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Evaluate DCIM software and its impact on the data center

Buyers must know how to evaluate DCIM software to ensure it meets their requirements for asset tracking and management, power and cooling optimization and real-time reporting.

Like any software package, data center infrastructure management (DCIM) tools are available in a range of options, and the user-programmable settings are virtually infinite. Buyers should know both their needs and how to analyze whether a prospective tool will meet these needs. The ultimate measure of a good DCIM software platform is how easily you get the information you need from the monumental amounts of system data the selected tool can collect.

Asset tracking and management

All DCIM systems enable admins to transfer data from their existing Excel spreadsheets to a DCIM database. If you're going to maintain the new system manually, the chosen DCIM software must be intuitive for workers, provide enough detail and make it easy to input that level of detail. Instruct the vendor to import some of your actual spreadsheet data so you can then manipulate the data yourself to understand what is involved in maintenance. Effective DCIM tools should be able to show what equipment you have, and in exactly which cabinets and rack spaces it is located. This level of update can be done semi-automatically by putting barcode tags on equipment and manually scanning them. But in large operations even this level of manual maintenance may be too time-consuming. In that case, you might consider automatic tracking via RFID tags or other in-rack sensing. This is an advanced feature requiring extra cost to tag each piece of hardware, but it could save considerable personnel time, and ensure that the database is up-to-the-minute, 100% accurate.

Regardless of update method, detailed asset tracking should provide you with more than just tabular listings. Rack elevations may also be an advanced feature in some DCIM offerings. Consider whether future upgrades may also enable the asset tracking feature to perform more extensive tasks such as real-time and projected power usage.

Network and computing optimization

This may be the most complex task DCIM software can provide, but for many, it's the most important.  Some systems even specialize in this function without the ability to do much else. If the main priority is to optimize computing resources and network performance and to maintain maximum network reliability, investigate these specialized systems that offer levels of analysis that are unavailable in broader DCIM offerings. That could mean that other capabilities, such as asset tracking and energy monitoring, would require a second form of DCIM software, but the lack of integration could be offset by the operational improvements that a system specialized in network optimization would provide. On the other hand, the fully integrated packages may provide all the performance analysis you need.

Evaluating the network and computing optimization capabilities of prospective DCIM software will be more familiar territory for IT professionals than power and cooling options, so you could easily become enamored by the bells and whistles. But as with any DCIM, over-buying beyond what you really need and can utilize may result in owning an expensive, sophisticated and underused system.

Power and cooling optimization

Before purchase, verify that a DCIM package is compatible with the communication protocols that are in place. Many mechanical devices in particular are not IP-addressable. The most common platforms for these systems are Modbus and BACnet. Verify with engineering or facilities departments to determine what protocols you need to accomplish the necessary monitoring. Fluid flow and temperature monitoring may be important to facilities, but sensors for these measurements will need to be added by other systems. Even intelligent rack PDUs that provide an IP interface will have different coding schemes. Make sure that DCIM software is compatible with the brands and types of devices you use, or that the vendor will not charge extra if you need to develop a software interface.

The most important thing to consider when choosing software features for power and cooling is the result that monitoring these physical parameters will accomplish for the data center. Failure alarms are obviously important, but the chosen system should allow you to readily differentiate between major and minor events. History is even more important because stored data can show you when and where a problem started to occur, helping to avoid a repetition. An even greater value from this historical data is emerging in predictive software that can analyze trends, and alert to impending disasters before they occur.

Real-time reporting and analytics

Evaluating how a new hardware installation will affect power, cooling, rack space, compute performance, etc. can save a lot of headaches before you actually put the equipment into service, particularly in a high-density environment. This capability comes in many forms. Most DCIM products include an equipment database that quantifies characteristics such as physical size, estimated power consumption, heat load and network connections. Some systems even track rack weight and floor loading, and can update the power consumption based on actual measurements over time.

"What if" analytics allow you to find potential locations for new hardware and see the effect that an installation would have on power and cooling before you install. The information may be displayed in tabular view, and some systems will even prioritize several locations based on a number of critical parameters. Graphic display can make this information easier to understand. The most robust systems will even display the locations in 3D. The "what if" capability can be valuable in high-density enterprises where power and cooling capacities could be exceeded by installing new hardware where there is still rack space, but insufficient environmental support. However, while real-time reporting can be an exciting feature in the demo, it should probably be something you implement down the road, when you have fully integrated the other capabilities that are needed to support it.

Buying options

How you actually handle the financial side of a DCIM implementation is often dictated as much by your CFO as by your CIO. Some companies prefer to incur operating costs (OpEx) rather than CapEx. Some DCIM vendors offer their software as one-time purchases with yearly maintenance fees. Others offer subscription, term or license options. Some have SaaS licenses, and others offer an outright purchase on a pay-as-you-grow basis. Some vendors offer a basic package on a free 14-day trial so you can actually try it before making a larger commitment. Generally, vendors base DCIM pricing on the number of racks or devices that the software must manage, and the specific monitoring modules included. Vendors typically include software maintenance and updates with yearly license or maintenance fees.

All the vendors offer on-line demonstrations of their offerings. Some of those demos can be done in an hour or less, while others may require several sessions to understand the full range of capabilities. It's well worth investing the time with several vendors to understand the range of products available before you narrow down your considerations and ultimately make a purchase. Each demo will provide you with more features and details to compare with competitors.

DCIM use and maintenance

Ease of use and the time required for maintenance can actually be inversely proportional to the sophistication of a DCIM product, so this is an important aspect of an evaluation. Spend some quality time working with your top two or three options to really understand the differences between them, and to decide the best choice for your organization. The best technical product may be great for a sophisticated operation, but not the best fit for your personnel. Several people should participate in the evaluation. Crises rarely occur when the best trained people are on duty, so the DCIM software suite should be accessible enough for any level of personnel to access, track and figure out what to do.

Next Steps

Learn how DCIM began and how it has evolved

Discover why data centers would require DCIM software

How Schneider Electric has improved its DCIM security feature

This was last published in June 2017

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