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Wanted: Blade server management software

Feb 17, 20037 mins
Computers and PeripheralsData CenterIBM

With the devices proliferating, corporate users need ways to manage the hardware.

As users scramble to scrimp and save by putting applications on low-cost blade servers, they are increasingly looking for more sophisticated ways to manage, provision and automate these new environments.

As users scramble to scrimp and save by putting applications on low-cost blade servers, they are increasingly looking for more sophisticated ways to manage, provision and automate these new environments.

Blade servers – high-density, low-power blade computers – have emerged in the past two years as a less-expensive and space-saving option for corporate users looking to build scalable and redundant data centers. Server blades come in the form of single boards one-eighth the size of a typical 1U server and consume up to 12 times less power.

The use of these low-cost devices – prices can start at $1,000 – is skyrocketing. The Yankee Group reports enterprise and telecom users worldwide spent $95 million on blades in 2002, and the market research firm expects to see the market grow to $3.78 billion by 2006. The growing market for blade servers is driving hardware and software vendors to deliver blade management products.

“Now, it’s the Wild West in terms of managing blades,” says Jamie Gruener, a senior analyst at The Yankee Group. “The server vendors themselves are offering provisioning tools, and the systems management vendors are putting out server management modules.”

For now, many users opt to manage servers with homegrown tools. Take Ramaswamy Aditya. He says the blade servers he bought from RLX Technologies are easier to manage than the 1U servers also running in his data center.

“All in all the management of the blade servers is far easier than traditional rack-mount servers, the density is greater and the power consumption much lower,” Aditya says.

The CTO at Web application hosting company Zapatec in Berkeley, Calif., uses a combination of remote protocol monitoring for applications, such as syslog and SNMP, to gauge blade performance. Aditya also uses an open source operating system called FreeBSD and Linux on the blade servers to perform out-of-band management.

Along with Aditya, Carl Alexander, senior systems and network administrator at TERC, a nonprofit education research and development organization in Cambridge, Mass., says he manages blade servers via the serial console with a “home-brewed secure console server.” And he says the system is flexible and scalable, with no need for software instrumentation.

“This system involved hardware costs of less than $50 per host, zero software costs and certainly no more systems administration time than configuring a commercial server management solution,” he says.

Blade management basics

Managing blades shouldn’t vary much from managing typical servers.

Corporate users want to monitor availability and performance, as well as spot potential hardware problems before they cause downtime. Because blades are hot-swappable they can be a potential management problem. Corporate users must be able to quickly discover new blades, identify the proper configuration and allocate the necessary images to the blades.

Because blades also serve as inexpensive options for branch offices or sit on the edge of the network, network executives must be able to administer blades remotely, which requires certain asset or desktop management capabilities. And while many software vendors such as Computer Associates and BMC Software have tools to manage systems and servers, there are no standards to manage blades.

“Vendors have completely different ideas on how to manage blades, and a lot of the offerings are very proprietary,” Gruener says. Proprietary systems represent a challenge in managing across heterogeneous networks, but at this time, blades tend to work only with blades and chassis from the same vendor.

Management products for blades falls into one of four categories: change and configuration management; image cloning and management; provisioning; and policy-based management efforts. And each vendor seems to have its own method to manage blades. Yet, policy-based management, in which systems can automatically deploy predefined actions for configuration, security, provisioning and performance across servers and other networks elements – remains the ultimate goal for vendors and users.

Hardware heavyweights

One crucial difference between blades and traditional servers is volume – because of their space-saving character, there can be more blades in a smaller space for corporate users to manage.

That’s where automation can help, experts say. IBM and HP have begun their policy-based management under the guise of their autonomic computing and utility computing product road maps, respectively. The idea is that an intelligent infrastructure coupled with smart software will be able to reallocate storage, processing and network resources on the fly.

In terms of blade servers, IBM, through its eServer BladeCenter line, provides IBM Director management software free with its eServer blades. IBM Director includes client software that acts as agents running on the blades that deliver management information back to the server, which is a snap-in module on the back of the blade chassis. The software can perform autodiscovery on blades and quickly reprovision one when a swap is made.

IBM pairs its hardware and software by adding LightPath Diagnostics to the blades and chassis. A specifically colored LED can lead a network operator more quickly to the chassis and then server blade that might be having performance problems or a failure, IBM says.

Meanwhile, HP, which claims it shipped about 15,000 blades in 2002, manages blades with Insight Manager 7, a package it picked up in its November 2002 acquisition of Compaq. Insight Manager 7 software includes rapid deployment features. HP also partners with desktop and asset management vendor Altiris to provide remote management capabilities to the blade and other servers.

RLX Technologies reports shipping 6,000 to 8,000 in 2002, while IBM says it has shipped 5,000 blade servers in the past 10 weeks.

RLX also sells its Control Tower 4 management software with its hardware.The software helps corporate users deploy and manage server blade rollouts. The company says its combination of software provisioning tools and the ultradense RLX server blades reduces IT labor, and it can manage across Windows 2000 and Linux operating systems. Control Tower 4 also gives users a Web-based interface from which to view blade server health.

With its N1 initiative, Sun now also might be entering the management software fray. The company, which just this month announced its first blade, in November 2002 purchased Terraspring, a start-up that makes software that automates deployment, management, visibility and control of heterogeneous data center environments.

Sun recently announced it would rework the Terraspring software to form what it calls the N1 Control Plane, which will serve as a management portal for servers, storage systems, switches and software in the network. Sun will ship Control first on a new set of blade servers due in the first quarter.

And Veritas, which at year-end announced it would be acquiring server provisioning software vendor Jareva Technologies and application performance management software maker Precise Software, also might enter the policy-based server management market, Gruener says. He adds that Dell will most likely partner to add management capabilities to its blade server offerings.

Software start-ups

Companies offering strictly automation software to manage blades include start-ups such as BladeLogicOpsware (formerly Loudcloud), CenterRun and ThinkDynamics, among others.

These start-ups emerged along with blades in the past two years and work to automate the process of provisioning servers in data centers.The companies all provide software that automates many configuration processes that normally are handled manually, such as the application of patches or the collection of inventory information. One advantage of these start-ups is that their software can work with blade servers and traditional 1U servers from a variety of vendors.

“Products like BladeLogic are significant because of their cross-platform characteristics.” CIO Ron Rose says. “Today’s data centers are very problematic from an administration perspective, so tools that actually help unify the operations of these heterogeneous environments are the wave of the future.”

Senior Editor Deni Connor contributed to this story.