For Cliff Bell, chief technology officer at software vendor Phoenix Technologies, installing systems management software from GroundWork Open Source two years ago has helped him save face, money and even some sleep.

"My director of IT operations used to wake up at 5:30 every morning in order to give me a 7 a.m report on any outages," Bell said this week. That became unnecessary after Phoenix began monitoring the 300 servers at its 12 offices worldwide with GroundWork's open source technology.

"My bosses don't ask me anymore if our systems are stable," Bell said. Moreover, he figures he has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by choosing GroundWork over a more established vendor such as CA, IBM or HP.

At the LinuxWorld Conference & Expo last week, GroundWork and a handful of other upstart vendors tried to capture a share of the systems management spotlight.

For example, Austin-based FiveRuns announced its first product: software that can manage servers running Windows, Linux, Solaris and Mac OS X as well as open source applications such as MySQL, JBoss, Apache and Tomcat. And San Francisco-based Hyperic said its open source systems management tools have been downloaded more than 10,000 times since they were released two months ago.

Michael Cote, an analyst at RedMonk, said enterprise systems management installations typically scale to cover thousands of devices and applications. But the result "is usually a very long and expensive project," he said.

Vendors such as GroundWork and FiveRuns "are taking a clean-slate approach and coming up with some original user interfaces and workflows, and even overall revisitings of what 'systems management' means," Cote said.

FiveRuns CEO Steven Smith said the browser-based tools his company is offering on a monthly subscription basis include lean consoles that give users the most relevant information. "With conventional systems management platforms, it's a badge of honour to display as many metrics as possible," he said. "We decided on a less-is-more approach."

Hi5 Networks, a San Francisco-based company that operates a MySpace.com-like social networking Web site, uses Hyperic's software to manage several hundred Web servers, according to CTO Akash Garg. Through plug-ins, Hyperic HQ monitors all of Hi5's key applications, including the open source Apache Web server software and PostgreSQL database, Garg said.

Yodlee, a company that develops online banking applications, switched from HP OpenView to GroundWork Monitor last year. Ganesh Narasimhan, operations engineering manager at Yodlee, said the GroundWork software has proven more adept at managing his company's 800-plus servers and its custom-built software. GroundWork Monitor also is cheaper and doesn't require a full-time employee to manage it, Narasimhan said.

Not everything is perfect, though. To guard against crashes, Yodlee runs one GroundWork server that monitors its IT infrastructure plus a second system that serves as a backup to the first. "It's not a foolproof fail-over solution, and there's still some room [for GroundWork] to improve on that," Narasimhan said.

Garg said the downside of Hyperic's minimalist dashboard is that the required level of detail about problematic systems isn't always available. "The dashboard only shows you what it thinks you need to be worried about at the moment," he said. "I would love a version where you can also see everything if you want."