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Mobile network management smartphone apps for on-the-go engineers

Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

Network managers can't be at their desks 24/7, but their bosses would like it that way. After all, even when they're on vacation, network managers have to troubleshoot a network gone down.

Given this unfortunate reality, many vendors are finding ways to deliver mobile network management software for smartphones and tablets like the iPad and the Cisco Cius.

Network engineer Eric Steel uses an iPhone app (now also on his iPad), which is a mobile front-end interface for the

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iPRTG network monitoring product from German vendor Paessler AG. The iPRTG mobile network management app recently helped him resolve a branch office network problem while he was on vacation.

"My boss called me up and said we're having bandwidth problems in this office and that office," Steel said. "I was a state away, but I happened to have my iPad with me. I popped [iPRTG] open and drilled into it. I was able to tell him that it looked like some users were watching [streaming video]. I got into my Citrix client to look them up on Active Directory. Then we called them up and said, 'What are you doing?' They said they were watching the World Cup."

The whole process took only a couple of minutes, whereas getting those results without the mobile app could have taken a couple of hours, depending on where Steel had been when he got the call.

"I wasn't even near my computer [when my boss called]," he said. "I was probably two or three hours from getting onto the system [via a more traditional method]. I'd have had to get some kind of computer, connect to the network through Citrix, connect to my PC [and] pull up the management interface."

Mobile network management software functions limited but growing

In addition to Paessler, with its iPRTG app, a small but growing number of network management software vendors are introducing mobile apps for the front-end interfaces of their products. Others are optimising their Web-based interfaces for mobile browsers. Various mobile apps have hit the market for open source network monitoring technology, including Brooklyn for Nagios from Groundwork Open Source. ManageEngine, the India-based IT management software vendor, has optimizsd its Web-based consoles for BlackBerry and iPhone browsers, including its OpManager network management product. Ipswitch, the maker of WhatsUp Gold, has also optimized some of its products for the iPhone and Windows Mobile with WhatsUp Gold Mobile Access. Aruba Networks recently introduced an AirWave Dashboard iPhone app for wireless LAN management.

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Network management vendors are evolving their tools to deliver service assurance.

"Most [vendors] are looking at [optimising their Web consoles] for mobile browsers, but more and more of them are looking at doing specific apps," said Jim Frey, research director at Enterprise Management Associates.

The challenge for mobile network management software is delivering useful information and functionality in a small form factor. Network management software consoles tend to have many windows with a lot of data, which makes them suitable for presentation on a large screen. The screens on smartphones just can't deliver that effectively. Even the larger screens on the iPad and the Cius aren't quite big enough, Frey said.

"A lot of websites will tune and change the way they represent content to deal with the small-format screen," he said. "So [network management vendors] are looking to deliver easy navigation to alerts and alarms and details about problems that have been reported, with some basic drill-down capabilities to give them an idea of what's going on."

So far, network management software vendors haven't dug any deeper than incident response and high-level reporting with their mobile solutions. The next step would be detailed troubleshooting and more in-depth reporting. To make that happen, network management software vendors will have to get more sophisticated and refined in the way they deliver and present data on mobile devices. Also, mobile bandwidth will have to improve so that network managers can download all the data that network management software delivers. Next-generation 4G networks could be the answer to that problem.

Remote access tools offer another mobile option

Senior database administrator Paul Van Dyck approaches mobile management in a different way. Rather than relying on his vendors to deliver mobile apps, he uses TSMobiles, a Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) app on his BlackBerry that allows him to access his workstation at his employer, WS Packaging Group Inc.

"It allows remote desktop control on a VM [virtual machine] I have running in the data centre," Van Dyck said. "For anything that's involved and time-consuming, I don't want to do a lot [on the BlackBerry]. The ideal types of things it helps solve are those that require immediate feedback to the end user or a person who is looking for support. I also use it to kick off a preconfigured job or script."

A full desktop on a tiny BlackBerry screen may sound unmanageable, but Van Dyck said TSMobiles allows him to zoom in and out to get a closer view of what he needs to see.

What's more, many remote desktop applications are pretty lightweight, which can ease some of the bandwidth problems that network managers might experience with some attempts at mobile network management.

Does mobile network management ruin the work-life balance?

Mobile network management applications are convenient, but if network managers have this kind of access, their bosses and end users might habitually to call on them at inappropriate times. So should network managers worry about work invading their home lives?

"Work [has] already invaded our private life," Van Dyck said. "This has just made it more manageable. Employers' expectations of immediate availability went up as soon as pagers were first handed out."

At least mobile management tools make meeting those expectations a bit less taxing.

"Whether I have iPRTG or not, I'm always on call. So this just makes it easier. When it's easier to do my job, I have more of my home life back," Steel said. "When I was on vacation, I was able to stop what I was doing and solve the [World Cup video] issue quickly … and get back to my vacation. If I didn't have iPRTG and worse came to worst, I'd have to stop, go back to my hotel, fire up a laptop and go from there. That really would have been crappy."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor