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Comment It may seem something of a contradiction in terms, but for any business to be agile and effective these days, it also has to have a high degree of control in place. It is vital for the IT function to know exactly what it happening in the hardware and software infrastructure, down to the smallest detail, if it is to be able to change the operations and processes of that infrastructure as quickly as any agile business will require.

It becomes even more important as businesses move towards implementing Service Oriented Architectures (SOAs) where, in practice, any application or utility could find itself running in collaboration with any other, on any server in any datacentre the business might either own or run services upon. It is like watching a top sports star – the fact is that though their grace, speed and agility may look easy and natural it is in large part the product of absolute control over the smallest actions of their bodies. In the same way, the way that an agile business can adapt easily and quickly to exploit new market opportunities, though it may look like luck or a CEO’s "Midas Touch", will in large part be down to the depth of control that is present over the IT infrastructure.

Calling all agents

That is why Infrastructure Management Systems (IMS) are now seen as one of the big markets now. The IMS provides the tools for a single operator to monitor and manage the activities and performance of every piece of hardware on the corporate network, and the installation and operation of all the software. Agent software is now available for just about every type of hardware device, from the latest communications servers through to the most ancient of Digital Equipment PDP-11 minicomputers. Adaptors are also available for most of the applications and software tools that any business will use. Indeed, many of them are now freely available from the open source community, while any "specials" are developed by the IMS vendors and, normally, then submitted to the open source pool of agents and adaptors.

Using these, management systems can be built that both monitor problems and increase operational flexibility. For example, should a fan inside a server stop, causing the server to overheat and its performance to be threatened, this can be shown as a problem on the IMS, and action can be taken to shut the server down, shift its workload safely, and institute remedial action. It also provides the capability to initiate the loading of the applications and utilities that constitute a service onto selected hardware, run that service to completion of the process and then close it down cleanly, effectively "returning" the applications and hardware to the common pool of resources.

These days IMS covers such tasks as service desk management, call management, escalation management, change management, online and remote support, hardware/system maintenance, troubleshooting, health checks and performance fine tuning. Other features that are a part of IMS are system administration, security remediation, backups/restores, network monitoring and management, basic reporting, advanced services and intrusion detection services.

A side benefit of increasing importance is the fact that an IMS also provides far greater auditability in terms of the growing compliance and governance issues that companies must meet. The regulations and legislation which businesses have to meet include The European Data Protection Directive, Basel II and Sarbanes Oxley. All of them emphasise the importance of data control and integrity. So, with an IMS in place it becomes very difficult for individual staff to change any part of the infrastructure, while IT staff can ensure that only approved applications are used to run business processes where compliance is an issue.

Feeling big

Till recently such capabilities have been the preserve of the big systems vendors working with the biggest customers. Indeed, many of those big customers have outsourced the whole project to the likes of IBM’s Global Services, if only because their own businesses have been global in reach. But now the market is starting to expand beyond the major players and big systems environments.

The availability of low-cost commodity servers, coupled to virtualisation technologies, is making the idea of the "datacentre" equally applicable to much smaller businesses. So the traditional leaders in IMS, such as IBM with Tivoli and HP with OpenView, have now been joined by a growing band of competition. These include Microsoft with SMS, TrackIT, LANDESK, Fluke Inspector, Real Secure IDS Suite, Sonicwall, Computer Associates Arc Serve and Veritas, to name but a few.

These "packaged" IMS solutions, which have now been joined by the likes of HP which now offers a Windows-based implementation of OpenView (rather than the standard Unix-based version) at a much lower cost can, when combined with low-cost commodity servers, turn the provision of IMS solutions into a market opportunity for systems integrators and the larger resellers. It also offers them the possibility of offering remote infrastructure management services, where the systems integrators provide the management as an outsourced service.

By definition, it is also a solution that small and medium-sized businesses can now contemplate, which can increase their prospects for building more agile and responsive businesses. ®

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