Choosing a server management tool: Hardware vendor or third party?

The decision of whether to opt for a server management tool from your hardware vendor or a third-party software vendor depends on criteria such as data center budget, the tool's reliability and ease of maintenance.

Although it was once common to manage servers individually, today's data centers often contain so many servers -- physical and virtual -- that server management tools are essential. There is no denying the need for server management products, but determining which one best meets your needs can be a difficult task. Hardware manufacturers and third-party software vendors both offer comprehensive server management suites. Further complicating the decision is the fact that these suites typically contain the same basic features. So how do you decide?

Identify important server management criteria
The key to determining which server management tool is right for you is to decide the most important criteria up front. There are several tradeoffs between the management tools offered by hardware vendors and those from third-party software vendors. For example, if the single most important decision-making criterion is price, then you will probably need to trade off certain features or functionality that will keep the price tag within an acceptable range. This may favor the hardware vendor's tools or it may favor the third-party vendor's offerings -- it all depends on the hardware you need to manage and the level of management that you want.

There are several tradeoffs between the management tools offered by hardware vendors and those from third-party software vendors.

Even though the IT budget is important to everyone, it may not always be the most important decision-making factor. Some organizations, for instance, consider their server management tool to be a mission-critical application. In these types of situations, the selection process is likely to be based more heavily on the software's reliability than on its cost.

If reliability is your primary criteria in choosing a server management tool, then you will typically be better off purchasing a management tool from your hardware vendor (assuming that all of your servers were made by the same manufacturer). There are a couple of reasons for this.

For starters, if the same company created both the hardware and the management software, you can bet that the software will be optimized specifically for your hardware. In some cases, the vendor-supplied management software may even be able to provide you with information about your servers that you just can't get from a third-party management tool. As an example, a hardware vendor may be able to supply management tools that report the precise temperature and cooling status of each CPU, while a third-party vendor may not achieve that level of granularity.

More importantly, however, choosing vendor-supplied management software is a great way to avoid getting the runaround in an emergency situation. How many times have you called a software vendor for support only to have the vendor blame your hardware or operating system for the problem? If the hardware and management software both come from the same company, there is nobody else for the technical support department to blame for any problems that might occur. There is little doubt that one-stop technical support can help to get issues resolved more quickly.

In spite of their many merits, vendor-supplied server management tools are not always the best choice. This is particularly true in cases in which an organization has servers from multiple manufacturers or when an organization has a mix of (really) old and new server hardware.

Vendor loyalty can backfire with a server management tool
Vendor lock-in is another potential disadvantage when purchasing a server management tool exclusively from the hardware vendor. Back in the 1990s, I worked for a large insurance company that relied solely on a specific brand of servers. The company eventually formed a strategic partnership with another organization. As a result of this partnership, we had to add a few new servers to our data center. Although this wouldn't normally have been a problem, the organization that we partnered with required us to use a different brand of server than what we normally used. This new requirement completely undermined our management strategy because our management software simply would not acknowledge the new servers.

Even if you take strategic partnerships out of the equation, being locked into using a single vendor can still be an issue. If an organization has invested a significant amount of money in purchasing a hardware vendor's management tools and training the IT staff on how to use them, it's unlikely that it will jeopardize its management strategy by bringing another server brand into the organization if there are no guarantees that the management software will work with it.

Multiple tools allow best-of-breed server management
Another important consideration is that while server management suites from hardware vendors may offer more granular details than third-party options, the vendor's management products are not always the most comprehensive choices available. There are numerous specialized server management tools on the market that might do a better job in one specific area.

I have seen at least a couple of organizations whose server management strategy was based on acquiring a collection of separate, specialized management tools. In each case, the idea was to assemble a collection of management software that would collectively do a better job than the big management suites. While I have seen this approach work, it is important to remember that there's no guarantee that the various management products will work correctly when run alongside each other. This is particularly true for any agents that are deployed on the managed servers. Furthermore, purchasing a collection of individual, best-of-breed management products may be more expensive than purchasing a management suite. There are also training and software maintenance issues as each individual tool is updated or patched.

Office politics
In spite of the various criteria for choosing server management tools, the decision may ultimately come down to office politics. For example, when I worked for Fort Knox, it was the Department of Defense -- not us -- who decided which software was to be used. Similarly, at another place where I once worked, one of the upper-level executives was a huge fan of a certain hardware manufacturer. Although I had my own ideas about which server management suite we should be using, the purchasing decision was based primarily on pressure from that executive.

In the end, prioritizing your management tool wish list and choosing a product is only half of the decision-making process. During my years in IT, I have worked with a number of different server management suites. Although many of these products worked as advertised, I have worked with vendors who misrepresented a product's capabilities. I have also run into a management package that just didn't want to work with my network (even the vendor couldn't figure out why). Due diligence should be a cornerstone of your evaluation process. Take the time to acquire a trial version of any software that you are considering. That way, you can thoroughly test the software and gain experience in your own environment before making the final commitment.

Server management tool options
When selecting a server management tool, administrators may need to choose between tools included with server hardware directly from the manufacturer or third-party tools designed to accommodate various server makes and models. Manufacturer-specific server management tools include the following:

  • Dell OpenManage provides a suite of tools that support the deployment, management and upgrades of Dell and other systems. It also interfaces with other management tools.
  • HP Systems Insight Manager (SIM) provides management for several HP systems, including ProLiant, HP 9000, Integrity and HP blade servers as well as HP StorageWorks, MSA, EVA and XP storage arrays.
  • IBM Tivoli Monitoring provides browser-based system monitoring of operating systems, databases and servers across the IT environment for IBM AIX, Solaris, Windows, Linux and IBM System z.

Examples of third-party tools include (but are certainly not limited to) the following:

  • Hyperic IQ provides monitoring and reporting designed to oversee operating systems, Web servers, application servers, databases, messaging, mail, virtualization, network and application platforms.
  • Symantec Altiris Server Management Suite allows management of physical and virtual servers -- including provisioning, control, monitoring and automation -- all through a single pane of glass.
  • Vizioncore vFoglight provides features such as monitoring, capacity planning, chargeback and management of virtual platforms like VMware.


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