Hub projects in open source network management

Almost as a doodle I thought I’d create a graph depicting the dependencies between a selection of open source network management projects.

Once I’d done it, it occurred to me how much just about everything depends on just a couple of projects or project variants of, RRDTool & Net-SNMP.

A Selection of Open Source Network Management Dependencies

The main conclusion I draw from the above graph is that if you wish to create a thriving platform for open source network management, you’d better have something like those two hub projects.

What is perhaps most surprising is not that there are hub projects, but that there are only two of them in the whole of network management. I think that there should be a lot more.

RE: Why Only Two?

John Willis over at IT Management and Cloud Blog posted an interesting post I’d like to reply to.

The key question is will “Enterprise” customers make an investment in companies like OpenNMS and Nagios with out the warm and fuzzy that “Software Companies” provide.

That’s certainly an interesting perspective John…

It isn’t that Nagios/OpenNMS aren’t hitting enterprise customers. It is the nature of the sale that is different.

Nagios/OpenNMS is more of a bottom up kinda sell. Network technicians use the projects without telling the higher ups and hopefully they can spring for consultancy and training later on after they’ve derived value from it.

The “mighty two” (Zenoss/Hyperic) sell in a more traditional “enterprise” way by going through the CIO and getting a “Big 4 lite” sale.

As impressive as OpenNMS, and Nagios have been bootstrapping themselves it is extremely difficult for them to compete at the enterprise level without the same kind of funding that Hyperic and Zenoss have.

Ultimately, If you are right, then the “mighty two” products should be substantially better, more feature rich than Nagios/OpenNMS.

What features in the “mighty two” aren’t available in Nagios/OpenNMS?

Open source software from a VAR perspective

How can a network & systems management Value Added Reseller (VAR) benefit from offering open source solutions and what are the potential problems?

Any VAR not offering genuine added value is going to be left out in the cold. A “SKU” VAR, a company that expects to take orders with the minimum of fuss, are going to have a problem. But then, that’s the way commercial software like What’s Up Gold and Solar Winds Orion is going anyway. The internet is disintermediating the relationship from producer to customer pretty well everywhere especially in the close to zero friction world of software.

With open source software I suspect the effect of disintermediation will be felt most strongly. One of the most attractive aspects of open source is the community ecosystem. The last thing a potential open source adopter wants is to be cut off from the community. The direct relationship between user and producer is one of the main benefits of open source.

So how can a VAR get in on the action?

  • Create your own project by forking one or more existing projects. You effectively become the creator of the tool so you have the relationship with the user; OR
  • Morph into a consultant for existing projects. The only hope any VAR has of getting in on the act is through expertise by providing training and implementation help; AND/OR
  • Supply hardware appliances powered by open source tools.

Fork off

The nature of open source means that the source code is available to everybody. Why can’t a VAR create their own fork and create service offerings around it? There are two reasons why this approach is unlikely to succeed:

  • The project’s name is likely to be trademarked. So, when a fork is made it cannot be named after the original project. Consequently whatever community revolves around the original project isn’t going to follow you. You will therefore have the long and painful process of building your community from scratch. The desired revenues from consultancy services and training are likely to be long in coming;
  • Not too many VARs have the necessary skills or resources to successfully fork a project and continually keep the project up to date. Your developers are unlikely to be maintainers of the forked project so you will need to continually merge mainline project changes into your code base.

New wave nirvana?

The main problem with VARs morphing into open source consultants is that the project company may wish to keep all of that nice lucrative training and consultancy to themselves.

After all, most of the revenue garnered from “big 4” (HP Openview, IBM Tivoli, CA Unicenter, BMC Patrol) sales come from training and consultancy services not from license sales.

The new wave open source network & systems management companies are all venture funded. Somewhere in their respective business plans I’m sure training and consultancy feature very highly in their monetisation strategies. Indeed the new wave deliberately sacrifice some of the lucrative “big 4” software license sales in order to get hold of the training and consultancy business. I doubt they are going to be too enthusiastic cutting other people in on the deal.

Older is better?

On the other hand, there are a number of self funded projects like OpenNMS and Nagios. Do they offer better opportunities for VARs?

Nagios has a list of approved solution providers who purchase 3rd line support from Nagios Enterprises. The customer knows the solution provider is approved by the Nagios project and is likely to be locally based, the solution provider gets direct support from the project founders and the project itself is able to control the quality of the solution provider and gain income from support contracts from them.

Growing an organic support infrastructure is a clever move by Nagios. Setting up a worldwide support infrastructure is expensive. Nagios are able to leverage their website and trademarked brand in order to build an eco-system to deliver services and training worldwide.

