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Zenoss--Open Source Systems Management for SMBs

Opening IT Management

  • May 31, 2006
  • By Jacqueline Emigh

Eyeing systems management as the next big market to "go open source," Zenoss, Inc. is now trying to give mid-sized customers another alternative beyond the two main choices available so far: massive suites from the "Big Four" giants or a mishmash of specialized point solutions.

"We're focusing on the IT infrastructures of the 'mid-market.' These aren't 'Mom and Pops.' They're organizations with about 50 to 5,000 employees, or $50 million to $500 million in revenues," said Bill Karpovich, CEO of the software firm

Earlier in May, the Zenoss, Inc.-sponsored Zenoss Project joined hands with Webmin, the Emu Software-sponsored NetDirector, and several other open source projects to form the Open Management Consortium (OMC).

Right now, a lot of mid-sized companies and not-for-profits are still struggling to string together effective systems management approaches with specialized tools such as WhatsUp Gold and Ipswitch's software.

Historically, organizations in this bracket have been largely ignored by the "Big Four"--IBM, Hewlett-Packard, BMC, and Computer Associates, according to Karpovich.

"These companies have concentrated mainly on the Fortune 500, and their suites are very heavy and expensive," Karpovich charged, during an interview with LinuxPlanet.

But Karpovich anticipates that the Big Four could start to widen their scope quite soon, spurred by analysts' projections of stellar growth in the systems management space.

Mercy Hospital, a $400 million health care facility in Baltimore, is one medium-sized organization that has already turned down overtures from a Big Four vendor in favor of Zenoss.

"We'd been using a hodgepodge of tools from different vendors," according to Jim Stalder, the hospital's CIO, who cited SolarWinds and Cisco as a couple of examples.

But over the past few years, Mercy's IT mainly Windows-based infrastructure has expanded precipitously, Stalder maintained, in another interview.

Mercy chose Zenoss over a Big Four alternative mostly on the basis of cost, according to the hospital's CIO.

Zenoss doesn't charge for its software, which is offered under GPL licensing. Karpovich said. Instead, its revenue model is built around professional services--including customization, integration, staff training, and best practices consulting -- and support fees.

Alternatively, organizations can "use their own resources" or hire other OMC partners or other third-party consultants for professional services.

Zenoss users can also customize the software code for integration or other purposes.

"We used to have 100 servers, but now we have close to 200," Stalder said. "Mercy has done a good job of embracing (advancements in) health care IT. But sometimes your staffing budget doesn't grow as linearly as your infrastructure. And it got difficult to keep tabs on all these servers with fewer (IT) people on hand."

Also according to Karpovich, many organizations--particularly in the midrange tier--don't need all of the features offered in the IBM/HP/BMC/CA suites.

As inspiration behind Xenoss' effort, he pointed to the success of JBoss in the open source application server market, EnterpriseDB and Postgres among databases, and SugarCRM in the CRM arena.

"All of these markets have been moving to open source one by one. And they've all been turned on their heads by really strong vendors. We expect that systems management will be the next place where open source has a big impact, and we want to lead the charge," he told LinuxPlanet.

"We want to do something that's somewhere 'in the middle,' offering a very rich solution with enterprise-grade monitoring at a price mid-sized organizations can afford."

Karpovich maintained that, to step beyond "first-generation" open source tools, Zenoss replaces the traditional ASCII interface with a template-enabled GUI geared to easy systems configurability.

The system also provides autodiscovery and many other features also found in pricier systems.

Zenoss revolves around four key modules: inventory configuration; availability monitoring; performance monitoring; and event management.

The inventory configuration module contains its own autopopulated database. "This is not just an ASCII. We've built a database that understands relationships. For a server, for example, this means, 'What are patches?' There's a real industry trend around ITIL, and we are doing that. A lot of commercial vendors are also talking about CDMD, and we'll be pushing that back toward open source," according to Karpovich.

The available monitoring in Zenoss is designed to assure that applications "are 'up' and responding," he told LinuxPlanet.

The performance monitoring module makes it possible to track metrics such as disk space over time, and to generate user configurable threshold-based alerts.

The event management capability, on the other hand, offers a centralized area for consolidating events. "Every Windows server has event logging. But we let you bring together events (from multiple servers) and prioritize them," according to the Zenoss CEO.

For his part, Mercy Hospital's Stalder is mainly quite satisfied with Zenoss. "So far, so good. This represented a major savings opportunity for us, and we wouldn't have used a fraction of the features in a (Big Four) suite," he told LinuxPlanet.

"We went live (with Zenoss) in early April, and got it up and running very quickly. We've been able to turn off several other tools, as a result. And Zenoss has shown us several (IT infrastructure) problems we weren't even aware existed," he said.

For example, in rolling up the logs of its SQL Server databases, Mercy found out that several databases weren't being backed up properly.

The hospital did need to turn on the SNMP in its servers to get autoduscovery to work. "But this was only because we'd never turned it on before," he added.

Yet Stalder did point to a couple of features on his future wish list for Zenoss. He'd like the software to include notification escalation--"so that if Joe doesn't respond to his pager, you can reach him somewhere else"--as well as a "synthetic transaction generator," to "emulate how the application appears to a user logging on."

But Karpovich readily admits that there's room for more functtionality in the Zenoss environment. In fact, that's one of the main reasons behind the decision to join other open source ISVs in founding the OMC, he suggested.

"With our partners, we're building an ecosystem around products and systems integration," he told LinuxPlanet. "We haven't yet decided yet where all of us will fit. But we want to provide (customers) with all that they need for systems management. In areas where we don't have standards for integration, we can collaborate on integration."

Other founding members of the Open Management Consortium include Nagios, an open source project sponsored by Ayamon; openQRM, sponsored by Qlusters; and openSIMS, sponsored by Symtiog.

The consortium also plans to create a "systems integration repository around best practives for sharing instrumentation," Karpovich said.

"The business model is kind of like that of SugarCRM. Partners will build their own businesses selling services. Then, if one of their customers wants Zenoss, for example, the partner will get a commission," he elaborated.

But Zenoss will also do its best to avoid the bloatware phenomenon associated with the Big Four suites, according to Karpovich.

"One of the things people don't like about the 'Big Four' is that if they don't buy capabilities now, it will cost them more later. With Zenoss, you're not under that kind of pressure," the CEO told LinuxPlanet.

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