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July 2, 2010 • Vol.32 Issue 14
Page(s) 18 in print issue

A Look At Data Center Infrastructure Management Software & Its Impact
The Benefits Of Automation Software That Can Manage DC Power, Cooling & Physical Infrastructure

Key Points

• DCIM is a relatively new system management platform that addresses the management and monitoring of physical assets.

• These tools provide a consolidated physical asset database, including graphically displayed location information, which can be integrated with a systems CMDB to provide a complete inventory of a data center’s physical and logical assets.

• Other key features include the ability to monitor, record, and analyze power usage, analytics, and optimization software to assist with equipment placement and capacity planning as well as automation of physical deployment tasks through integration with IT ticketing and workflow systems.

The cloud may be the eventual home of enterprise IT infrastructure, but for now, the data center is still arguably IT’s most important (and undeniably most expensive) asset. Yet data center operations often suffer from organizational schizophrenia. IT has clear responsibility for the network, server, and storage equipment that is the data center’s raison d’être, but often a facilities group is charged with running the physical plant.

With equipment densities skyrocketing, leading to an almost exponential increase in power and cooling demands, these two organizations have often been at loggerheads, with IT pushing data centers to the limits of available power and cooling capacity. As ESG senior analyst Bob Laliberte puts it, “Power isn’t just a facilities problem anymore,” and he adds that CIOs can’t risk the embarrassment and financial consequences of downed servers because their data center ran out of juice.

This operational dichotomy has also been manifested in the divergent toolsets used to manage equipment. IT has long automated its systems, network, and support functions using increasingly sophisticated and integrated software suites that not only perform hardware monitoring, but can also orchestrate routine workflows and support processes and trouble tickets. Although such software automation has been slow to come to facilities management, DCIM (data center infrastructure management) software aims to fill that niche. Aside from improving operational efficiency, when integrated with existing IT systems management tools, DCIM can also help bridge that organizational gap between the IT and facilities groups, says David Flesh, director of IT service management at HP (www.hp.com).

DCIM Software Features

Forrester analyst Galen Schreck broadly defines DCIM as a systems management platform covering the physical data center layout (racks and cabinets) and associated cooling, electrical, and cable infrastructure. He says DCIM software provides four key features: asset management, equipment monitoring, analytics and reporting, and workflow integration.

Much like CMDBs (configuration management databases) are used to record the setup of applications, operating systems, and server hardware, Schreck says DCIM asset databases hold the specifications, configurations, and locations of all physical assets in a data center. The database includes specifics such as an item’s model number, physical rack location, average power consumption, and the electrical circuits and network ports it’s connected to, all organized in a hierarchical structure that enables summary reports at the cabinet, aisle, or room level. Many DCIM products also include visualization features that can display assets on a floor plan, map, or cabinet-level schematic elevation. Although not designed to replace a full-fledged enterprise asset management system, DCIM tools provide features that are good enough for most SMEs, according to Mike Tresh, director of product management at Viridity Software (www.viridity.com).

DCIM software also tracks the power consumption of every device over time, and some add the ability to correlate energy use with actual server activity. Schreck says DCIM systems act like a data center smart meter. The ability to perform a what-if analysis on power usage data is another feature common in DCIM packages. For example, Schreck says some products use algorithms that can extrapolate usage trends to identify a pending overcapacity problem or correlate power draw with a physical location to identify potential hot spots or overloaded circuits. Although Laliberte says such analytics are no substitute for a detailed CFD simulation, he and Schreck agree they’re adequate for identifying the optimal placement of new equipment or improving rack utilization in an overcrowded data center.

Automating IT processes associated with physical asset installation, such as provisioning or decommissioning systems, is another typical DCIM feature. Many DCIM tools integrate with existing trouble ticketing and task management systems to structure workflows and coordinate activities between IT and facilities.

Evaluation Criteria

Although DCIM functionality originated with high-end software specializing in large-scale facilities management, a slew of purpose-built DCIM products have recently emerged from small specialty firms, according to Schreck. He sees market consolidation on the horizon as these are swallowed by the dominant IT systems management vendors. Thus, he advises DCIM buyers to look for those companies that have forged strong links with the leading enterprise IT management vendors.

The maturing of the DCIM market means there are products suitable for even small enterprises, although Schreck admits it’s not for someone with 10 racks, but more like dozens of racks and a hundred or more servers. Flesh agrees and says about 5,000-square-foot facilities is where the tipping point takes place, which translates to about 2,000 managed assets.

Futures & Recommendations

DCIM can deliver short-term benefits by improving space utilization, equipment placement, capacity planning, and cooling and power efficiency. However, Schreck sees an even greater impact in the long term. As enterprises make their infrastructure more cloud-like through virtualization, he says workloads will become much more dynamic. In this environment, Schreck says DCIM could form the foundation for a sophisticated energy management solution, something like a smart grid for data centers in which virtualization management software automatically shifts workloads to base load systems during times of low demand while DCIM software puts unused resources into a low-power standby state. As the workload increases, integration between VM management software and DCIM could optimize placement of new VMs on servers to balance the cooling and power load throughout the room, avoiding the creation of hot spots or unstable electrical circuits.

by Kurt Marko


Features To Look For In DCIM Tools

According to “Put DCIM Into Your Automation Plans: Data Center Infrastructure Management Should Be A Part Of Your Architecture,” a research report by Forrester Research’s Galen Schreck, you should look for the following features when evaluating DCIM products:

Workflow integration. A DCIM platform enables the orchestration of processes at the facilities level, but they need to tie in to higher-level system management tools.

Asset and topology management. One of the fundamental capabilities found in DCIM products is the ability to record the technical details and whereabouts of a particular IT element, show what network and power connections it has, and graphically show it on floor plans or rack diagrams.

Analytics and reporting. All DCIM tools provide reporting, so focus on the quality of their analytics for capacity planning and energy management in particular.

Partnerships with key vendors. The long-term value of DCIM is tied to a product’s ability to integrate with other system management tools or orchestration tools that optimize data center workloads.
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