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A higher-level look at systems management

What technology areas will be entering the spotlight in the next few years? Prepare now for Web-based tools.

Web-based tools are the next big thing, as is a more strategic look at the problem.

Systems management may seem like a dull cousin to a "hot" IT area like, say, security. But the systems management arena continues to grow and change, the beneficiary of both improved technology and a new way of looking at the issue.

Simply put, systems management is the ability to monitor and improve the performance of computers and their subsystems. It includes areas such as job scheduling, output management (reports) and change or configuration management. Depending on who you ask, it might also include security, storage management and many other things.

One big reason that systems management hasn't just gone to sleep is that many shops are looking to consolidate as much of their distributed infrastructure as possible, at least from a management perspective. Multiplatform systems management tools allow for a wide view of that process -- a holistic approach to consolidation.

Another key factor driving a higher-level look at systems management is that "there's a focus around delivering service levels, not just managing specific devices," said Stephen Elliot, research director at Hurwitz Group, a consultancy in Framingham, Mass. "It's one thing to manage individual systems, and another to be proactive and prevent problems before they happen with key revenue-producing applications."

As a result, IT professionals are being "pushed from the highest levels" of their management, Elliott said, to solve problems outside their usual job function. Database experts need to help solve applications problems, while SAP experts may be called on to figure out a systems issue. "It's really an attitude shift we're beginning to see," he said, and systems management tools are a way of helping to do this.

This is just beginning to happen, though, and the systems management software market is suffering from the weak economy, just like most of IT.

"The market in general declined in 2001," said Tim Grieser, program vice president at research firm IDC, Framingham, Mass. "We expect it to resume growth as the economy picks up." Overall, IDC is predicting a 9.1% compound growth rate in systems management software, from $3.05 billion in 2001 to $4.72 billion in 2006.

Four vendors -- BMC, Computer Associates, Hewlett Packard and IBM/Tivoli -- hold about 75% of the enterprise systems management market, although there are new vendors in this space, too, Grieser said.

On the technology side, a few trends are helping drive this growth. Among the biggest is Web-based management -- the ability to monitor and fix multiple platforms from a Web interface. Almost all of the major vendors have added this ability to their products, Elliot said. Anyone who hasn't yet "definitely has it in their product road map," he said.

Then, too, there's the need to monitor the Web as another platform. As more essential applications migrate to the Web, systems management needs to track these systems, too. Web services will be among the next waves to hit the systems management space, Grieser said, as will wireless applications, at some point.

Indeed, it's the corporate adoption of new technologies that spurs changes to systems management software in general, Grieser added. When a new environment goes from development to production -- as has been the case with J2EE, for instance -- systems management tools must keep up to be able to monitor the new applications. There hasn't been much demand for .NET yet, he said, because that platform isn't yet in major production systems. But .NET "will become an issue over next couple of years," he said.

Another technology trend worth watching is the whole notion of "self-healing" systems. IBM, for example, has unveiled its Project eLiza, which is all about the idea of monitoring and fixing IT gear before it really breaks down. There can be little, or much, human intervention, depending on the customer's choice.

"It's my understanding that most of the major vendors have initiatives underway" in this area, Grieser said. Although many of the current crop of event-management systems use some automated responses to problems, the notion of total self-healing takes this philosophy to new levels.

But it's early going; "we've yet to see a big rollout to what it means in production to be self-healing," he said. "I think the message behind this is trying to make system management more automatic, trying to respond to the complexity of the environment with smarter platforms." Another type of initiative along these lines is what Grieser calls "pre-integrated" systems management, when Oracle or SAP put systems management features into their applications.

One notion that hasn't caught on in huge numbers is the idea of a systems management framework, Grieser said. Shops generally like the customization they get from "best-of-breed" tools that solve specific problems. "So there's been a push-back against frameworks in favor of point solutions," he said. Also, the economy has been working against the outlay of the huge amounts of money typically required for frameworks, which come complete with a raft of different management tools that are all supposed to work together seamlessly.

And look for more from Microsoft about systems management, Grieser said.

"I think they're very serious about becoming much more of a player in systems management," he said. "If Windows is going to become a trusted large-scale enterprise platform, it's got to be robust and stable and managed in the same way as Unix and mainframes. Today there are a lot of vendors that sell different aspects of Windows management software; nobody's got a monopoly." But as Windows applications become larger enterprise-level applications, robust systems management features will be required.

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