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KVM streamlines remote server management

Managing 3,000 servers is no easy task for business intelligence software company SAS, but Avocent KVM switches and management software have certainly helped.

For 3,000 machines, remote server management is easier than managing locally, but for business intelligence software company SAS, wrestling with multiple management interfaces was only marginally helpful .

As a software company, Cary, N.C.-based SAS runs a heterogeneous shop. "We have an interesting environment," Dan Marx, an IT engineer at SAS, explained. "We have a large [research and development] shop, so we needed something that would fit our model." Its own internal applications run on mostly Dell Inc. and IBM Corp. server hardware, Marx said. But SAS' R&D team uses hardware and software from all the major vendors -- and many of the smaller ones.

The problem is, each hardware platform has its own remote console access method: Dell has Dell Remote Access Controller (DRAC), Hewlett-Packard Co. has Integrated Lights-Out (iLO), Sun Microsystems has Advanced Lights Out Manager (ALOM), IBM has Remote Supervisor Adapter (RSA), and so on. And while each provides remote management -- often called "out-of-band management" -- which enables system administrators to monitor and manage servers remotely (usually through a KVM [keyboard, video, mouse] device]), they all have varying interfaces.

For a sys admin across campus, they're able to remotely access [a server] rather than driving across campus.
Dan MarxIT engineer, SAS

Marx said having a single interface, which it got from Avocent's DSView software, is a major help to system administrators. The ability to access servers remotely through a Web browser is also key, especially for those working some distance from SAS' centralized data center. "For me it's not a huge issue because I'm right here," he said, "but for a sys admin across campus, they're able to remotely access [a server] rather than driving across campus."

Reducing the divorce rate

Do not underestimate the power of remote server management, warned Dennis Drogseth, a vice president and analyst at Enterprise Management Associates. Marx, for example, says that he can now sit at his desk, perform remote server management tasks like installing software or doing a reboot, and all while checking email. But Drogseth said the benefits extend further, especially for IT staffers on call at odd hours.

"We studied some service providers using out-of-band [management software]," he said. "They didn't have to go out cruising in the middle of the night fixing the problem. In some cases, they could do it from home. I've spoken to a number of IT professionals who say they could have avoided a divorce if they had invested in out of band."

Drogseth added that KVM management products have become more sophisticated over the years. With KVM switches, users can control multiple servers from a single keyboard, video monitor and mouse connection. And while traditional KVM devices required servers to be cabled directly to the device, new digital KVM switches enable users to control servers remotely over a simple IP network. This way, administrators can monitor and manage servers from the comfort of their own living room if they so desire. Add such capability to the increasingly sophisticated software that goes with KVM devices, and users have greater flexibility. Marx, for example, said his new KVM management system allows him to perform about 90% of server maintenance remotely.

VMware support breaks the tie

According to Drogseth, there are two major players in the KVM management space: Avocent and Raritan, both of which SAS evaluated closely.

Avocent already had the edge in Marx's mind because SAS was already using Avocent's KVM switches. Still, the company went through a two- to three-month evaluation, and Marx said he prefers Avocent's roadmap. He thought Avocent seemed to be more on top of the game in terms of various vendors' remote console access methods. He was also encouraged by Avocent's ability to manage virtual VMware servers as well as physical devices. So, about a year ago, SAS settled on Avocent's digital switches and its DSView 3 management software.

"We use a lot of VMware, and we wanted the ability to manage virtual machines," he said. "At the time, they didn't have a plug-in, but they do now. There were a lot of issues and concerns we were having, and VMware was one of them. When we asked if they could manage it through DSView, we didn't get a blank stare. They said they didn't have the option right then but it was something in their roadmap."

Drogseth said both Avocent and Raritan have been aggressive in acquiring other companies to extend their capabilities beyond KVM.

"Going from being a niche KVM player to having a more strategic footprint (in the data center) -- how that will be achieved is something we all have yet to see," he said. "Both companies are trying to be creative."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Mark Fontecchio, News Writer. You can also check out our Server Specs blog.

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