Blade Management Tools Take Center Stage

With interest in blade servers increasing, so is the need for management tools, and blade manufacturers and third-party developers are responding to customer wishes for easily understood, standards-based management suites.

March 21, 2005

4 Min Read
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Managing blade servers and integrating them with other system resources is more important to companies as blades become more widely adopted. As with other markets, standards are becoming more of the norm throughout the IT industry: Server makers are opening their management toolkits to third-party developers, increasing support for each other's hardware, and integrating blade systems with other computing resources more tightly. The benefits of blades will increasingly depend upon management efficiency and flexibility as hardware becomes more commoditized.

The moves by server manufacturers come with a robust blade market as the backdrop. Blade server shipments more than doubled in 2004, reaching 450,000 units -- 7 percent of the U.S. x86 server market, according to IDC, which expects blades to account for 40 percent of the overall server market by 2006.

"Rapid advancement in system management software, clustering technology, and the continued disaggregation of servers into smaller form factors and components are expected to fuel the growth of server blades and modular systems," IDC analysts wrote in their year-end server market analysis.

Even with the expected growth in the blade market, though, companies are mindful that server managers don't want to be locked into a proprietary arrangement that impedes them from using a variety of hardware. "Customers want a truly open management environment that uses actual standards such as IPMI and CIM," says Rob Sauerwalt, IBM's global brand manager for blade architectures. "They don't want to have to deal with units individually, or learn many methods of doing it."

The company is adapting its IBM Director tool accordingly, says Sauerwalt. "IBM Director is focused on care and feeding of hardware," he says. "Its core values include grouping capability; scheduling; and event action plans. We are now breaking up Director so that its core values will be individual modules while Director remains the framework." This strategy will enable customers to update Director modules more easily and integrate their favorite tools with Director. Sauerwalt adds: "Our management SDK program allows third-parties to integrate their tools with Director. So a customer can use Altiris (for example) in lieu of IBM Remote Deployment Manager.""Customers want to manage all systems from centralized console with automation of dynamic scaling. Each vendor is building its own solution," says Lee Johns, director of HP's Velocity software business within the Software Global Business Unit. To that end, as well as unifying its hardware platforms, HP created its BladeSystem division last September, and Johns says management software tools are high on its list of priorities.

HP launched its HP BladeSystem Management Suite in December, bundling deployment, vulnerability assessment, patch management, and performance management into one package. In February, HP introduced HP Storage Essentials, a suite of standards-based plug-ins that enable basic storage management functions and integrate with HP Systems Insight Manager (SIM). HP Storage Essentials supports hardware from multiple vendors through industry standards such as J2EE, SMI-S, WBEM and WMI. Later this year, HP will ship the Policy-Based Automation Pack for SIM, enabling users to manage their HP systems as pools of resources, controlled by automation policies.

Third-party software developers are even further along the path that customers want to follow, it seems. It's no surprise that pure software firms such as BladeLogic and OpsWare are hardware-agnostic. But RLX Technologies caused a stir in December when it decided to abandon the blade server hardware business that it pioneered in order to focus on blade management software.

Blade hardware is becoming the commoditized province of big server makers, notes Scott Farrand, VP of Systems Engineering for RLX. The company's Control Tower (CT) management software is highly regarded as a sophisticated, easy-to-use product, so RLX decided to play to its strengths in policy-based automation and "en masse management."

"We created CT for large server farms. The user sees a whole farm of servers, and can just click to select many servers and do an operation against all of them. CT's policy automation component monitors utilization and can automatically remove servers from a cluster when they are not needed," says Farrand. "Those servers are kept in a reserve pool so they can be repurposed to other applications as needed. Control Tower can load an operating system, applications, and data set, and booth the server automatically without the sys admin's presence."CT includes a "device module" that Farrand likens to a device driver -- a piece of code that can be customized once to interface CT with a given vendor's hardware. The company is creating device modules for multiple vendors now, and "the phone has been ringing off the hook" since RLX announced its software-only strategy, says Farrand. "Vendors are beating on the door," he says.

RLX has one mid-tier blade server vendor signed, and a "first tier vendor is online" in the near future. Farrand declined to identify either customer, citing confidentiality agreements.

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