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Time is ripe for data center infrastructure databases

Many data centers track their IT assets in a configuration management database, but as they continue to grow, facility items deserve a database of their own.

Knowing what powers your data center, from traditional IT assets, like servers and software, to facilities elements,...

like racks and backup generators, is key to projecting growth so you don't run out of capacity. A data center infrastructure database (DCIDB), which would be similar to a configuration management database (CMDB) but specifically for facility equipment, could help do that.

James Berry, data center manager for Midwest ISO, which oversees the availability of electricity in 15 U.S. states and one Canadian province, understands that software needs to bridge that gap but can't find it in the marketplace. What he's looking for is a data center visualization tool that can integrate with his configuration management database and trouble ticketing software so that he can easily see the connections between all of his data center assets -- both IT and facility.

More on data center facilities management:
Aperture unveils new capacity planning tool

Data center facilities managers are from Venus, IT pros are from Mars

Berry has the ability to create custom items in his CMDB, but what he's looking for is a fully relational database that already has options for facility items with built-in connections to IT and other facility equipment.

"Our challenge is we want to take the information we have from the facilities perspective, for example the power distribution units (PDU) on the floor and in the rack, and associate servers with them and also to a position location on a floor grid and get that information in the CMDB. You can define configuration items, such as the location number and the number of Us, and how many breakers are in a PDU, but some of those configuration items are not normally in the CMDB."

The IT facilities gap that many data centers struggle with is in part a personnel issue, but it can also be a tracking issue. That is, if you don't know what's in your data center, how can you properly manage it?

DCIDBs defined

The CMDB software found in many data centers looks at the connection between hardware, software, documentation and personnel. Larger, complex data centers need something similar for their facilities infrastructure, such as a DCIDB, which would help data center managers track things, like how much of a load a particular UPS can handle or whether plugging in another server will overdraw supply.

DCIDB software would include every component in the physical layer of the data center, such as UPSes, PDUes, servers and CRAC units. Each database component would have information on factory specifications, maintenance history and its connections to other components in the facility. The database would also keep track of space, power and cooling capacity. With these data points, data center managers could project growth over a period of time, helping them determine when the business might need to build more raised floor, for example, or buy new UPSes. The DCIDB would integrate seamlessly with a CMDB and could also tie into other software -- for example, a computational fluid dynamics (CFD) program to help optimize cooling capacity of rack and CRAC unit configurations.

Creating a good DCIDB has its challenges. For example, servers have nameplates on them that describe how much power they draw. But in many cases, the nameplate figure represents the maximum draw, whereas the actual draw might be much lower. Putting erroneous information in the DCIDB may lead you to buy a new UPS or expand a raised floor before it's actually needed.

Of course, you could avoid that problem by measuring the actual power draw with a power meter, or assuming an average power utilization rate, but the fact remains that the metrics posted on some equipment weren't designed for this application.

"It's difficult to do projections or real-time measurements by nameplate because it's just not accurate," Berry said.

Early attempts at a DCIDB

There are some examples of software resembling DCIDBs starting to hit the market now. For four years now, Stamford, Conn.-based Aperture Technologies Inc. has had a tool called Vista that tracks what's in your data center, from the servers to the power supplies. It claims it has a resource library with factory specifications for 30,000 facility items. Last month, it also announced Aperture Vista Capacity Management software, to be available in June and can forecast growth.

"What we see is clients telling us they have nothing in terms of an overall management process," said William Clifford, CEO of Aperture. "They have sticky notes on a whiteboard, and when it gets too cold at night, the sticky notes fall on the floor and the next morning you pick them all up, and on each sticky note is a rack and on each one they write down how many servers are on there. That's a guy who's about to lose his job, but that's more often the case than not."

Midwest ISO's Berry tried Aperture's Vista, but while he saw some benefit in it, he said it still wasn't enough. He said the software is at its foundation an AutoCAD tool that requires the user to plug too much information in -- both at the beginning and when things change. Berry is looking for something dynamic that can seek out changes in the infrastructure, record them automatically in the DCIDB and alert you when you need more floor space, power supplies or other facilities equipment.

"I have not seen a relational database that goes into the data center facility and puts all that data into one place," he said.

Another product relevant to a DCIDB is Eaton Corp.'s Power Xpert Architecture, introduced at the AFCOM Data Center World Conference in March. As a combination of power meters and other hardware, the company said Power Xpert Architecture helps data center managers determine when their power supplies are off kilter. The meters can monitor Eaton and non-Eaton power supplies. Finally, Planet Associates Inc. has database software for an entire enterprise, from IT to facilities, and even beyond the data center to the desktop and other portions of the facility.

When it comes to the data center, the line between IT and facilities is much more blurry than it is in other parts of an organization.

"On the data center side of things, the facilities perspective is really led by the data center manager," said Bill Spencer, Planet CEO. "These PDUs basically have heartbeats that produce alarms when something fails. Because of that we're finding that data center folks get a lot more involved than they traditionally would have on the facilities side because the operation of the data center is so critical."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Mark Fontecchio, News Writer.

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