10 hot tools for the next-generation data center

Enterprise data centers are notoriously complex, costly and energy inefficient, which leaves plenty of opportunity for innovative vendors to introduce products that ease the pain of data center managers.

Enterprise data centers are notoriously complex, costly and energy inefficient, which leaves plenty of opportunity for innovative vendors to introduce products to make life easier for data center managers.

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Here are 10 that are worth a look.

1. Cloudkick SaaS application 

Vendor: Cloudkick

Price: From $99 to $599 monthly, depending on the number of servers. Customized packages are available.

What it does: Manages and monitors multiple cloud services from a single dashboard.

Why it's interesting: The beauty of cloud computing services lies in simplicity, in easing IT constraints in the data center with on-demand compute or storage resources. But management can be beastly – especially if your organization is contending with multiple cloud providers.

Cloudkick offers its cloud management and monitoring application as a service, bringing together servers from multiple clouds into a unified Web-based dashboard. Users get the ability to manage and monitor servers in multiple clouds, receive alerts, run diagnostics and view performance graphs. The tools work the same way across all cloud service providers that support Cloudkick. That list includes Amazon EC2, The Rackspace Cloud and GoGrid, among others.

2. Max2Go

Vendor: ControlCircle

Price: Free, at least in initial version

What it does: Delivers data center management to smartphone users

Why it's interesting: Load this data center management application onto your smartphone and get a real-time view of your infrastructure, including power, connectivity, bandwidth and critical systems. Via the mobile GUI, on-the-move data center managers can even issue alerts and manage ticket requests. As new as this tool is, there are a couple of catches. For one, until the company increases device support, you've got to have a BlackBerry device with trackball or trackpad – no touch screens allowed at the moment, says Ian Finlay, ControlCircle CTO. And, only ControlCircle customers who are provisioned on the company's new portal, Max2000, can use the application to manage their infrastructure and services, Finlay says.

However, anyone can download the application and use it in demo mode, he adds. And, ControlCircle says it is thinking about white labeling the application for use by other providers. Mobilizing data center management is an interesting idea in general, but particularly so when you throw emergencies and disaster planning into the mix. With Max2Go, data center managers can remotely watch over a single rack or a complex managed environment compromising servers, applications, connectivity and security, Finlay says. His one recommendation: Since the application polls for status even when running in the background, users are going to want an uncapped data plan.

3. OverDrive 3.0 

Vendor: LineSider Technologies

Price: $250,000 to $500,000

What it does: Orchestrates policy-based, real-time automation and control of network services, including access and security, across the logical and physical network. This product should not be confused with the company's same-named but functionally different original product, sold for integration with other vendors' network gear to help with IP-based services management.

Why it's interesting: This technology will become increasingly important as enterprise IT adds desktop virtualization, test lab automation and other highly dynamic workloads to the data center, says Rachel Chalmers, infrastructure management research director at The 451 Group. While IT has a choice of automation software for provisioning and de-provisioning virtual machines on the server side, the same hasn't been true for switches and routers that connect those systems to one another. That's the gap LineSider is trying to address, she says. Perhaps better called an abstraction layer than virtualization, OverDrive "provides a uniform interface through which those devices can be controlled automatically according to business policy," Chalmers adds.

4. Power Efficiency Estimator and PUE Estimator

Vendor: The Green Grid Consortium 

Price: Free

What they do: Measure power efficiency of enterprise data centers

Why it's interesting: Any tool that helps data center managers get a handle on power use and efficiency is worth noting – all the more if it's available at no cost. These new Green Grid tools, due out by month's end should help data center managers figure out if they're on the right track with their power/energy efficiency plans. With the Power Efficiency Estimator, they'll be able to compare different scenarios of power topologies and technologies inside of their facilities. The tool takes into account such factors as workload, availability and space constraints. The PUE Estimator, as its name suggests, gives data center managers a way to measure their facilities' Power Usage Effectiveness at regular intervals. A Green Grid-created metric, PUE determines the amount of energy used by the facility and the IT gear inside of it.

5. RNAcache

Vendor: RNA Networks

Price: $2,000 per server

What it does: Turns memory into a shared, network resource

Why it's interesting: Like everything else in the data center, it was only a matter of time before system memory went through the virtualization hopper. And that's a good thing if you're looking to speed up transaction-heavy applications in your data center. RNAcache, one of two products RNA offers atop its Memory Virtualization Platform, lets applications load their entire working dataset – say that used for predictive analytics or travel reservations, for example – into a memory cache for faster access and processing. Memory virtualization is cool, useful technology, but not for the everyday workload, cautions Dan Kuznetsky, vice president of research operations for The 451 Group. "This is for extreme transaction processing."

