On my way out the office earlier this week, I met our master Jedi of monitoring standing in my office door. “You might want to sit down” he said. In over 10 years of working together in the hellfire and brimstone of systems management, he’d never said that before. “What could possibly be that bad?” I wondered. “I just went to the Cittio support site,” he said calmly as he handed me his Blackberry, “Here’s what I got:”
For those of you unfamiliar with the world of network management systems, the name Cittio means nothing. For those of you unfamiliar with the history of systems management tools at DSS, you’re also likely thinking “Dude, get over it. It’s just another company folding.” Or, as a former MVS systems programmer colleague use to say to me, “Get over it…and like it.”
Four Times Bitten, Forever Shy?
IBM Netview. We’ve been managing customer systems with NMS tools since 1995. Being an IBM business partner, we decided to start with IBM Netview, a close but homely cousin of HP Openview. While Netview was not without it’s charm, it was a cruel task master. We spent more time offering animal sacrifices to the tool to keep it running than we spent actually using it. Besides taking 45 minutes to begin polling after a restart, the monitoring daemon would just go off into the weeds and stop polling. We never could really trust it, and reporting left much to be desired. As we continued to struggle with Netview, IBM bought Tivoli and the product was moved over to the Tivoli side of the house for assimilation into the Tivoli Enterprise Framework. Since IBM surely wouldn’t have bought a company with bad products, and since business partners now had easy access to the Tivoli products, we naively decided to take a look at Tivoli Enterprise.
Tivoli Enterprise Distributed Monitoring (DM). After spending considerable time and money getting indoctrinated in the Tivoli Enterprise Framework and DM, we quickly realized the product was even more of a monster than Netview. More animal sacrifices and offerings of time and energy were required for less functionality and horrible reliability. We did one customer implementation and stopped. We had seen and suffered enough. While contemplating whether to shave our heads and put on sackcloth and ashes, we heard of a new NMS savior coming for the small-medium business space.
Tivoli IT Director. Enter codename “Bossman.” By divine intervention, our company was selected by Tivoli to become part of small circle of customers and partners involved in a skunk works project to develop an NMS targeted at small shops. An all-in-one tool that could poll for availability, collect performance data, monitor thresholds, collect HW/SW inventory, and even do software distribution. A veritable Ginsu knife set for systems management (without the 50-year guarantee). But wait, there’s more… Tivoli released the product on time, and as insiders we were way ahead of the game. We began implementing it at customer sites with good results and the sun was beginning to finally shine again. No more animal sacrifices. We had finally begun to rebuild our remote monitoring business out of the ashes of the Netview days.
IT Director did have one flaw in it’s armor – it couldn’t support more than a couple of hundred nodes. But the boys in Texas were on top of that, and project “California” was underway to take the number of nodes up to 5,000. Just days before we were to receive the beta code, Tivoli pulled the plug on the product. Our sources behind the curtain told us why: it was felt that California, at its dramatically lower price point, would compete against Tivoli Enterprise Distributed Monitoring, and the Mercedes Benz crowd at Tivoli were having none of that. The product was pulled from the portfolio and given to the IBM PC division in Boca Raton, where it was thoroughly lobotomized and re-released as IBM Netfinity Director. So began the Dark Times.
Time out. I realize this is a blog post, not the Chronicles of Narnia, so I’ll hasten to the point. Director was completely unusable after IBM Boca got done with it, and we had to move on. At this point, having been left at the altar by Tivoli, we decided to develop our own system, DSS Systems Manager, and over the next two years we did exactly that and had very satisfying results. Customers loved DSM, and so did we, but we had one problem – DSS was, and still is not a software development shop. At the time we felt we couldn’t continue to develop the product and properly focus on our core business. As we moved into the data center hosting business, we realized we needed additional functionality that we felt we could no longer afford to develop ourselves. So we sought yet another commercial answer. Back to the story….
Cittio Watchtower. Watchtower essentially represented where we wanted to take DSM had we decided to continue development. We negotiated a deal, installed it in under 30 days and were up and running. Like good old Tang, we just added water and the rest was history. We cultivated a close relationship the CEO of Cittio and had regular contact with the VP of Development and other high level folks who controlled the product’s destiny. We did joint marketing events with them, including speaking on their behalf on webinars, and served as a reference account when they had large deals on the table.
Only a week before the company dissolved (like Tang perhaps), the CEO personally asked me to serve as a reference to a couple of companies that Cittio was considering for OEM relationships. Context is everything, and little did I know that OEM had been secretly redefined to mean “Our Exit Money.” In a little over a week after I had happily given a glowing Watchtower review to a company named Nimsoft, my chief monitoring engineer was handing me his Blackberry with news of Cittio’s demise. We contacted Nimsoft on The Day After, and the basic message we got “good luck fellas, you’re pretty much on your own. The product will be no more. We can’t promise support of any kind.” Simply fabulous. To be fair, the whole situation is still in flux, and my sense during the phone call was that they hadn’t fully considered the fallout from their actions. They may very well come back with a migration plan or limited temporary support, etc., but for now we Watchtower users are out in the cold. Our new bride has packed her bags and left us with the credit card bills.
Getting Over It But Not Liking It
Thankfully, faith in God allows me to maintain my composure in situations like this, but a wise friend once taught me that buried feelings are buried alive, and when they come back, they come back as either anger or depression. So in the interests of good mental health, I’m compelled to express my feelings about this debacle and get back to business. Play this back to back 4-5 times for proper effect:
Nobody understands being jilted quite like Sam Kinison. I feel much better now.
What Does This Mean to You?
So what’s the take-away from this situation that we can apply in our shops? DSS has been on both sides of the build vs. buy decision, and there are clear advantages and risks to both positions. My opinion, while still standing here in the smoking crater, is pretty much what it’s always been: if you have the talent and can afford the time, building your own critical monitoring systems is still your best destiny. You have control of all of the variables and are forever immune to vendor adultery. There is plenty of good open source material out there to take care of the heavy lifting and serve as a good starting point.
If you don’t have the time or talent, then buying is obviously the only option. Cittio was a VC-funded company and therefore subject to the whims and wiles of the angels and VCs. If I were to buy again, my first rule #1 would be to limit the vendor short list to firms beyond at least the magical fourth round of funding. Translation: No fresh start-ups. Rule #2 would be to pick a product that is already firmly entrenched in a lot of Really Big Companies with big legal departments. There is safety in numbers and large legal teams. This may yet turn out to be the case with the Cittio breakup – they had some Really Big Customers, so we’ll wait and see if any major players file for damages in divorce court.
Unless IT is your core business, your best strategy is simple avoidance. Running your own infrastructure is full of headaches and horror stories that doing nothing but hurt your bottom line. Let someone else highly skilled in being jilted deal with all the risks, headaches, and heartaches.
Postscript: Just as I was getting ready to publish this entry, I received a call from a former senior exec at Cittio. Though no longer on the payroll, he apologized at length for the situation, described what went down, and was genuinely troubled at the way the in which former customers are now being treated. In the end analysis, the VC guys pulled the plug on a healthy company. While my contact really didn’t know why it happened, perhaps they were selling healthy assets to compensate for unhealthy ones. Who knows. In any event, it’s time to move on.