Despite vendors' best efforts, the perception of network and systems management products is that many are high-priced, require lengthy deployment cycles, entail multiple integration efforts and necessitate time-consuming customisation.

But open source vendors and developers are bringing a new breed of products to market that could shatter that perception and provide customers with inexpensive, flexible and easy-to-integrate management tools. Freeware applications such as Multi Router Traffic Grapher and Big Brother have been around for decades in a majority of IT departments as tools users turn to when commercial products can't deliver, but because of scalability and support concerns, the applications rarely take off in enterprise-wide roll-outs.

Today's open source tools have been commercialised by vendors such as GroundWork, Hyperic and others, which also provide customers with support and maintenance contracts that often aren't part of a freeware or shareware deployment. And while these tools aren't free, they don't carry the $1 million price tag of a BMC Patrol, Computer Associates Unicenter, HP OpenView or IBM Tivoli - and according to early adopters, open source management products can offer atypical benefits.

Open source's benefits
"The financial benefits of open source are simply a by-product of the real gain it offers us. We can control our time to market to our customers using open source," says Andres Andreu, technical director of Web engineering and applications for advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather in New York.

Andreu uses Hyperic HQ to monitor Web servers and Web services across the firm's global infrastructure. He says about three years ago he went shopping for a management platform and didn't discover one tool to meet his needs - which included monitoring open source tools such as JBoss, Apache and MySQL. Because the IT shop at Ogilvy & Mather must work as quickly as its business counterparts, Andreu says he needed a product that he could quickly manipulate to meet his needs.

"The source code is available and it helps me write plug-ins to get the level of granularity I need," he says.

Hyperic HQ is actually a hybrid product of sorts - part open source and part proprietary technologies. Hyperic was spun out of Covalent, which focused on the security and support needs of the Apache Web Server, and Hyperic took Covalent Application Manager and broadened its reach to include the ability to manage the entire Web and open source infrastructure stack, says Javier Soltero, Hyperic CEO.

"Open source in general is still painful when it comes to the process of getting it rolled out, and customers are still in the migration process so we included both commercial and open source technologies," Soltero says. "We worked to get our install time down to a minimum."

Hyperic HQ is installed on a dedicated server and comes with a built-in database. Customers deploy agents on all managed machines, and the agents report back to the server only when conditions have changed or an alert is necessary. The software monitors various platforms ranging from Tomcat to Citrix to Apache to Linux to Solaris to Windows to VMware and more. The software delivers data and reports via a Web-based interface.

The difference between Hyperic HQ and freeware monitoring applications such as Nagios (formerly NetSaint), Soltero says, is that Hyperic HQ can report on upcoming performance issues and not only alert on events after the fact.

Mark Douglas, vice president of engineering and operations at online dating company eHarmony in California, says the "broad footprint" of Hyperic HQ drew him to the product, and the open source aspect was an added bonus. He uses the software to monitor network switches, storage arrays and application servers.

An integrated view
"It gives us an integrated view of the whole stack, hardware and software, including our open source tools," Douglas says. "We aren't predominantly open source, but it's definitely part of the environment."

As for the added bonus Douglas mentions, he says Hyperic HQ not only manages storage arrays from EMC, but also the equipment from smaller vendor 3Par.

"I am not sure if it's just a general openness with the software, but it supports just about everything I have, and I can write plug-ins specific to my environment," he says.

Another newcomer to the management market, GroundWork this year unveiled GroundWork Monitor, which is an extension of Nagios open source monitoring application. The software runs on a Linux server with memory in disk and can be used either with or without agents. The agent option, recommended by the vendor, essentially uses a Perl script that runs on managed devices, and extracts management information from the device's Management Information Base to send to the central server. Customers also have the option to write plug-ins specific to their environment to further broaden the software's monitoring capabilities.

Despite the optimism of early adopters, open source in the management realm is still quite immature. As with most technologies, adequate management technologies follow mainstream adoption and always need to play a bit of catch up.

Waiting for maturity
"Network and systems management tools are one of the least mature areas of open source," says Michael Goulde, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. "A few companies have taken open source tools, such as Nagios, and built on those capabilities, but the Holy Grail in management is still end-to-end application management across the client to back-end servers. And the technology isn't there yet - in the commercial or open source world."

EHarmony's Douglas would like to see more advanced reporting in Hyperic's software, and Lamonica would like GroundWork to develop hooks from its Monitor software into network and physical security devices across his company's multiple construction sites.

"The tool gives a good picture of the average statistics, but we need to also be aware of the extremes and get granular high-low reporting," Douglas says.

Lamonica adds, "It would be ideal to have this tap into [intrusion-detection] systems and see all security and network events in one console."

While early adopters can extend the code for many purposes, they say the vendors need to continue development, as well. One plus of open source - the availability of the source code - could represent a double-edged sword of sorts to inexperienced network managers.

"The benefit of extending that source code could be lost if someone doesn't have the skills to do it," Goulde says.