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Challenges for Systems Management Vendors, New and Old

As I mentioned previously, I talked with Ted Hulick yesterday. Ted worked at BMC, as did I, for sometime so we had a fun time swapping BMC stories.

Earlier yesterday morning and after talking with Ted I was reflecting on how self-involved I could get while in the comfort and silo of a large company. The fever of group-think helped me spend many hours gleefully arguing about agent vs. agentless instead of worrying about fitting either to the right situation.

I’m generalizing terribly here, but in large companies, that fever spreads quick, and next thing you know, people like nVision and the rest of the New Systems Management projects and companies have gobbled up the SMB space and are getting into the Enterprise Chips in the pantry. But, generalization aside, I still don’t think the BigCo excuse is valid anymore.

Beat ‘Em or Join ‘Em

For The Big 4, unless they want to work with the New Systems Management people as I’ve suggested before, this means that it’s time to start releasing frequently and often, delivering innovation not just in process and high-level IT management, but at the tools and day-to-day level. The Big 4 face problems that most mature enterprise software vendors do: their platforms are not built for frequent updates and instead are built to be battle-ships that blast the competition out of the water.

Technologically, turning the fleet around, means focusing on laying out an architecture based on standard interfaces and data, allowing the big platforms to more closely mimic how web based applications work: the glue is based on simplifying the semantics of the data and creating roach-motel busters instead of proprietary lock in and oblique data.

Here is a test question for all of that: if I wanted to build a new front-end for your system (in PHP, Rails, or anything really), how long would it take me? Would I have to modify your code? If the answers are in terms of months and code modification, something is wrong; there’s more work to be done to build a platform instead of an application.

Evil Knieveling It

For the New Systems Management people, the challenges are getting the attention and time of potential customers, scaling up to the numbers that The Big 4 handle, and creating a new systems management story that fits with those company’s and project’s capabilities and capacity:

Getting Attention

One of the core problems with systems management software is that it’s extremely difficult to show value instantly during a sales call. The value of systems management platforms are demo’ed over time as the system monitored goes through good times and bad. What this means is that highlighting how your platform is different is tricky.

Here are some ways companies have tackled that problem (and don’t read into the list that these are the only features each platform has):

  • FiveRuns has a sexy interface and is hosted, as is Versiera.
  • Hyperic is open source and, thus, a free download (they have RSS as well).
  • Centeris is unique in it’s Windows-based approach to Linux management.
  • SourceLabs and Splunk have collaborative systems management.
  • nVision can quickly expose hidden problems and ignored problems in Java and .Net products. (In fact, this can sometimes cause sales-hassle as it can be embarrassing for people who wrote the code ;>).

In each of these cases, the New Systems Management folks are showing something unique as quickly as possible, if not instantly. It goes without saying that the time from putting the CD (or, better, downloading the install file) and seeing that differentiation on the screen has to be as close to zero as possible.

The Scale Ceiling

Scaling, as I’ve said before, is the mid-life crisis of all systems management platforms, no matter if they’re targeted at SMB’s or enterprises. For example, storing only 30 days of data isn’t going to cut it in larger accounts. Truth be told, people at all level want unlimited, raw data. That want may be irrational, but it requires much persuasion to explain away.

While you’re in 1.0 stage, you get a pass on all of this as long as you wink-and-nod yourself into delivering it in 2.0. Once you reach 2.0, scale becomes a bug-bear if it doesn’t work. It’s still a bug-bear for The Big 4, but they have the advantage of enough capital to burn lots of 3rd level support time with. Smaller companies and projects won’t be so lucky.

The Story, Innovation on the Table

Every marketer tells a story. And, if they do it right, we
believe them. We believe that wine tastes better in a $20
glass than a $1 glass. We believe that an $80,000 Porsche
Cayenne is cooler than a $36,000 VW Touareg, which is
virtually the same car. We believe that $225 Pumas will
make our feet feel better than $20 no-names…and believing it makes it true. —Seth Godin [PDF]

The current, dominate story of systems management revolves around Big Ideas like ITIL, CMDBs, and integrating IT with business. The goals of those stories sound and are good, but they’re clever in that they favor The Big 4 over smaller people. As I alluded to recently, implementing those Big Ideas takes a lot of time and money on the part of the vendor at a scale that only the Big 4 and others of their size can handle.

Put plainly: the current understanding of what “systems management” is favors large companies over smaller ones.

Obviously, what this means is that the New Systems Management crew (the “small” companies) need to craft a new story of what systems management is. The first step is figuring out what your capacity is. For example, most people can’t support long sales cycles with endless tinkering, so maybe you open source. The next step is getting everyone to agree on the same general story.

Part of the story that New Systems Management is working on is one of simplicity through clean-slate approaches and implementations. Another part, which I’ve been trying to amplify of late, is that there’s a tremendous amount of innovation on the table. That is, the Big 4 have been focuses on integrating their product-lines and aligning with their respective ITIL derivatives instead of pushing along the “tool level” innovation boulder.

On the other hand, for a more harmonious, additive approach, look towards the recent discussion of J[2]EE being dead and bloated. The turmoil in that area are being smoothed out by all involved, enterprisey and lesscode, though they might not realize it.

Pulling Up for Perspective

Getting back to yesterday’s navel-gazing, the more general lesson to apply here is that systems management isn’t immune to the general malaise (or “fun” to others) of software: you’ve got to keep up with what else is going on or you’ll be out-innovated and out-priced. The danger for The Big 4 is getting wrapped up in your own affairs and internal debates, while the danger for the New Systems Management crew is being dismissive what The Big 4 do well.

Disclaimer: IBM, BMC, FiveRuns, SourceLabs, and Sun are clients.

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Categories: Enterprise Software, Systems Management.

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2 Responses

  1. when you get back from vaca lets sit down and work out a marketing campaign around all the great work you have been doing in this space.

  2. Sounds good to me 😉 I think there's a few "overview" sort of presentation/talks we could extract out.