the tool to keep better tabs on applications as they affect external customers.

"When a customer service representative is on the phone with a customer and looking at screen, we'd like to have our database administrators know when something that usually takes 20 seconds is taking 40 seconds," Rudzinsky explains. Detecting this information is possible with the Aternity tool, but Hologic hasn't integrated the tool with its network management system yet, so there are separate consoles for Aternity and network management.

Thus far, the lack of integration isn't problematic, but that may change. Hologic deployed Aternity when it was a $700 million company. Due to an acquisition completed in October 2007, Hologic has more than doubled its size. Rudzinsky says the company has yet to merge its two disparate networks. When that task is completed, and as Hologic continues to grow, Rudzinsky says he may use enterprise systems management tools in the future to provide more of an end-to-end view.

Both point applications and enterprise suites pose tradeoffs, of course. Point applications necessarily require multiple tools to monitor different components, and getting them to work together can pose integration problems. Then again, a more comprehensive suite is likely more costly and may include tools you don't need.

But as Ferrigno sees it, the decision to go with point solutions or an enterprise suite is ultimately driven by market dynamics, and he currently sees the pendulum swinging in favor of enterprise tools. "There are a plethora of tools available now, and the choice is pretty clear: You can go with point products for cost and ease-of-use reasons, or you can go for enterprise tools the have higher costs but lower risk."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Megan Santosus, Features Writer .

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