Open-Source Network-Management Tools: Reading Between the Lines

Updated: April 30, 2009

For many companies, network management is a costly yet necessary business imperative. Vendors such as CA , Hewlett-Packard and IBM all offer robust solutions that promise to optimize network performance, manage traffic flows and enhance security. But these services don't come cheap, and many companies are hard-pressed to justify making such a hefty investment.

Enter open-source network-management systems. Whether you download them for free or turn to vendors such as GroundWork Open Source , Quest Software Inc ., Hyperic Inc . or Zenoss Inc ., today's open-source network-management tools deliver high-quality functionality for a fraction of the price of their closed-source counterparts. And unlike software with fixed costs and licensing fees, open-source software "makes it much easier for a business to try different solutions and selectively determine which services they really want," said Mark Driver, a Gartner Inc. analyst.

The Perks of Freedom

Open-source network-management tools are also highly customizable and easy to deploy, and they guarantee vendor independence in a climate of consolidation. Said Driver, "The fact that no single vendor can arbitrarily kill off the product is in itself an extremely attractive feature for a company that's used to being at the mercy of mergers and acquisitions."

Unfortunately, the perks of open-source applications aren't always so cut-and-dried. Take price, for example. GroundWork OpenSource, a noncommercial alternative, charges only $16,000 annually for its Professional solution. But many companies fail to consider the financial burden that an open-source solution can place on in-house resources. "There is an assumption in many cases that open source is going to be cheaper," said Driver. "And yes, on paper, it's 100 percent cheaper. But what people don't realize is that even if the software is free, there's a shift in the cost of maintenance on to internal employees." Reality check: Driver said that companies can expect cost savings of around 20 percent with open-source software.

A Support System

The value of technical support is another factor that prompts debate among open-source enthusiasts. Noted Driver, "The open-source community is an extremely powerful channel of support and is a unique element of open source that no single vendor could ever hope to replicate in terms of the breadth and depth of knowledge available." But there is a flip side: "The limitation presented by the open-source community is that there's no SLA [service-level agreement]; there's no guarantee that you're going to get an answer," said Driver.

Size and Scope

Companies would also be wise to take a long, hard look at the type of network-management system they're capable of maintaining. "If I'm a top, type-A aggressive technology company, I have the internal resources and skill sets needed to manage the software myself," stated Driver. Smaller companies, however, aren't as lucky. In fact, while many small businesses are attracted to open-source technology's low pricing, they often lack the internal resources that are required to manage such a system. "That's the mistake that a lot of mainstream organizations make," warned Driver. "They assume that open-source software is just going to work seamlessly, and it's just not the case."

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