March 24, 1997 10:00 AM ET

Unicenter enters 'Next Generation'
Tests show CA's do-it-all update worth the work

By Michael Surkan

  Computer Asociates International Inc. calls its overhauled Unicenter package "The Next Generation," and its three-dimensional interface certainly looks like something out of "Star Trek." But beneath the rotating globe and elegant cityscapes is a comprehensive--and complex--network management platform.

Network management packages are notorious for being difficult to set up and use, and Unicenter TNG is no exception. In fact, the incredibly expansive nature of this product makes it more difficult to implement and get up and running than Hewlett-Packard Co.'s widely used OpenView.

The payoff? Reduced administration costs and a comprehensive and extremely well-integrated management package. After conducting the first tests of Unicenter since its late-January release, PC Week Labs recommends that large and midsize companies craving micromanagement of every component of their networks--from routers and servers to database backups and security--consider this package.

However, companies should be aware that buying into Unicenter is not a decision to be taken lightly--in addition to a hefty layout in cost and time, it requires a philosophical change in thinking, from the ground up, at any company taking the plunge. The same could be said for Unicenter TNG's chief enterprise-level competitor, TME (Tivoli Management Environment) 10 from IBM's Tivoli Systems Inc. division.

Organizations unwilling to make this leap of faith may be better served by more single-purpose management products, such as HP's OpenView, that cost far less to implement, and are easier to install and operate.

PC Week Labs found few management stones unturned in Unicenter. TNG has support for SNMP and Windows NT that was lacking in previous versions of the product. CA also has opened up the product to third-party development by publishing the APIs and giving away developer tool kits.

With dozens of servers and hundreds of client machines, the cost of licensing Unicenter TNG can easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Licensing the core Unicenter TNG product (which is very robust) for four low-end Pentium servers and 100 client PCs costs about $42,000. A simple stand-alone installation, merely to monitor SNMP devices, can cost more than $8,000 (depending on the host's processor).

HP's OpenView platform has a much lower entry-level price (starting at $4,995), making it easy for companies to start off with basic network management and gradually expand capabilities with add-ons.

CA offers free copies of Unicenter TNG on a trial basis. However, anyone determined enough to learn how to use Unicenter probably won't want to waste the investment of time and effort by discarding the product after a brief perusal.

Indicative of the migration of network management tools to Windows NT, this first release of Unicenter TNG required using Windows NT machines to host the management software. Support for Unix systems is due later this year.

Flying the friendly skies

Administrators (and rank amateurs) can use Unicenter's 3-D Real World to fly through a corporate network, in a sort of virtual reality, hovering over continents, swooping into buildings, and even peeking inside computers and equipment to monitor operational status.

We actually preferred Unicenter TNG's new two-dimensional interface, which required few steps for managing network objects. But after experiencing a corporate LAN in 3-D, we'll never see network management in the same light again.

By conducting a ping sweep, Unicenter's new autodiscovery tool found all the TCP/IP devices on PC Week Labs' test WAN and stored the information in a Microsoft Corp. SQL Server 6.5 central database (which is not included in Unicenter's purchase price). Support for other databases, including those from Oracle Corp. and Sybase Inc., is planned for later in the year.

The 2-D Real World topology map gave us an easily customizable picture of the Cisco Systems Inc. routers, Bay Networks Inc. FastEthernet switches, Sun Microsystems Inc. SPARCserver and client PCs in the WAN. Icons could be dragged to appropriate positions on overlays, positioning the San Francisco segment, for example, in the correct place in relation to remote sites.

Customizing the 3-D Real World took considerably more effort, however, because the 2-D edit mode had no real correlation to the 3-D maps.

By clicking on devices, we could pull up detailed SNMP information for performance and create real-time dashboards, or graphs, to show changes in particular statistics. We could get even more detailed information from the servers and client machines by installing TNG agents.

Unicenter management agents are available for many computer systems, from MVS mainframes and AS/400s to Unix workstations and Windows 95 PCs. Agents can even be acquired for specialized third-party products such as Oracle databases and SAP AG's R/3.

These agents were difficult to uninstall, however, and initial setup on non-Windows platforms was laborious, requiring a lot of customization of system parameters.

With the agents installed, we could monitor CPU utilization of the NT and Sun servers, and even cause events to be generated depending on the existence of files, or background daemon services. Every time we deleted a selected directory on the Sun server, a message was sent to the Unicenter event manager, which could easily send E-mail to administrators or even execute applications. We also could redirect the standard Windows NT log viewer events to the central event handler.

A variety of TNG administration tools take advantage of this underlying agent architecture to do everything from running help desks to handling backups and software distribution. These tools worked well, but their interfaces could be better integrated. Sometimes we had to revert to complex command prompts for simple tasks.

Unicenter The Next Generation
Computer Associates International Inc.
Islandia, N.Y.
(800) 225-5224
PROS: New support for SNMP; impressive 3D and 2D views of network topology; sophisticated agents available for wide variety of operating systems; published APIs simplify third-party support. CONS: Protracted installation requires third-party database; agent and server software difficult to uninstall; management tools poorly integrated; command prompts required for some basic tasks.
Summary: Companies that want to centralize all aspects of systems and network management into a comprehensive package will find that Computer Associates' powerful Unicenter The Next Generation does it all. However, the complexity and expense of TNG make it a poor solution for enterprises looking for easier-to-use products that are narrower in scope. Competing products such as Hewlett-Packard's OpenView start at a much lower price and can be expanded with add-ons as needs grow.
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