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Open Source Network Configuration Management

An area ripe for hosting a vibrant open source community

Open source projects have had a significant impact in areas such as operating systems (Linux), databases (MySQL), web applications (Apache), and development tools (Eclipse). However, they have been slower in reaching other areas where open standards and community involvement can make an equally positive impact. Given the new focus on automation for enterprise network infrastructures, network inventory and configuration management is one such area ripe for hosting a vibrant open source community.

Managing network inventory has been historically difficult due to the lack of configuration management standards in networking and the wide array of network vendors and devices that have emerged over the last ten years. To compound the situation, a lack of open management standards in networking hinders the creation of a network-wide solution for capturing inventory. It's become abundantly clear that proprietary standards cannot solve the multi-vendor inventory problem.

Although network monitoring and performance tools are widely deployed in enterprise networks (with open source alternatives like Nagios and OpenNMS available), administrators are left out in the cold when it comes to inspecting, controlling and changing the configuration settings that exist across their network devices. Their only options are to either develop their own complicated tools from the ground-up or to depend on the proprietary and limited tools provided by equipment manufacturers. The reality is that neither approach works well in practice. Custom configuration tools are difficult and expensive to maintain due to the wide variety of management interfaces provided by network devices. As an example, there is generally as much work done to allow the tool to communicate with a device as there is to actually perform automated management.

As a software vendor focused on solving advanced network management issues such as rolling out new services, merging infrastructures and converging networks, and governing by policy, AlterPoint's perspective is that the basic model for capturing configurations across a diverse network connectivity layer should be an open standard.

It's time that proprietary, siloed device management systems are replaced with an open, flexible approach -- one that enables a single, common device interface for management as well as a community based on the free exchange of tools. To this end, AlterPoint has contributed significant technology and resources to initiate an open source project called ZipTie. ZipTie software, which is already being shared and further developed within the community at www.ziptie.org, is a framework for network inventory management that provides a vendor-independent approach for maintaining a reliable and consistent inventory of network configurations.

ZipTie will address many common issues in network management that are relevant to a broad audience: enterprise end-users benefit from network tools, which interoperate more effectively through a common use paradigm; network equipment manufacturers benefit by leveraging a community-based inventory and tools standard for developing element management systems; and independent software vendors interested in including network inventory as part of their solution benefit from standard programming interfaces and built-in network inventory repository.

AlterPoint has focused on solving network configuration management problems for the enterprise through the development of our commercial solution, DeviceAuthority. As part of this work, the company has developed a general framework for network configuration management. AlterPoint is now freely offering this framework to the ZipTie open community and will participate by continuing to contribute code and encouraging enterprise network operations teams, network equipment manufacturers and network/systems management vendors to contribute to the project and use it themselves.

AlterPoint believes that the greatest value for commercial development efforts exists in developing advanced management features, which exploit the ZipTie open platform. The technology exchange between ZipTie and AlterPoint is a two-way street, with AlterPoint providing resources and source code back into ZipTie on an ongoing basis. While ZipTie is currently a single-user desktop application focused on network inventory management, DeviceAuthority is a server-based application with enterprise-level security, user and action audit trails, enterprise reporting, sophisticated change automation, and policy-based management capabilities. In short, DeviceAuthority is a network Configuration Management Database (CMDB) and ZipTie is the enabling technology.

By providing a framework for solving the network inventory problem, ZipTie also hopes to engage a broader development community to solve network management problems. The ZipTie framework forms a "spanning layer" and enables network engineers and developers to have a more effective interchange of ideas and tools. By focusing on the critical domain of network inventory, ZipTie can evolve into a tools standard and play an important role in advancing network management functionality.

More Stories By Roger Castillo

Roger Castillo is chief technical officer at AlterPoint, a network change and configuration management provider based in Austin, Texas. He is the technical founder of AlterPoint, having conceived and developed the company's NetworkAuthority solution. AlterPoint has integrated the ZipTie open source inventory framework into its NetworkAuthority suite of network automation, CMDB and life-cycle management solutions. As a result, AlterPoint's customers are not dependent upon AlterPoint or network equipment vendors to provide scripts, change templates, rules, policies, adaptors, plug-ins, best practices or other management components.

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