In the salad days of mainframes, software upgrades happened once -- on the mainframe. Today, when an application needs upgrading or an operating system needs a patch, the task is more challenging. Software distribution applications help automate the process of managing a software base that may be distributed across thousands of desktops.

6) Fault-management software helps administrators answer "what happened" questions -- or in more modern versions, "What's about to happen?" When a computer goes down, or a critical piece of software stops working or the network slows to a crawl, administrators are called on to isolate and repair the problem -- at any time. Fault-management software provides friendly interfaces to help administrators do their jobs and get things running again. It also includes notification mechanisms --e-mail, pagers or on-screen notifications -- to alert administrators to the problem.

When integrated with the information supplied by performance-management software, fault-management software is now being called on to predict, and sometimes fix, problems before they affect users. In those cases, they may send administrators notification of the perceived problem, the corrective action they took and the results.

Technologies Converging

It should come as no surprise in this era of consolidation that computer-resource-management technologies have been converging.

Traditionally, network management consisted of tools and techniques for managing only the network. A March 1998 Business Research Group (BRG) report defines network management as "a general term that embraces all the functions and processes involved in managing a network."

The same report defines system management as "the management of separate individual computers, including data management, data security, installation and configuration of software and hardware, fault management and performance tuning."

Because of the explosion in computer use and the complexity of networks and systems, the distinction between networks and systems management is fading. BRG calls this new paradigm "dynamic management" and defines it as "management applications that identify user behavior; actively manage the relationship between the user, the network, and applications; and translates the information to a business prospective."

The convergence of management technologies has emphasized what was already becoming clear: No single vendor could possibly provide all the tools necessary to manage large, heterogeneous networks. Instead, what has emerged are several management frameworks that provide a common structure that can accommodate tools from a variety of vendors. Hewlett-Packard's OpenView and IBM's TME 10 are the best known and most widely deployed management frameworks.

Both provide a variety of built-in services and operate on a "manager-agent" basis. The manager is the central program that can graphically show administrators an overview of the network. It is often referred to as the management console.

Management consoles can also display information about individual resources, such as a workstation, a router or other hardware or software entity. The individual resources are called, appropriately, managed nodes. The management console can collect information from the managed nodes in many ways, depending on the kind of node. However, the IBM and HP products provide software that can be installed onto a variety of managed nodes. This software is known as an "agent." Agents can be configured to watch and report on a plethora of information. They can also be instructed to take action based on the information they collect.

For example, an agent installed on a Windows NT server can be configured to monitor disk usage. When a configured threshold is exceeded, the agent may delete all temporary files. If this doesn't handle the problem, the agent may alert the management station, which may place a message on an administrator's workstation or send an alphanumeric page to the administrator, notifying her of the problem.

Both HP and IBM offer system-management software that works in their management framework, but these frameworks' real power lies in their ability to accommodate third-party software.

David Aden  | 
David Aden DAden@webworldtech.com is a writer from Washington, D.C.