Remote server administration tools: Manage your data center from a distance

New systems management options are making it easier for administrators to manage servers via smartphones and laptops.

Managing and monitoring data center servers from a distance via smartphones, laptops and home-based personal computers is getting significantly easier, thanks to a host of relatively new and enhanced remote server management technologies from hardware and software vendors like HP, IBM, BMC and CA.

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Systems administrators on the go use these tools to restart troubled servers, monitor server traffic, escalate help desk tickets and address security concerns.

But while these ever-improving remote management tools promise to be a boon to an increasingly mobile IT workforce, experts say picking the right offering requires a great deal of due diligence. Once the decision to go forward with a particular remote management technology is made, experts say a slew of security issues come into play and must be immediately addressed.

"Management software comes in two flavors," said Glenn O'Donnell, a data center technology analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. "There's the stuff that comes with the server and there's the stuff that you bolt on afterwards."

The stuff that comes with the servers

The systems management offerings that ship with leading servers include the HP Systems Insight Manager, the IBM Systems Director and the Dell OpenManage family of system management products. All of the offerings provide remote management of servers via Web-based access, and all of the systems are getting more sophisticated all the time, according to O'Donnell.

"They're all pretty similar, but I would say the HP family has probably evolved more because HP has tried to make its hardware 'smarter' through use of this software," O'Donnell explained. "That's basically what they're all trying to do, but I think that HP has evolved that model more than others."

The stuff you add on afterward

There are also a large number of vendors who provide administrators with remote systems management options. They include industry goliaths like IBM, HP and Microsoft, as well as somewhat smaller vendors like Symantec and Attachmate.

"Everybody and their brother seems to be in this business," O'Donnell said. Microsoft, O'Donnell added, is doing very well with its Systems Center family of products, which provide remote management and monitoring capabilities.

"Microsoft is just bulldozing everyone," he said, "especially in the Microsoft domain."

Server management via smartphones 

If the goal of an organization's IT staff is to make that elusive dream of managing servers while lounging on the beach a reality, then smartphones -- such as the Apple iPhone or Research in Motion's Blackberry -- are likely the best route to take.

Smartphones are less cumbersome than laptops, but moreover, highly customized smartphone applications aren't that difficult to create, said Michael Cote, IT industry analyst with Seattle, Wash.-based research firm Redmonk.

Cote said savvy technological professionals with company-approved smartphones could conceivably build a monitoring and management application that gives them a virtual view of the entire data center.

"All you've got to do is set up a smartphone-friendly Web page, and then you've got a mobile view," Cote said. You could also create the ability to "actually initiate an action, like restarting something or changing something," he added.

Pre-fabricated smartphone applications for managing systems remotely are also available for purchase. One example is the WinAdmin application, which is available for download from the Apple iTunes store.

Once the WinAdmin application is launched, Windows systems administrators are immediately presented with a user-created list of servers. Users pick the server they want to connect to and can then conduct any of the same tasks they would normally do from their office-based desktop, such as restarting, monitoring or reconfiguring the server.

BMC and CA

There are also some limited options available for administrators who want to manage BMC Software and CA products via handhelds.

BMC Remedy users can benefit from BMC's partnership with Aeroprise Inc., a Mountain View, Calif.-headquartered software company. Aeroprise makes software that allows users to run the BMC Remedy IT Service Management suite on BlackBerry and Windows Mobile devices.

Aeroprise says its software, among other things, lets help desk technicians manage tickets and IT managers review change requests and monitor service-level performance. Aeroprise software is available for purchase directly from BMC.

CA doesn't currently offer applications specifically geared toward allowing systems administrators to manage CA systems via a handheld device, but the company doesn't entirely rule such practices out.

According to Subo Guha, the vice president of product management for CA's Infrastructure Management and Automation business unit, CA supports the Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) standard on any device, including handhelds and home-based personal computers.