Can’t sell the software…

If you can’t sell the software and you can’t provide training & implementation services what are you supposed to do? One solution is to sell hardware appliances based upon open source tools.

Zenoss has a good example of a hardware based network management solution just ripe to be sold through a VAR channel. Nagios has a whole host of recommended appliances too.

Hardware appliances hold the easiest route for VARs into the world of open source. In fact a hardware appliance based upon open source tools is no different than a proprietary appliance so far as the VAR is concerned.

Conclusion

Network & systems management is an area in which open source solutions have traditionally gained a lot of traction. Network management suits open source perfectly. The influx of venture capital into the existing open source ecosystem is only going to accelerate open source adoption.

So what’s a VAR to do? Open source is accelerating the death of resellers who fail to add value. So long as your people are able to add value to the customer then open source may well open up a huge opportunity for you. Instead of being tied to a single vendor’s offering you will be able to mix and match from a huge range of open source solutions.

Open source network management comparison 2007

Mark Hinkle from Zenoss sent me a link to an interesting document he prepared yesterday.

Open source network management download comparison 2007

I think Mark may be over egging Zenoss “clear market leadership” but without any doubt their growth over the last year has been impressive.

Perhaps the most impressive thing to take away is that all of the projects featured have grown over the last year.

Open source network management download comparison

One of the great things about sourceforge, apart from the cool services they provide free to open source projects, is that they provide statistics about the projects they host.

One of the stats that sourceforge provides is a history of project downloads. You can’t compare the stats though. So I thought it would be interesting to compare the downloads for the major open source network management projects.

The volume of downloads is indicative, like search trends, of the relative mind share for each project. Download volume isn’t a perfect measure, but it is one of the best available. I doubt even the projects themselves have an absolutely accurate idea of how many installations they have.

I entered the download data from sourceforge for the last year into a Google Spreadsheet. I then graphed the data. See the graphs below. The data covers the previous year, from November 2006 through to October 2007.


Figure 1: Open Source Network Management Projects by Monthly Downloads


Figure 2: Open Source Network Management Projects Total Downloads

I’ve compared five projects: Nagios, OpenNMS, Zenoss, Hyperic & Groundwork Open Source all of whom host their downloads at sourceforge.

I doubt the graph will surprise too many people. The graph is similar to the Google Trends data. Both Nagios and Zenoss are vying for the top position. What has surprised me over the last year has been the stability of the number of Nagios downloads.

If the growth of the “new wave” is coming from other open source projects, it isn’t coming from either Nagios or OpenNMS, the most mature “old skool” open source network management projects.

I don’t think there is much doubt that both Zenoss & Hyperic have brought commercial levels of setup and configuration to the open source network management market. And yet, Nagios a tool that relies on manual configuration, is still gaining traction.

Once you have a loyal community, by delivering and supporting successive releases over an extended time, users are loath to move to another project.

Perhaps perversely, the harder a tool is to learn, the more reluctant users are to migrate to another tool. A kind of open source Stockholm syndrome.

I’m sure that all of the new wave players understand the value of community…that’s why they are going hell for leather building them. 🙂

OpenNMS coming soon to Windows

OpenNMS is one of the original enterprise grade open source network management tools. For the Windows based admin, it has had one huge problem: it only runs on Unix based systems.

Not any more!

After a week of prototyping, the development team now has a prototype running on Windows. Expect to see a full release on Windows in the near future.

Just goes to show, if you choose your development tools carefully you get a whole load of stuff (nearly) for free. IF the 250,000 lines of Java code had been in any other language I think it would have taken a lot longer than a week. 😉

Expect to see the Windows port released in the 1.3.8 release.

Network management’s downward trend?

The most puzzling aspect of the “New wave” network management buzz comparison is the OpenView & NetIQ graph. I find it hard to believe that either OpenView or NetIQ are losing traction in the marketplace. So, how do you explain the fall in their respective number of searches?

Network management vs network monitor

First port of call was to see how the industry in general is doing. Whilst far from perfect I think that the network monitor & network management keywords will provide a reasonable guide to search trends.

Network management vs network monitorFigure 1: Network management vs network monitor

Figure 1 looks strangely familiar. The generic terms network management and network monitor both show a very similar downward trend to both NetIQ and OpenView.

Network monitor vs NetIQ vs OpenView

Network monitor vs NetIQ vs OpenViewFigure 2: Network monitor vs NetIQ vs OpenView

You can see in Figure 2, where network monitor is graphed along with OpenView and NetIQ, shows the same trend.

