Zyrion: Minding the Networks
Date: Friday , May 01, 2009
If any of those components fail to function correctly it could translate into huge revenue losses for the website, apart from causing frustration to the customer. Ensuring that such networks function as desired, therefore, is critical and is achieved through constant monitoring and analysis.
Globally this business, christened network or server or IT infrastructure management, is currently $6 billion worth, and is peopled by the big four: HP, BMC, CA, and IBM. But why are we talking about these big companies when the issue is set aside for the ten hottest startups?
The answer lies in Zyrion, a firm engaged in Business Service Monitoring (BSM). BSM is a ‘small but rapidly growing’ segment of the network management area, says Zyrion’s founder and CEO Vikas Aggarwal.
What differentiates his company from competition, both new comers and incumbents, is embodied in the company’s tagline: Don’t tell me which device or application is down – tell me which business service it impacts.
Aggarwal says, essentially companies in the network management arena, including the ‘Big four’, focus on simply monitoring the network or server, and pointing out which individual components are not functioning properly.
“What is required is a service-oriented view of IT infrastructure,” he emphasizes, adding that it is essential to correlate parts of the IT infrastructure with delivery of service. It is important to identify the services that have been impacted when a specific piece of the IT infrastructure under-performs. He takes the example of the e-commerce site to explain his point.
When a user logs into the website, he or she does so through the front-end Web application server which is part of a server farm behind a load balancer. While the user keys in the authentication details, the system needs to connect to an authentication database, that could possibly be at another location, to check the same. Finally, the database for books or other merchandise available might also be located in yet another location.
Monitoring this complex set of servers and connections is done by network management software that collects data at every point in the process - from multiple locations and multiple servers. The data is then pushed into a central warehouse where processing happens, and chinks in the system are detected and pointed out.
“Traditional network and server monitoring products can only tell which part of the system is not working fine. But what is important is to know the service that each of the various pieces are connected to,” says Aggarwal.
For example, if a single front-end server in the above e-commerce site goes down, it might not impact the business of the site, as one of the other redundant servers take over the failed server’s role. But if a back-end database server goes down, there will be a complete breakdown of the service.
Zyrion is in the business of making such correlations. This might seem quite simple, but the number of individual networks and server devices can be at times in excess of several thousands, and things can get extremely complicated.
“Our approach to the problem is different. Our BSM product, Traverse, collects data from different points, but instead of pushing it into a central warehouse, it keeps it in a distributed manner,” Aggarwal says. This essentially means that if a data center is located in Japan or Singapore the data need not be pushed to the U.S. every time. This makes the product faster, and scalable.
Additionally, Traverse’s unique object-oriented, Business Container technology links applications and underlying infrastructure to IT services. Business Service Containers enable grouping of an organization’s IT infrastructure to create logical, business-oriented views of the network.
Witnessing the Other Side
The seed for Zyrion was sowed when Aggarwal was at Verio, an ISP that was acquired by NTT around ten years ago. “I felt the problem of network management at an operational level,” he recalls. He found himself asking as to how he could not just look at the links, but also get to know everything else about the customer - which was usually stored elsewhere. The correlation between IT infrastructure and data then was painful.
Aggarwal quit Verio to start Fidelia Technology Inc (which was later acquired by Network General) where he concentrated on building a network management platform.
Having felt the pain points and used products like HP OpenView and CA’s network management solutions, Aggarwal was now determined to connect IT infrastructure with delivery of service. It was with this aim that he started Zyrion in early 2008.
Zyrion’s target market consists of medium to large enterprises and spans sectors like communications, hospitality, gaming, manufacturing, and education. “Basically, any company with a relatively complex IT infrastructure would need our services,” says Aggarwal.
While the big four — IBM, HP, BMC, CA — cater to the Fortune 1000 customers, Zyrion’s target market begins just below that. Such companies, says Aggarwal, cannot use solutions from the big four, as they are too cumbersome and too expensive to deploy and operate.
“Medium to large enterprises are often in a fix when it comes to IT infrastructure management,” he says. They often deploy open source solutions thinking that such solutions will be free. But soon they realise that one or more persons need to be dedicated to running such solutions. They also quickly start running into functionality limitations. So, what’s a free turn out to be quite expensive and constraining.
What tips the scales in favour of Zyrion is that there are very few options that mid-to-large enterprises have when it comes to network and business service management, apart from the big four and open source.
Moreover, the architecture and technology of the dominant players are over 20 years old; they are only adapting these products and selling them in the present market, Aggarwal claims.
