New tools and trends in systems management promise to give this complicated IT task a long-awaited makeover.
The expensive, monolithic management tools that offered top-down approaches to monitor-isolated processes are evolving as data centers move from single to multi-architecture decentralized environments. The management frameworks of the 1990s from vendors such as IBM Tivoli, CA Inc., BMC Software Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. were never really ideal because they didn't address the everyday concerns of IT administrators, such as patch management or BIOS updating.
For years, managers thought that each business's process had to have a unique accounting system to meet their own specific needs. Capabilities such as change management or asset management were all held within silos, purchased separately and brought into the environment.
"Everything was controlled by the priests of IT," said Richard Ptak, a principal at Ptak, Noel & Associates, a consultancy based in Amherst, N.H.
During the past five years, enterprises have been faced with depleted budgets and IT staffs. Reorganizations prompted an improved IT-to-business alignment.
Automating standard processes
Once it became possible to document a series of steps to solve a problem or balance an account, IT managers found they had a standard process they could automate, Ptak said. At the same time processes were changing, and technology to help document changes became more sophisticated.
Some of the new technologies moving into the enterprise are advanced provisioning, discovery, data collection, configuration management databases, as well as horizontal capabilities such as virtualization and Web services.
"Customers that I speak with have a desire or vision to get not just functional capability but also horizontal capability," said Tyler Jewell, senior director of application management solutions at Quest Software Inc. in Aliso Viejo, Calif.
Some advanced provisioning technologies are being built into products that IT shops are already using. Their advantage is that they help IT shops distribute large files using unused bandwidth. Microsoft uses a technology called Background Intelligent Transfer Service, or BITS, which looks at a local interface to see how busy it is and then transmits the packet using leftover bandwidth. IBM uses its Content Distribution Service, which measures round-trip time in the network and dynamically changes transmission rates.
Vendors are adding discoverability technologies to hardware to help managers keep tabs on their desktops. In the fall, Intel Corp. released its vPro brand of chipsets, which includes the second generation of Intel's Active Management Technology. One aspect of vPro is its ability to wake up and inventory a PC securely using a sideband channel -- even if the PC is turned off.
Most IT management projects are limited to individual domains. One of the big debates in systems management today is whether or not it's feasible to have a single database that can collect data from across multiple domains in an enterprise. Vendors are promising configuration management databases (CMDBs), but whether or not they can provide the configuration needs for every dimension is unknown. "This is unproven space," Jewell said.
It wasn't long ago that vendors were trying to get IT shops to standardize on a single database. Modern enterprises are often faced with mergers and acquisitions, so the idea of one database management system across a company was never realistic, Ptak said. Still, companies need to combine all of their data to get the value out of it.
Today, predictable business processes such as job scheduling or asset allocation or management won't have to operate as independent entities in corporate silos that require someone to get involved at each step. IT managers at Partners Healthcare, a hospital and healthcare management company based in Boston, are keeping a close eye on the trend.
The company organizes its systems management in the following way: Microsoft Operations Manager and Systems Management Server manage Windows. Networks are managed by Hewlett-Packard Co. and NetIQ Corp. software. McAfee Corp. tools manage network security.
"The silos are kept in place, and we promote communications on the human level," said Larry Kerrigan, associate director of technical services and operations at Partners Healthcare. "If there is a crisis, if the security guys see malicious traffic, they raise the alarm and everyone checks everything until we find the root cause."
But there is nothing to help pull together that data to look for trends or root causes, Kerrigan said. "Our hope is that some type of monitor or monitors will do that for us," he said.
Kerrigan doesn't think a single database will happen for his company anytime soon. Partners manages 11 different hospitals, and each has its own IT staff. "We think it's more likely to see a federated model where data stays in silos, but the CMDB could be a portal to look into all of those different silos," he said. "We are trying to figure out the interfaces to make everything talk to each other."
Framework helps IT managers
For overall guidance, the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) helps IT managers define service management within their enterprises. The framework suggests where to put existing IT processes so they reveal their interfaces across an IT infrastructure.
ITIL offers best practices across service support, service delivery, planning to implement service management, information technology and communications infrastructure management, applications management, security management and the business perspective.
The library has tried to bring some standards to an industry where vendors have different goals and ways in which to cast the market, said Cameron Haight, a research vice president at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. "[ITIL] is not prescriptive, however," he said. "It does provide some boundaries and areas of focus on which IT managers can concentrate."