Most servers shipped from the major manufacturers today come with some type of out-of-band management tool or baseboard management controller (BMC). You've probably used HP's Integrated Lights-Out (iLO), Dell's Integrated Dell Remote Access Controller (iDRAC) or Lenovo's ThinkServer EasyManage.
Each of these tools has similar functionality to the other two, and each has been improved over the years to add new capabilities. Today we'll take a closer look at HP's iLO and Dell's iDRAC for purposes of comparison.
At the standards level there are a number of features that specifically address systems management. These include the Data Center Management Interface (DCMI), the Intelligent Platform Management Interface (IPMI) and System Management Architecture for Server Hardware (SMASH) over WS-MAN. The Desktop Management Task Force (DMTF) Common Information Model (CIM) defines both a specification and a schema for information used by management software.
HP's iLO is currently at version 4.0, while Dell's iDRAC sits at version 7. Both companies provide multiple versions of these tools, from a limited capability, free version up to a full-featured enterprise tool. In both cases the free tools do not include the ability to remotely connect to the console of a server except in a pre-OS state.
One of the key features in both iLO and iDRAC is the ability to connect remote media for the purpose of installing a new operating system. This makes it possible to provision servers in remote data centers from anywhere with a network connection. The most common scenario is to use an ISO file with the operating system of choice and connect it so that it appears to the server as a local DVD drive.
HP's Gen8 systems include function-key boot options as shown in Figure 1 to go into the BIOS setup program, launch their Intelligent Provisioning tool or enter the Boot Menu to pick a device from which to boot. The Intelligent Provisioning tool is a special HP feature that walks you through the process of installing one of a number of operating systems, while also including special HP drivers for any devices installed in the system. This alleviates the need for any special driver disks during the installation process.
Dell's Lifecycle Controller offers similar functionality as does their Unified Server Configuration on older servers. The latest version of the Dell Lifecycle Controller is version 2 release 1.0. Dell's version includes hooks based on the Unified Extensible Firmware (UEFI) platform and the WSMan (Web Services for Management) interface, making it possible to automate system provisioning by scripting the Lifecycle Controller. In addition, Microsoft offers integration packs for System Center Orchestrator that enable the automation of HP iLO and Onboard Administrator (OA) commands as well as Dell's Lifecycle Controller.
Management and Monitoring
Once you have an operating system installed, you typically only need to monitor a remote server unless some type of patch or firmware upgrade becomes available. You'll need a licensed version of either iDRAC or iLO to connect to a server's console output remotely.
The basic or light versions of the tools provide information about the current state of the system from cooling to power status. You'll also have the ability to quickly assess any system problems from a dashboard view. Dell's iDRAC supports multiple methods for connecting, including SSH, Telnet, HTTP, HTTPS, RMCP/RMCP+ and KVM over port 5900.
HP has the edge when it comes to remote management applications. They have standalone HP iLO applications for Android, iOS and Windows. Dell currently offers an Active-X and a Java-based application that launches from a Web browser. Be aware you'll need to change the default Internet Explorer settings to allow the Active-X tool to work. The Java-based tool requires a Java runtime that must be downloaded separately.
Dell's OpenManage Essentials is a free download aimed at larger installations without any other high-end management console. The latest version is version 1.2 and includes a number of new features typically found in higher end tools. HP's Operations Manager software provides a single management platform for integrating on-premise and cloud-based resources.
Both Dell and HP have separate but similar management tools for their blade system offerings. Dell's Chassis Management Controller (CMC) integrates management of individual components of the chassis with the iDRAC instances on each blade and provides quick links to accomplish common management tasks from the main page. HP's Onboard Administrator provides a similar function to Dell's CMC but isn't quite as integrated.
The Bottom Line
Managing remote servers requires some type of out-of-band capability and support for basic functions including power on/off. All the major server vendors provide some level of management tools, from free basic low-end tools to enterprise-class offerings. While it probably won't sway a hardware purchase, it can certainly be worth factoring in to the purchase decision, especially if you aren't tied to a specific vendor.
HP has the slight edge for the administrator with apps for just about every platform. Dell has a slight edge if you have a blade system. Either way you should do a little homework before your next server purchase to find out what you're getting.
Paul Ferrill, based in Chelsea, Alabama, has been writing about computers and software for almost 20 years. He has programmed in more languages than he cares to count, but now leans toward Visual Basic and C#.