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Choosing server management tools to fit your data center

Homogeneous system management tools provide excruciating detail on servers, but in some circumstances, heterogeneous tools are a better choice.

Data centers fight a tug-of-war battle between the desire to standardize on known, most popular systems and the desire to remain flexible and avoid vendor lock-in.

A move from homogeneous to heterogeneous server management tools should be considered only when circumstances clearly dictate the change.

From a systems management standpoint, a homogeneous data center uses a vast majority of servers -- and often other devices -- from one vendor. That vendor's server management software typically registers specific nuances of the systems' design, like cooling fan behavior, internal temperatures and voltage levels. These details allow it to accurately determine power usage and efficiency, system performance or predictive maintenance. For example, a data center running on Dell PowerEdge servers can use Dell OpenManage software for systems management, while an organization running IBM System X servers would deploy an edition of IBM Systems Director.

Heterogeneous data centers incorporate a mix of equipment from various vendors, or multiple product families from the same vendor. Functionally this is not a problem -- there is no technical reason why servers from Hewlett-Packard Co., Dell Inc. and IBM, along with the new Cisco UCS platform that hosts the virtual desktop infrastructure, cannot operate synonymously within the same environment or enterprise. But as a business adopts more varied platforms, their systems management decisions involve challenging tradeoffs between granular control and system compatibility. Countless variations in BIOS code and hardware design make it virtually impossible for one systems management tool to account for every possible permutation of hardware; voltage levels read from one system will be absent from another, and so on.

Partial insight into the environment is practically useless; why spend the money on systems management tools if you're only seeing details from half or two-thirds of your systems? Therefore, heterogeneous management tools focus on higher-level details from sources such as the operating system. Microsoft System Center identifies system configurations in Windows Server systems and assists in workload provisioning, management and operations. ManageEngine from Zoho Corporation focuses on workload and network performance, security, help desk and other higher-level capabilities. With these tools, you won't see unnecessary details, like when a power supply in server 17A fails or a fan burns out in server 32F.

Various circumstances make heterogeneous systems management necessary. A corporate merger obligates one data center to subsume another, with its disparate hardware. A vendor change, due to cost, support or functional issues, will create a transition period wherein IT supports competitive systems.

Multiple systems, multiple management tools

Multiple server management tools are certainly possible, but are almost always undesirable.

Server management software costs a good deal to install and support with annual maintenance contracts. They're also complex and sophisticated tools that require substantial expertise from IT staff. Multiple tools will only multiply the intellectual load for administrators and the budget expense for managers. Becoming a system management polyglot also increases the possibility of errors or oversights in each tool's use.

There are some heterogeneous environments when multiple tool deployments are unavoidable. In the merger example, the IT teams may choose to keep two homogeneous server management tools for the separate company's server fleets -- Dell and HP, for example -- until technology refresh cycles allow them to standardize on one hardware set.

Any new tool should be thoroughly tested and vetted by IT staff before making any changes to the production environment.

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