Why the downward trend

Whilst the graphs are very similar in shape, a steady loss of search volume over the last three years. I am at a loss to explain the reasons behind the numbers.

The usual suspect would be an economic slowdown. Though, I think we can exclude this straight away. Just about everywhere in the world is growing at a fair old lick, including the English speaking nations.

The network management market is mature. Maybe systems are installed and working, so why bother researching a new system when you’ve bought and paid for a system that works?

Perhaps customers aren’t quite as dissatisfied with existing solutions as some believe? If they are dissatisfied, why aren’t they researching new, better solutions?

“New wave” network management buzz comparison

Google Trends is an on-line service for comparing the search volumes for up to five keywords. I thought it would be interesting to compare the relative buzz of the new wave” open source network management players between themselves, but also between other open source projects and commercial products.

Google Trends doesn’t supply the search volumes themselves, so no quantitative data will be presented. The data that is presented is solely comparative. You can see, over time, which keywords are being searched for the most. Please note: you cannot infer any intent from the search volume. The searchers may be looking for general product information, installation notes or just about anything else. I have assumed that the search patterns are the same between the various projects/products.

I have omitted Groundwork Open Source & SolarWinds Orion on the basis that the search volumes are distorted by the search terms having multiple meanings.

Hyperic vs Zenoss

Hyperic vs Zenoss Search TrendFigure 1: Hyperic vs Zenoss Search Trend

Firstly, I’d like to congratulate both Zenoss & Hyperic for appearing in Google Trends. That’s no mean feat in itself.

Zenoss is winning the search war, no doubt about it. Figure 1 shows that Zenoss search volume looks to be about double Hyperic’s level. One reason for that may be the relative communities that Zenoss can plug into: Python & Zope. Both are very definite communities that are going to be very vocal about projects they like. Hyperic is written in Java: Java doesn’t really have a close knit community in the same way that Python does.

Zenoss is also more customisable by sysadmins. As Zenoss is written in Python and Python is a very easy to learn scripting language, sysadmins are going to find customising and extending Zenoss pretty easy. Hyperic is not easy to customise and extend. Java takes a lot of expertise to program properly, especially in complex environments like network management applications. Perhaps Hyperic should consider adopting a Java friendly scripting language like Jython?

New wave vs Non-commercial Open Source Projects

New wave vs Open Source Projects TrendFigure 2: New wave vs Open Source Projects Trend

Figure 2 shows the relative search volume between Hyperic, Zenoss, MRTG, Nagios and OpenNMS. The first thing that struck me is the massive search volume for MRTG. WOW! Given how far behind in terms of features and performance MRTG is behind the rest it is quite staggering how many searches it receives. MRTG is losing search volume though, down by two thirds since the beginning of 2004. Nagios has done very well, gaining search volume throughout the last three years.

What does the graph mean for Hyperic & Zenoss?

  • Nagios is a formidable competitor;
  • Taking users away from the existing open source projects isn’t going to be either quick or easy. Take MRTG as an example. There are a number of credible competitors to MRTG like OpenNMS, Cacti, Nagios in addition to Zenoss & Hyperic and yet MRTG has lost search volume quite slowly over an extended period.

Commercial Products vs New Wave

OpenView/NetIQ vs New WaveFigure 3: OpenView/NetIQ vs New Wave

The most surprising thing about Figure 3 is the downward trend on both of the commercial tools: OpenView & NetIQ. Though, I don’t think that the downward trend can be attributed to either Zenoss or Hyperic, given that the trend started long before they came on the scene.

The number of NetIQ searches is now lower than Zenoss by volume. If the downward trend continues, both Zenoss & Hyperic will be hot on their tails.

Conclusion

Both Hyperic & Zenoss are in good health, at least according to their respective search volumes. Search volume is just one metric amongst many that I’m sure both companies monitor on a regular basis. Of far more importance to them will be the number of installations in organisations possessing a budget for network management maintenance. Unfortunately, Google Trends doesn’t have a graph for that!

The one surprising trend presented by the graphs is that neither Hyperic nor Zenoss appear to be taking searches away from other open source projects or commercial products. When I started out compiling the graphs, I expected to see the growth of new wave searches to be taking away searches from Nagios. That has proved to be completely wrong.

Is it possible that people are using multiple tools? I suspect that people tend to use network monitoring much more as a point tool rather than as some monster enterprise wide solution. It could explain why there is no obvious rise in searches for one product or project at the expense of another one.

One explanation for the lack of obvious signs of competitive attrition is the difficulty of migrating between network management tools. If the new wave wish to win over users from other tools, a concerted effort should be made to make migration from competitive tools as simple as possible.