Server Management: How much is good enough?

Server Management: How much is good enough?

Jackson He

Digital Enterprise Group, Intel Corporation

Manageability is a hot topic for IT managers. There have been so many solutions out there from different software vendors and hardware vendors alike. It seems to be "the more, the better". Is that true for all cases? Not really. IT managers also realized that more management also means increase of complexity and cost. It begs the question "How much server management is good enough?", "What are the basic needs for server management?", "Is there a way to balance the paradox between more complex management and simpler/cheaper options?"

We have done many researches and visited datacenters around the world to understand top server management challenges. Some of our observations are as the following:

  • Datacenter management too complex & too expensive: Typically a datacenter has several separate management systems for server platforms, for network, and for security infrastructure. For server management alone, there is a dedicated management module (BMC - baseboard management controller) on each server and management console software to centrally manage the hundreds and thousands of servers in the datacenter. Each BMC adds extra cost to each server, the management software also cost a lot to build or buy, and deploy. The datacenter management cost and utility expense (power and cooling) can be 45 times more than the acquisition cost of the server hardware through the life of the server (4 years).

  • Server management implementations inconsistent among platform providers: To make things worse, server management is not uniform across servers from different OEMs. That is servers from HP and Dell have different BMC and therefore, need different management interfaces and extended software to manage - added time and cost for software development. This aggravates the management cost pressure and limits the choices of platforms from different OEMs. As a result, server management becomes even more complex and expensive in the name of more powerful management, a vicious cycle that gets worse as the datacenter grows.

  • Packaged server management solutions not quite fit for IPDC environment: Packaged server management solutions from ISVs, like IBM Tivoli, HP Openview, CA, etc. are designed for enterprise where total number of servers is relatively low, applications are diverse, and dedicated IT engineers are looking for turnkey solutions. For the case of IPDC (internet portal datacenter), they have fewer specialized applications distributed across a large number of servers. Most of the IPDC datacenters develop their own server management software. However, they have to customize the management software for specific BMC for the servers of their choice. Furthermore, IPDC datacenters do not have as much the same level of server management granularity like the enterprise. They typically care a lot of system status and availability monitoring and means to remotely power on/off servers, but not as much remote diagnosis and repair as their enterprise counterparts. IPDC datacenters have more homogenous application and larger pool of servers. It will be more flexible and cost effective to simply redistribute workload and turn off troubled servers and fix them in bathes later. As a result, most of the IPDC customers write their own server management software that interact with a few basic management functions on the server - they really don't need a full-featured BMC.

Based on these finding, it makes us wonder if there are ways to make server management simpler. Is there an opportunity that we can achieve something that is "less is better than more"? Can we break the large complex server management solutions that trying to have "a size fits all" into something that is tiered with simpler/common server management at the bottom and more complex/customized server management layered on top of the basic server management?

Such a modular way of offering server management solutions that address some basic common needs across most datacenters. In such as way, we can standardize basic server management features and make them available to all Intel Architecture servers, while allowing OEMs and ISVs to build differentiations on top of them. It also gives the customers more flexibility to pick and chose based on their management needs. For IPDC customer, they may chose the basic set of server management that comes with servers regardless of which OEMs they come from - more vendors of choice, lower cost. For enterprise customers, they can chose more complex and customized solutions from particular OEMs and ISVs that best fit their datacenter management needs. Such as division of functions for server management may provide a relief of the ever increasing datacenter server management complexity and cost.

If this is true, where do we draw the line for basic server management? What is the minimum "good enough" server management feature set? I'd like to listen to you ideas around this as well. I will talk more about our thought around this in my next blog. Stay tuned.