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Operations management should be simpler...
This article is taken from the March 2000 edition of NEWS/400.uk.

Richard Gerrard looks at PackCenter - the operations management suite of tools from Sopra.

Many organisations are struggling with management of their computer systems because they are either not using the right tools or are using tools that are far more complex than they need to be. The solution is to increase the effectiveness of the operations management task by making it simpler through the use of integrated software tools that are each designed to solve specific problems.


Complexity is a problem that has been building up in organisations for many years. As new technology becomes available it is adopted for specific solutions, leaving existing technology in place where it is still meeting business needs. As organisations adopt open systems in new areas, they continue to use proven proprietary mid-range solutions, such as DEC Vax and the AS/400. Whereas the analysts are forecasting usage of Windows NT/2000 to grow dramatically, they are predicting that it will be used alongside existing platforms, rather than replacing them. Most organisations, therefore, operate in an increasingly heterogeneous environment with four to six different platforms. These different platforms must also integrate with each other to allow data to be shared. Information needs to pass freely between back-end systems running on different platforms, as well as being available to users on their desktop PCs. To make matters worse, most organisations run their systems across multiple sites, involving parallel systems that need to be supported remotely. Whereas some organisations are still downsizing, others have already started to consolidate and recentralise.

The arrival of electronic commerce is making the availability of websites and their associated back-end transaction process critical. Organisations are now effectively exposing their systems to the outside world! Information technology has now become a critical part of the strategy and business process of every organisation. However, there is a major skills shortage, especially of experienced staff. Organisations therefore need to utilise their staff on value-added activities, yet many are involved in time-consuming manual work involved in managing systems.


The ultimate goal of most organisations is to bring together all their diverse systems into a single central management function, allowing the platforms to be co-ordinated, the work automated and the use of resources optimised. This involves a long list of different requirements, such as event notification, back-up, job scheduling, application management, storage management, desktop/server management, Internet management, help desk, network database and security.


There are three strategies for meeting these requirements, involving the use of frameworks, best-of-breed solutions or a combination of both. A framework involves putting a large piece of overlying infrastructure software over the entire system. These products can provide as many as 80 different functions, as well as allowing third party products to be integrated into them.

The problem with the framework approach is that trying to meet all an organisation's operations management needs with one product is too difficult and too complex to implement. Whereas this strategy provides integration and central control, individual tasks that may be critical may not be handled in the most effective manner. Most organisations would benefit more from a specific solution for a specific problem. "Having a framework doesn't always make you good at backing up or scheduling," warns a PackCenter account manager. "Experience is showing that frameworks are more likely to fail than succeed."

In fact, GartnerGroup has recently forecast that operations management frameworks will disappear by the end of 2000, because 75% of projects fail. It says that frameworks will disintegrate into products based on solving limited sets of specific management problems. A best of breed solution involves selecting the best piece of software available for each task, irrespective of the vendor. This provides technical excellence, but trying to integrate the different products is a major problem. This strategy lacks a central management, control and optimisation capability. The third solution takes the technical excellence of best-of-breed products, but selects software that can be easily integrated to provide central management. It allows organisations to select highly functional software to address a specific problem area, but also gives them the capability to integrate it with existing software and future components from the same vendor.

Instead of trying to implement a global solution for every operations management process in every part of the company, this approach enables organisations to focus on critical parts of the process that require the most resources. By adopting a focused solution that can be implemented very quickly, organisations can generate rapid returns. Implementing some of the operations management processes listed above will give only a small gain. Organisations should therefore choose those that give the biggest return in terms of freeing up scarce skilled resources. If routine non-value-added work can be automated with effective software, skilled people will have more time for work that has a greater impact in supporting the business. For many organisations, the most attractive areas to address are scheduling, back-up, performance analysis and real-time alerts.

Job scheduling using PackCenter Sys-Auto

Job scheduling requires a fixed sequence of work to complete operational procedures. These include many tasks that have to be completed in a particular order ready for the next day's business, many of which are dependent on previous jobs being completed on time.

All these tasks can be automated, freeing up staff for more productive work. This can be conducted during the day, thereby saving the additional overtime and shift costs associated with overnight working.

Back-up using PackCenter

Many organisations have hundreds of computers distributed over different sites whose data must be regularly backed up. This is another manually intensive operation. Although tape libraries can manage multiple tape units, selecting them and putting them in the drives, it is important to rotate the tapes in a set sequence of re-use, which requires strict records to be kept.

Finding data to restore corrupted files requires keeping very accurate records, otherwise recovery becomes a nightmare. According to Decision Micro, 70% of organisations that do not have a reliable backup tool may never be able to recover their data. Backing up data is a serious job that has to be done properly, but it is labour intensive and automation can lead to a big saving in staff resources, as well as providing a higher level of protection of data and more rapid restoration of lost data.

Performance analysis using PackCenter Sys-View

Performance analysis is an activity that is often done poorly or not at all, so many servers may not be running efficiently. However, it is so manpower intensive to monitor them manually that special software has to be used. Unfortunately, many companies never get round to implementing such a package, taking a reactive approach and ‘waiting until it breaks'. A performance monitor can pro-actively monitor the network and all the servers, recording a large amount of data, such as disk performance and processor load. This information allows the organisation to know what has happened and to make forecasts and enabling tactical and capacity planning.

Alert management using PackCenter Sys-Alert

Whereas performance monitoring provides historical data and helps with forecasting, alerts are used to let systems management staff know what is happening now, before staff or customers tell them. A series of thresholds are set, with several hundred being available. The system is constantly monitored and when a threshold is reached an alert is triggered. This might warn about such areas as the central processor becoming overloaded, insufficient memory, lack of hard disk space, slow response times or overfilled swap files.

When one of these critical components reaches its threshold, it is an indication that a problem may occur very quickly unless action is taken. In real-time, the alert will collect the information on the problem and inform the person on duty. This can be by an alert screen on their PC, an electronic mail message, a fixed or mobile telephone call with voice synthesis, notification to a mobile telephone using its short message system or a pager. The system requires an acknowledgement, otherwise it will seek another operator or escalate the problem. The software is also time aware, applying different rules during work hours, meal breaks, outside working hours, shifts, etc. In extreme cases it will even inform everybody listed as available!

An alert won't give up because it requires somebody to take ownership before it lets it go. It gets the message through regardless and will find somebody to fix the problem.


Whereas all four of the above PackCenter solutions can be used entirely independently, they also integrate with each other and with central console software. This provides a simple easy-to-use graphical overview of the system, from which management, co-ordination and optimisation tasks can be carried out. If a problem occurs, it allows an operator to click on a machine's icon and take control of it. The set of independent yet complementary PackCenter operations management tools can be implemented very quickly and provide significant automation and increased service.

Richard Gerrard is the Sales and Marketing Manager for Intec.