A potentially light-hearted topic took a serious turn at Interop Wednesday, when industry watchers discussed whether the current approach to managing enterprise networks would be able to meet customer needs in both the near and long term.

Vendor panellists, asked whether network management was "cool again," quickly turned the conversation to a more pressing concern: Are network-management technologies available today relevant to the top needs of enterprise IT managers? The consensus: no.

"I think in general we are on the completely wrong trajectory in management," said Shmuel Klinger, vice president of architecture and applied research in the CTO office at EMC, which acquired network-management vendor SMARTS in 2004. "Things are more complex, there are more moving parts and management as an industry are chasing the wrong trends."

And from the customer perspective, the products available from vendors just don't cut it, and IT shops often opt to cobble together their own tools rather than suffer the integration nightmare of myriad tools from multiple vendors, according to one large enterprise customer.

"We are looking for end-to-end IT management, and we can't seem to get the vendors to agree on a common standard, which doesn't help us," said a network engineer for a large financial firm. "We are frustrated with what we can buy off the shelf, so in many cases we are writing it ourselves, doing the integration internally."

All agreed network management is attempting to evolve fully from an element-based discipline to an effort to manage across IT silos, such as servers, storage, security, databases, applications and network components, but didn't seem to think the methods used today would work until the culture of IT changes inside enterprise companies.

"We will see the roles within IT change and new jobs around process management, performance management and capacity management crop up," said Mark Thompson, CTO of Quest Software.

Regardless of the role of IT customers, Klinger went on to explain that if vendors don't change their course, the tools would be ineffective. He said management vendors continue to collect more data and provide network managers with information on applications and systems performance, yet don't provide enough intelligence or automation within their products for network managers to find the data useful or anything more than just an annoyance.

"These trends will have us falling on our face. We are increasing the amount of management data that we collect to a level of detail that no one cares about, which poses a nightmare for integration," Klinger said.

Jasmine Noel, lead analyst at market research firm Ptak, Noel & Associates, agreed to some degree with Klinger's assessment, adding that there is push-back from network managers who have been tasked with more responsibilities to ensure systems and application performance. While there is a need, she says, to know the status of other elements within an infrastructure, network managers want that information accessible in ways that is relevant to them.

"Network managers want to know how do I package that information and data from other silos to get the useful information they need without that process taking up too much of their time," Noel said.

Gnanesh Dholakia, product marketing manager at CA, added that management vendors are working to provide the details about the symptoms in other IT silos causing problems that could impact the network or cause others to blame the network for performance issues.

Yet EMC's Klinger said he believed the solution resided in gear providers such as Cisco and Dell adding more intelligence in their network equipment, while management software vendors of today provide the technologies to automate management and remediation across the infrastructure.

"The answer is not to give network managers more tools. We have to build a system that would automate the remediation of systems," Klinger said.

But, Noel pointed out, that proposition depends upon equipment makers building their products with more manageability that the software vendors could tap for automation, and that path doesn't seem promising either.

"I have seen the amount of R&D dollars these vendors dedicate to making their gear manageable, and it's pitiful," Noel said.