6. Schooner Appliance for Memcached

Vendor: Schooner Information Technology

Price: $45,000

What it does: Uses multicore processors and enterprise-class flash memory to consolidate and optimize Memcache servers.

Why it's interesting: Solid-state drive (SSD), or enterprise-class flash memory, technology promises to change the nature of servers, making them smaller and capable of handling greater amounts of memory, says Drue Reeves, vice president and research director with Burton Group. This appliance is representative of the kind of innovation possible when SSD, or enterprise flash memory, works its way into data center gear. Through its use of enterprise flash memory plus Intel multicore processors and high-performance networking, the appliance can serve up to 850,000 cached operations per second, the company reports. This will be a big boost for companies with traditional Memcache servers, which accelerate Web applications by caching data to reduce database load but often run into performance snags due to memory, scalability and bandwidth limitations. This new SSD-based Memcache appliance can replace ordinary servers at an 8-to-1 ratio – or even higher; Plaxo, an online address book service with 40 million users, reports achieving a 10-to-1 server consolidation.

7. Surgient Cloud Express 

Vendor: Surgient

Price: $50,000, for software, documentation and services

What it does: Provides rapid deployment for enterprise cloud environments

Why it's interesting: Interest in building enterprise clouds is high, but many IT executives haven't ventured into such an endeavor. Surgient Cloud Express, and other emerging cloud packages of its ilk, could give them the nudge they need to give premises-based cloud computing a whirl. With Surgient Cloud Express, comes the Surgient Platform, licensed for 30 managed CPUs; implementation services; one year of standard support; administrator training; client-specific private cloud architecture; all related Surgient documentation; and tracking and analysis for return on investment. This is all about transforming infrastructure so it's presentable in a cloud, then topping off with a management layer, says Burton Group's Reeves. "Hopefully you're reducing complexity, at least from a certain point of view," he says.

8. VIO-4000 switch series 

Vendor: Virtensys

Price: Starts in the mid-$20,000 range, depending on configuration

What it does: Virtualizes I/O via PCI Express (PCIe) bus extension

Why it's interesting: Data center complexity being what it is these days (a total nightmare) products that help simplify the mess are always welcome. I/O virtualization switches fit that bill for their ability to consolidate, virtualize and share server networking and storage connectivity, not to mention bring down related capital and operational expenses. (see related story). One of the latest I/O virtualization switch entrants comes to market with the distinction of using the PCI Express bus in its implementation. This is an example of multiroot I/O virtualization (MRIOV), says Burton Group's Reeves. "Think of MRIOV as breaking apart a server and extending the PCI bus, with all the peripherals and the server itself, to the network. You're taking that bus and extending it beyond the walls of the server so it’s almost like a fabric in the data center," he explains. In the case of Virtensys, a single PCI Express cable extends storage and network connectivity from a top-of-rack VIO-4000 switch to servers as needed, eliminating the need for distinct server adapter ports and LAN or SAN access switches. Virtensys supports Ethernet, Fibre Channel, serial-attached SCSI and serial ATA connectivity. It claims consolidating and virtualizing I/O resources in this manner will allow enterprises to slash rack and blade server management costs by more than 60%, power and cooling costs by up to 30% and equipment costs by as much as 50%.

9. Energy Center

Vendor: Viridity Software

Price: Annual subscription starting at $25,000

What it does: Monitors energy consumption of IT gear in the data center

Why it's interesting: Most power monitoring tools focus on the physical infrastructure. This is limiting, Viridity says, in that it provides data center managers no insight as to why power is being consumed. Viridity's software examines how applications consume energy – and then recommends how to eliminate inefficiencies. If the Viridity software delivers as promised, it should prove a boon for data center managers looking to increase energy efficiencies.

10. Virsto One 

Vendor: Virsto Software

Price: $1,250, perpetual license for one to two sockets; $2,500 for three to four sockets; $5,000 for an unlimited number of sockets. A free, 30-day evaluation version is available for download

What it does: Virtualizes storage at the hypervisor

Why it's interesting: As much as server virtualization benefits the enterprise, it brings with it a host of storage management challenges, from increased data volumes to performance issues. Virsto One, which initially plugs into the Microsoft Windows Server 2008 R2 Hyper-V hypervisor, solves that by placing the storage virtualization alongside the server virtualization. This allows for greater control of storage sprawl, optimization and performance. Mark Bowker, an analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group, compares what Virsto is doing for Microsoft’s Hyper-V environments to what VMware has done with its VMSF to deliver high-performance storage in ESX infrastructures. In his "Liquifying IT" blog, he says, "Virsto extends the value of server virtualization by virtualizing the storage as well -- the value of virtualization is extended into the underlying storage infrastructure and IT can plan to scale with confidence."

Schultz is an IT writer in Chicago. You can reach her at bschultz5824@gmail.com.

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