In the realm of infrastructure management, server management tools have a wide row to hoe. In most cases, these tools are the center, or hub, of the server infrastructure. As a result, they provide unified administrative services for a large number of servers, which usually means combined or even comprehensive functionality covering major areas of server management.
In general, server management tools can be divided into two categories: suites and specialist products. The most conspicuous products are suites. These are generally the big one-stop shops for server administration. Some of these suites are so comprehensive that it's legitimate to wonder, do suites cover everything?
The question is relevant only after a definition of "everything" is provided. Certainly, some enterprise-level suites, such as IBM's Tivoli and HP's OpenView, attempt to cover the principal areas of server management storage, networking, security, server performance, and software management. On the other hand, the scores of specialist products in these same areas demonstrate that suites don't include all (or even enough) of some important features and functionality, and there is indeed a market for other products.
Then there's the difference in "approach" to server management. Most suites attempt to establish a unified approach a consistent user interface, multiplatform support, overarching policy controls, a unified framework in code and structure to hold all the pieces together, and of course, single-vendor support. Less comprehensive products may have some of these elements, but they often distinguish themselves by adhering to a particular kind of management philosophy (e.g., exception-based or business-process-oriented) or they may have unusual user interfaces (often more graphical) or a unique configuration of features (grouping features in unorthodox ways).
First and foremost, all server management products consolidate, aggregate, or concentrate the operation of many servers into a single point of administration.
It should be no surprise that management products are divided primarily into single platform (for the most part Microsoft and partners) and multiplatform products. For convenience, this is often sliced and diced as Microsoft System Management Server and the Big Four suites: IBM Tivoli, Computer Associates Unicenter, BMC Software PATROL, and Hewlett Packard OpenView. Although clear and convenient, this categorization is misleading because there are products that greatly enhance or even replace Microsoft products, and there are literally dozens of products constantly challenging at least part of the hegemony of the big four suites. Still, the orientation remains: Many products are divided into those that run only on servers running a Microsoft OS, and those for multiplatform servers running Linux, Unix, or Mac OS X. To a certain extent, this divide also reflects products developed using Java, the ones in Java being non-Microsoft, but, again, there are many exceptions.
When Shopping Around
So what should be expected from server management software? First and foremost, all server management products consolidate, aggregate, or concentrate (pick the word) the operation of many servers into a single point of administration. The principle benefits are obvious: It takes fewer people to manage a large number of servers, and the power of management software can be brought to bear on many servers in a uniform way. Of course, which servers, performing what functions, and how they are administered are crucial issues.
Teasing features into categories can sometimes be arbitrary, and suite vendors will sometimes claim full functionality when only providing a subset of features.
Server management software can be specific to certain hardware (e.g., IBM, Dell, and Apple), to certain operating systems (e.g., Windows, Linux, Unix, and Mac OS X), and certain types of servers (e.g., Web, database, and application). When researching products, this is a starting point because the information is readily available. Overall, most vendors are accurate in categorizing their software's functionality, but not always. Teasing features into categories can sometimes be arbitrary, and suite vendors will sometimes claim full functionality when only providing a subset of features. Some products will also ride the overlap between functionality, for example monitoring network traffic and monitoring server security.
The most difficult choice is determining how the server will be managed i.e., the approach. Some features, such as whether the software is GUI-oriented or Web-based, are easily determined. However, the more subtle aspects of management often fall into the realm of marketing-speak, making it necessary in most cases to run a trial or test the software to get a true feel for how it works.
Before selecting products to trial, it helps to develop a reasonably well-defined set of requirements concerning platforms, basic functionality, and desired approach. As is often the case in software, server management tools bring trade-offs to consider. For example, for one organization the convenience of having a single source of support for an all-in-one suite may trump a higher price tag and less-than-complete components, but for another, pieced-together best-of-breed software with support cobbled from many vendors may be preferable.