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Server Infrastructure Tools, The Basics

Thursday Mar 31st 2005 by Nelson King

No matter how thought out the server purchasing process, a server room's potential is achieved only through careful management. Infrastructure tools are an essential component. We kick off a new series with an overview of server infrastructure tools.

So you've done your research and purchased your servers and possibly signed a service agreement. Now what? If you said, walk away and let 'em run, think again.

Collectively, the way the servers are organized and the tools are provided to support them constitutes the infrastructure.

Life around servers is rarely that simple. A sys admin in a large server room, or rooms, will most likely need tools to help him or her keep the servers running effectively. This is where software to manage, monitor, and configure the server infrastructure comes in. Thus, the question is not whether you need some of the tools, but which ones and from whom.

This article, is the first in our series of overviews of infrastructure tools, and an overview of overviews of sorts. It introduces the ServerWatch-defined category of server infrastructure tools, the constituent products, and some of the trade-offs that come into play when using vendor supplied, third-party, or outsourced (ASP) tools.

Definition

When it comes to servers, what do we mean by infrastructure? Simply put, it's organized server support. Do all of your servers work in isolation as stand-alone units? Probably not. There are groups of them: different types, different functions, clusters for scalability, and so forth. You organize them to support them and enable them to work better together. Collectively, the way the servers are organized and the tools are provided to support them constitutes the infrastructure. To make the infrastructure work, you must set the servers up in the right way, monitor their operation, and manage their services. Not a simple task by any means.

Start with a rule of thumb: The greater the number of servers, the greater the need for infrastructure tools. One server does not constitute an infrastructure. On the other hand, if you have a thousand servers, boy do you need infrastructure tools! With that many servers, you probably need infrastructure tools just to keep them running. Then, there's the no small matter of getting the most out of the servers, ultimately known as maximizing ROI. Infrastructure tools are necessary for that as well.

Tools to Consider

These "tools" are, of course, products. Sometimes they come in suites, such as IBM Tivoli, or Computer Associates Unicenter. They are also sold in various combinations or as individual (even stand-alone) products. Infrastructure tools cover a very large range, as this by no means inclusive list illustrates:

  • Application Deployment and Management
  • (IT) Asset and Inventory Management
  • Backup and Archiving
  • Batch Processing
  • Configuration and Change Management
  • Cluster Management
  • Data Management
  • Desktop Management
  • Disaster Recovery
  • Enterprise System Management
  • File Transfer Management
  • Job Automation and Scheduling
  • License Management
  • Network Management
  • Performance (Load and Stress) Testing
  • Patch and Update Management
  • Print Management
  • Security Management
  • Storage Management
  • User Management
  • Web Systems Management

There are many ways to slice and dice this territory of server infrastructure. With hundreds of products that have considerable overlap, vendors, analysts, and journalists can (and do) see infrastructure tools through many perspectives.

As numerous and confusing as the server infrastructure products can be, one needn't be a computer scientist to reach an understanding about what an organization must have to support its servers. Some basic information is required: Where servers are located, what they are doing (at least in general), and some details of their configuration (what hardware and software they are running). From there, consider other areas of server management (such as items on the above list) to determine strengths and weaknesses. If there are gaps or problems managing the server infrastructure, start looking at tools to cover them. Fundamentally, the process is the same for small and midsize businesses as it is for very large enterprises.

People with experience will say, "It's not that easy." True. The process described in the previous paragraph leaves out some important complications, including budget limitations, existing infrastructure elements, personal preferences (e.g., those of executives), and resistance to change. Nor is comparing server infrastructure products necessarily easy. Products may have many common features, but their vendors may describe them differently. There are also overlaps in functionality. Finally, not all vendors are equally skilled in marketing, which means sometimes a good product (or feature) is not effectively represented. More often, though, it means some products (or features) are oversold.

>> Options and Trade-Offs

Options and Trade-Offs

Any research undertaken on infrastructure tools will probably pay off regardless of the ultimate purchase and implementation. Whether a vendor sells it to you, you buy it yourself, or a hosting service provides it, you'll see many of the same products. Even if you're attracted to a particular vendor (or already have a horse in the barn), it is useful to see what the competition is doing. To encourage comparison, we will provide feature checklists in future ServerWatch server infrastructure tools articles — those focused on server management, server monitoring, and server configuration — that you can use to evaluate products.

The category of server infrastructure tools is one of the fastest growing areas of software. Thanks to the proliferation of small servers used in large groups (e.g., blades) the need for software to manage them has grown exponentially. As a category of software, server infrastructure tools is extremely competitive. Products are available from the biggest names in the business as well as tiny, unknown start-ups. The good news is the resulting proliferation of options, alternatives, and comparative advantages. This is also, of course, the bad news.

On top of wading through the forest of products, there are large issues to consider: Own or lease? Operate in-house or outsource? Single vendor or multiple vendors? Given the wide functionality of server tools, the many platforms, and the large number of products, the trade-offs that must be weighed are inevitable.

A grab bag of vendor tools may not play together as well as third-party tools designed to run in a heterogeneous environment.
When it comes to server infrastructure tools, the default decision factor has long been the server hardware vendor. If a company has IBM, HP, or Dell servers, for example the tendency is to stick with the respective vendor's server tools. This is usually convenient and may mean the tools are optimized for the servers. Still, the functional coverage of vendor-supplied tools may not be complete, and they may be comparatively expensive. It's also true that organizations often use servers from different vendors (running different operating systems). A grab bag of vendor tools may not play together as well as third-party tools designed to run in a heterogeneous environment. In addition, third-party products are often selected because they are considered best-of-breed or offer cost advantages — not because of inertia.

If third-party products are selected, the assumption is that each offering has best-in-class features; there is no guarantee they will work together properly (or at all). On the other hand, if you select an all-in-one (or suite) product from a single vendor, the coordination problems may be gone, but cost and vendor lock-in may be a problem. In a different context, there are decisions to be made about whether a company wants to own and operate the infrastructure tools, or outsource that operation to others. Trade-offs apply: Owning and operating your own management tools provides greater security and control (usually), but using a host or another outsourcer can be less expensive and may provide better facilities or staff.

None of these trade-offs are a given, but it is important to be aware that in the category of server infrastructure tools, there are usually trade-offs. In general, the larger and more complex the infrastructure, the more it will exacerbate the trade-offs. While ServerWatch's coverage of server infrastructure tools will be product oriented, we will also keep an eye on the larger issues and trade-offs involved.

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