Outsourcing Network Management

By Eddie Rabinovitch, UniNews online Network Administration Correspondent


"You cannot be serious! Why would any organization want to lose management control of its own resources?"

That was my network manager response several years ago to the idea of outsourcing. However, computer networking is a dynamic area, and some strategies that were unthinkable yesterday can become very attractive today. This is not an unusual phenomenon; change is only extraordinary when it happens to you! It's always fun to look back at other industry "absolutes", that are not so absolute today. Here are a few from some reputable experts:

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." --Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." --Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977

"640K ought to be enough for anybody." -- Bill Gates chairman and founder of Microsoft, 1981

So why has outsourcing of network and desktop management emerged as a reliable and cost-effective option for modern networks? Let's start with some figures first. According to the Gartner Group http://www.gartner.com the outsourcing market in general will grow from $18.2 billion in 1995 to $42.6 billion by the year 2000. And the fastest growing segment, within the outsourcing market, is outsourcing management for networks and desktops. The Gartner Group predicts just the networking segment to increase from $2.73 billion in 1995 to $10.65 billion by the end of the century. The conclusion is clear - there's demand and service providers willing to fill the demand.

What are some of the main reasons for organizations to outsource network and desktop management? Many companies have come to recognize the dynamic nature of the technology and products, the total cost of ownership of new technology and the ever-changing nature of internal support requirements. Outsourcing of the day-to-day network management activities gives companies the freedom to focus on their core competencies, critical to business success. And what is the rationale for vendors to enter the network management outsourcing business? With a focus on enterprise management business, a service provider can bring to bear economies of scale, more effectively implement superior tool sets, and field skilled personnel.

Making the Decision and Getting Started
Since modern client/server applications tend to be spread over several locations, savings introduced by outsourcing network and desktop management can be even more significant for multi-location corporations. Other reasons to get started include manpower shortages where a network management staff is overburdened and needs additional resources. Or, an enterprise may realize that it is employing an ineffective network management structure and believes that an external service provider may provide better overall service. Outsourcing vendors can also be used on a more limited basis to supplement the internal support infrastructure: i.e. off-hours support, augmenting staff; or to take on the less exciting, repetitive and monotonous activities, such as helpdesk support and break-fix services; reserving internal activities for concentrating on network development, planning, as well as monitoring the effectiveness of the outsourcer.

What to Look For in a Vendor
Outsourcing service providers try to use fewer but better trained people with expertise in various areas of the network. In addition, outsourcers, specializing in network management, are particularly motivated to stay on top of the emerging technologies that will benefit their clients and by doing so increase their value to clients. They will also have more incentives and resources for researching and recommending emerging technologies, since the costs associated with such process, can be spread among several clients.

The most important rule is to find a trustworthy and capable vendor. A vendor that can offer not only a good price, but also the required range of services and experience in network integration, client/server implementations, and break/fix services.

The most important rule is to find a trustworthy and capable vendor. A vendor that can offer not only a good price, but also the required range of services and experience in network integration, client/server implementations, and break/fix services. It is also important to make sure that the outsourcer is using standards based tools: Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) including RMON and RMON2, for network and Desktop Management Interface (DMI) for desktop management.

Any number or combination of network management disciplines can be outsourced including:

Within service level management you'll likely find opportunities to outsource software metering and distribution, security management, availability management, backup and recovery.

A vendor should be able to provide a series of standard and custom-tailored reports which allow continuous monitoring of the service levels as well as providing valuable input for performance management and capacity planning. The span of these services should cover servers, clients, and wide and local area network components.

A key method for managing an outsourcer is through Service Level Agreements (SLA), which can be used not only to monitor outsourcer's performance, but also to assess penalties to the outsourcer, if needed. For a SLA to work effectively it must be contractual, explicit, and well-defined (see my UniNews online 4/11/97 column: http://www.uniforum.org/web/pubs/uninews/970411/feature2.html "Network Management Performance - Tips and Tools" for more information on RMON, RMON2, and SLA reporting).

How to select the right outsourcer? First, make sure that the outsourcer has the financial stability to compete and succeed in what has become a volatile market. The vendor should have a track record of being able to predict and then quickly support new technologies. To sum up, the service provider you seek should have all of these attributes:

­ assume ownership and assure resolution of problems
­ record, monitor, dispatch/route problems
­ enforce problem/trouble ticket flow
­ facilitate process and workflow
­ chart processes for problem escalation
­ facilitate routing, or actually dispatch trouble tickets to other service providers
­ provide service level reporting
­ provide a problem resolution data base
­ facilitate tracking and analysis of "bugs" on the desktop, server, and network equipment hardware, and software
­ facilitate configuration and change management

Outsourcing does not necessarily mean turning over the whole operation to a third party. Outsourcing is a partnership. The outsourcing company must manage the relationship, track vendor performance and retain enough staff for planning, design, and charting their own networking future. As the role of network and desktop management within the enterprise continues to grow in importance, it is critical that enterprises evaluate their IT support needs. The results achieved with outsourcing largely depend on the decisions made along the way. These decisions involve strategy and resources, and can help to direct outsourcing efforts toward achieving pre-determined goals. It is probably not a good idea to decide on outsourcing solely for financial reasons but rather because outsourcing provides a better business solution, within which cost savings plays a role. The ramifications of a good or a poor outsourcing decision by IS management can improve or set back the effectiveness of the entire enterprise.

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