“Those products were built at a time when there was no Internet, no virtualization, no grid-computing, and no SOA; now they are trying to monitor today’s distributed and real time applications and services using their existing legacy architectures. That’s not very efficient or effective,” he reasons out.
The last eight to ten years have seen a sea change in technology; everything has become object-oriented; virtualization has made a big splash. As a result, for a company seeking to go in for a network management product, solutions from the incumbents are not essentially the best bet.
Mid-to-large companies also prefer Zyrion owing to the ease of deploying its product. One can download and deploy Traverse, Zyrion’s BSM solution, within two hours, without any assistance from anybody. Products from the big players, on the other hand, are cumbersome in terms of deployment as well. Even if a prospective customer seeks to run a trial of the legacy products, a team from the company has to come to the client’s premises to install and deploy the solution, says Aggarwal.
“They can’t compete in this space (of mid-to-large enterprises),” he says. Traverse has an average selling price of around $100,000. While that might seem a lot, especially for mid-to-large players, Aggarwal insists that it is just a fraction compared to the savings to the enterprise from improved IT services using BSM technology.
“In case of our competitors, the initial cost of the product is actually very small compared to the total cost of ownership. That’s not the case with us,” he says.
He cites the example of a customer who had a product from a competitor. The customer always had three of its personnel dedicated to running the solution. After Zyrion won the customer over, no one is dedicated to running the Zyrion software since it requires so little ongoing maintenance.
“Even in the open source, when scaled, dedicated manpower needs to be deployed to keep the things up and running,” claims Aggarwal. When compared to products from the big four Zyrion’s BSM solution is at least eight to ten times cheaper in terms of total cost of ownership, asserts Aggarwal.
“All in all, when compared to the open source solutions or those from small companies, considered over a two year period, our solution turns out to be far cheaper and, of course, far more efficient and capable,” he explains.
Challenges Zyrion’s product has been installed in environments with over 10,000 servers and routers. Owing to the strength of the product and its scalability installation is not an issue. Instead, says Aggarwal, the issue is not to get too far ahead of the market for small companies.
“This is something I learnt from my previous company,” he recalls, and adds, “Analysts will always talk about the future. It is important not to get carried away by their views and design products for a future that is perpetually over the horizon. Young companies need to focus on what sells today, as against what will sell in the future.”
But that could bring about a situation where when the present product’s lifecycle is over, Zyrion could be in a spot of bother; it might not have a pipeline of products to follow.
“Here, it is essential to maintain a balance,” says the company’s CEO. “We constantly monitor the direction we are headed and our future roadmap, while staying focused on the present.”
Giving insights into how he identifies trends in the market, he says that our customers are our best advisors - they alone can tell us what they need and when.
“Further, if we were to develop a really disruptive product, it would be difficult for a small company like us to educate the market about it,” says Aggarwal, reiterating once again that the best bet for Zyrion is to stay with, or just a little ahead of, the times.
Yet, he is careful about not getting into the service side too much, as is the norm currently. Therefore, even though Traverse is easy to extend, Aggarwal’s team hardly customizes it for clients. Instead, it works with channel partners who do this and that is also the company’s strategy going forward.
For all the innovation, Zyrion is essentially a small company. Headquartered in Sunnyvale, California, its headcount stands at 25. “We encourage our employees to think out of the box,” says Aggarwal. At the same time, the onus for any and all tasks is placed on them, like picking up the main phone line if it’s ringing and the receptionist is not around. Employees at Zyrion would not be heard saying, or even thinking, ‘this is not my job’.
Also, being a small company, the work environment is fun, and employees are often given out tickets and other perks on the floor.
Ask Aggarwal about the impact of the global recession on his company, and he says that Zyrion is too small and young to feel any major impact. “However, companies that would have otherwise gone to the big four are looking for cost effective solutions. That’s helping us,” he says.
But some customers are facing a funds crunch, he adds. So what’s his sales pitch to companies in these difficult times?
“I talk about the changing landscape - virtualisation, SOA, et al. Then I elucidate that a product that is essentially 20 years old cannot take care of today’s networks effectively. Also, without BSM it will never tell them what part of the network is affecting which part of the business.”
Though he notes that without the recession Zyrion, perhaps, would have grown at a much faster pace, he also adds that it has given him the opportunity to look beyond the obvious market opportunities.
IT networks in many developing countries are exploding, and it will be interesting to look at how Zyrion can play a role in those regions, he says with a twinkle in his eyes.