"If SNMP is enabled for a handheld, we can send events to the device," Guha said.

CA does offer systems designed for managing large BlackBerry smartphone deployments. The company says its Mobile Device Management application offers a user-friendly, Web-based console that lets service desk analysts manage all active BlackBerry devices without having intimate knowledge of, or access to, the BlackBerry Enterprise Servers. The system also automates some repetitive tasks related to BlackBerry deployments, such as device activations, device upgrades or password resets.

Smaller players

There are plenty of smaller and increasingly popular third-party players in the systems management market that offer some remote management capabilities, and O'Donnell says they're worth a look.

Some of those smaller vendors include ZOHO Corp.'s ManageEngine software, SolarWinds Inc. and WhatsUpGold.

"The reason they're popular is that they're very easy to use, and they're also really cheap," O'Donnell said. "You can buy this stuff with your credit card."

More security considerations

Once the decision to move forward with a particular remote management offering is made, experts and vendors point out that it's time to take a hard look at security issues, especially for organizations that intend to allow smartphone-based administration.

According to CA, smartphone devices can carry significant risk for organizations because they're increasingly used to store sensitive data and applications -- not to mention the fact that they can be easily lost or stolen.

That's why software vendors say it's important to manage the devices like any other asset in the IT environment. IT departments, they say, should maintain a complete and up-to-date inventory of all devices, and those lists should include the data and applications that the devices are storing.

Remote server management tools

Product What it does Features
IBM Director Remote Deployment Manager Remote Deployment Manager (RDM) helps automate deployment tasks such as initial OS installation, BIOS updates and disposal of retired systems for both IBM and non-IBM systems. Tasks are performed remotely, reducing travel and labor costs. Support for deploying Windows, Linux and VMware ESX Server; support for IBM and non-IBM hardware that adhere to industry standards including PXE (Pre-boot-eXEcution) and WOL (Wake on LAN)
Rove Mobile Admin Mobile Admin is installed behind a corporate firewall, where the Mobile Admin Server connects to dozens of different types of servers and monitoring systems. It allows IT managers to perform over 500 functions from a smart phone. The tool integrates with Nagios, BMC Remedy and performance manager, Microsoft systems management tools, VMware and others. The client is available for Blackberry, Windows mobile devices and a Web-browser interface.
HP ProLiant Onboard Administrator, powered by Integrated Lights-Out 2 (iLO 2) HP ProLiant iLO 2 allows users to remotely perform setup, health monitoring, power and thermal control, and remote administration of ProLiant ML, DL, and BL servers. It can be accessed from any location via a Web browser. In addition to robust server management features, this tool has some energy-efficiency aspects, including server fan control and a power supply high-efficiency mode to ensure that power supplies operate at peak efficiency under all conditions.
Dell OpenManage Integrated Dell Remote Access Controllers (iDRAC) Integrated Dell Remote Access Controllers (iDRAC) allows anywhere, anytime remote management, monitoring, troubleshooting, remediation and server upgrade independent of the operating system status. Uses remote access functions based on industry standards; delivers early notification of system failures; enables power management features.
Aeroprise for BMC Change Management Extends BMC Remedy Change Management functionalities, processes and rules to handheld devices, including Blackberry, Windows Mobile and other smartphones. Aeroprise also ties into BMC Remedy's ITSM, Service Desk and Asset Management functions. View change requests by priority, location and business impact; approve or deny change requests on the road; update the BMC Remedy system as soon as a change is implemented.
Sun Remote System Control (RSC) Remote System Control provides remote management and administration software for Sun Fire V480, Sun Fire V490, Sun Fire V880 and Sun Fire V890 servers. It is a standard feature on these products. For Solaris servers, this tool provides: event notification via interactive interfaces, email or pager of hardware and software failures; remote internal environmental monitoring (e.g., CPUs, disks, fans, power supplies); remote power on, power off and reset; the ability to view boot logs and run logs.

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