Build IT Yourself

Disenchanted with commercial network-management solutions, this service provider took matters into its own hands.

Great chefs are rarely satisfied when they eat in someone elses restaurant. The same can be said for great programmers: Why buy an application when you can design one better yourself?

Thats the line of thinking at NetSolve Inc., which has offered network-management services since 1995, and currently has more than 1,200 small to midsize customers in 42 countries. Surprisingly, nearly all of NetSolves software was developed in-house. The one noteworthy exception is Netformx, a package that analyzes a customers existing network to create an infrastructure blueprint during NetSolves evaluation phase. "Its cheap [and it] works with a variety of devices [from 3Com, Cisco and Bay Networks]," says NetSolve VP of development Jerry Davis.

Other than the Netformx app, NetSolve decided to bake its network management system from scratch. "Weve tested almost every commercial package," says Davis. "What we found is that we cant scale them in profitable ways."

For example, NetSolve was unable to find a highly scalable fault-management solution. "You need something that identifies a broken router, switch, etc., and helps fix it remotely," says Davis. "HP Openview does that, but polling times rapidly grow as more devices are added to a network. You have to keep adding more hardware and software to keep polling times reasonable."

In contrast, NetSolves home-grown Canvass software "needs just one $2,500 server" to monitor all of the WAN circuits of the MSPs customers. Canvass "polls every (WAN) element every 90 seconds," says Davis.

The Clock Is Ticking Quick response is critical. "We have to be able to understand a problem and know what to do in under 15 minutes," says Davis. "Thats when customers already know theres a problem and are reaching for the phone." Canvass automatically diagnoses the probable cause of a network outage, generates a trouble ticket for NetSolves NOC engineers, and notifies the customer that repairs are under way.

Enterprise-oriented packages such as Tivoli perform similar functions, but lack the performance that a large MSP needs. "Tivoli takes inputs from different (monitoring) sources, but doesnt poll on its own," says Davis. "Also, its very, very expensive, difficult to configure and slow on large networks. We tried Tivoli server management on 1,000 servers and got 15 minute response times for just one down device." NetSolve manages some 65,000 network devices with Canvass, and keeps response times under 15 minutes.

Cost was another reason NetSolve developed its own management software.

"It would have cost $15,000 per NOC engineer to equip them with off-the-shelf fault management, enterprise management" and other essential troubleshooting tools, says Davis. NetSolve keeps 65 engineers on duty at any given time.

Future Watch Fault management is a reaction to events that have already happened. NetSolve also provides forward-looking performance measurement and engineering services to help its customers plan for future needs. Performance analysis also helps identify and correct misallocated resources.

Says Davis, "Performance engineering requires the ability to analyze events . An MSP must be able to collect these stats from many devices and massage them into information that an engineer can use. We currently collect about a gigabyte of raw data per day. Analyzing it is a disk- and CPU-intensive process."

Once again, off-the-shelf software failed to meet NetSolves needs. "We looked at Concord [Communications], DeskTalk and NDI [now out of business]," recalls Davis. "We needed something that would do the job for about $1 per device. They all worked out to about $25 per device." So NetSolve wrote its own code.

NetSolve offers two security services, available separately. Both are based on Cisco Systems technology, mainly due to NetSolves long-standing partnership with Cisco.

The managed Cisco PIX firewall is designed to keep intruders out of the network. NetSolve monitors and manages the firewall and provides reports of breaches, actions taken and adjustments needed to adapt to hackers changing assault techniques.

"We also looked at Checkpoint," says Davis, "but we went with PIX because it had a rapidly growing market share, and it offers a few features that make remote management easier."

The Intrusion Detection and Response service, based on Ciscos NetRanger Sensor software, monitors the actions of NetSolve customers partners after they have gained authorized access to a customers network for extranet or e-commerce applications. NetSolve likens this service to "a security guard or a security camera within a store."

Build Your Own Blocks The moral of NetSolves saga is simple: Creating an MSP business from commercial building blocks is a bad idea. "I think any MSP who tries will quickly run into scalability and profitability problems," says Davis.

The MSP market is quite competitive. NetSolve charges $225 per month per site for its ProWatch WAN service, which provides 24 x 7 fault management for typically one router; DSU and access circuit; performance monitoring and engineering; and software/firmware updates.

"Also, building an NOC [network operations center] costs half-a-million dollars and up these days," says Davis, "and keeping it staffed with qualified engineers is a constant challenge."

Systems management is no longer just a matter of keeping customers hardware and connections running, either.

"Weve been evolving to be less focused on discrete device management and more focused on network applications management," says Davis. "Eventually, we hope develop a price for managing an application (enterprisewide), not just for a site. Security, for example, is more than just the sum of routers, servers and firewalls. Voice-over-IP involves total Quality of Service management over both local and wide-area networks."

Davis notes that "Many of our partners have said, Were going to carve out our WAN business and give it to you because its too expensive with the tools we have. "

Clearly, systems management is not for every solutions provider. It can be profitable if youre prepared to build scalable, cost-effective tools and a sizable infrastructure.Once you run the numbers, you may find that its wiser to partner with an MSP.