Why SolarWinds wins against the network management giants

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One of the most complex and specialised jobs must be to keep a business's networks up and running and performing at the optimum, while constantly having to add new devices and swap others around. The apparent simplification of an IT infrastructure through, for instance, virtualisation actually adds extra underlying complexity while hiding it from view.

So network specialists need all the help they can get when trying to trace faults. The biggest players—IBM, HP and CA for instance—provide a bewildering array of tools for network managers. However, they tend to focus primarily on the largest enterprises who are willing to pay a premium price for network management and for training their professionals to use the rich but complex array of functionality.

So what about the rest of us, the medium-sized enterprises and down?

SolarWinds is not a company on everyone's lips, but it has a huge following among the network engineering community. As is often the way, it has products built by the engineers themselves to provide the information they want and, equally importantly, in the way they want it—which they were not getting previously. An indicator that SolarWinds is on the right track is that very few such low-profile IT vendors can boast 45,000 customers in 140 countries and on track to generate in excess of $50M turnover this year.

How was this done? Although not SolarWinds' biggest individual earner, the Engineers' Toolset is the one with the most influence on the engineering community. Described to me as "a Swiss army knife for networks" with "no strong competitors" by the company's chief product strategist Kenny Van Zant, the desktop-controlled Toolset consists of about 50 individual products. It costs less than $1,400 and currently has about 30,000 users, rising by about 2,000 every quarter.

More importantly, there is an engineering community built around this Engineers' Toolset, causing Van Zant to comment: "We have an unfair advantage because in a room full of engineers all will know SolarWinds." With this community providing rapid feedback on what needs improvement and in what way, there is an almost rock-solid guarantee of a high quality set of tools and a high regard for SolarWinds among the user-base.

While the network diagnostic Engineer's Toolset contributes around 20% of company revenues, SolarWinds biggest earner is actually a complementary product, Orion. This is a web-based network performance management product best-suited to enterprises which are highly distributed. Van Zant said that SolarWinds was not competing for the very largest enterprises; Orion scales to fit companies ranging from 200 to 10,000 employee users and here SolarWinds competes with CA and HP in particular. Orion can always win hands down on cost against them if not on breadth of functionality.

I have often commented on the need to keep functionality simple, but enterprise networks are complex. In this case, what the company is offering is straightforward to understand for those who are the real professionals. More than that, the company concentrates on out-of-the box default functionality with users picking from a list of what to monitor. The dashboard is already there with dashes, gauges and charts—and the inevitable customisation is simple to do. This makes the ROI very quick with no special training needed, generating value and reducing the price of maintenance. So this is uncomfortable for the biggest vendors who make much of their revenue from support and maintenance.

In fact, the engineers themselves effectively self-select and then sell to their colleagues. SolarWinds further encourages this by providing a free 28-day download of a fully functioning product so they can prove it before buying, something that the big players are again reluctant to offer. This is a very low-risk model as far as potential customers are concerned.

Two more products complete SolarWinds' portfolio. Network compliance is heavily connected with configuration management. Cirrus (maintaining the astronomical naming theme), provides configuration and change management and so competes with the likes of Opsware and ZenSource. The rather more down-to-earth LanSurveyor is SolarWinds' real-time network discovery product; this can be set to continuously scan and so pick up changes as they occur, showing the configuration differences—a useful feature to assist compliance policy needs for tracking and auditing changes.

However, according to Van Zant, the market for compliance in networking is not yet taking off. "It is more talk than a market right now." He suspected this was because network managers had enough on their plate dealing with fault and performance problems—covered by SolarWinds' two biggest sellers.

So where will SolarWinds go now? It is now actively seeking increased company awareness but will not renege on continuing to serve the needs of the engineers who are their bread and butter: "You will never see us turn our back on network engineers," Van Zant told me.

The company does not believe in partnering to increase functionality but rather to develop internally or acquire. The solutions will be broadened, especially the Orion product functions, and, hence, who SolarWinds sells them to. This includes a wireless add-on, application traffic for Cisco Netflow, and a VoIP module just announced.

Perhaps more concerning for the big players longer term is SolarWinds' intention to move up to larger and larger customers (although this may mean some design changes are needed to increase scalability and functionality). However, it already has its market which was won by keeping it simple, doing what the customer wanted in the way he wanted it—a good lesson for all IT software vendors to take on board.

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