Consolidating data center resources is important and appealing for most organizations. But the goal has its limits, and some data center equipment must reside at other locations -- there's just no way around it.
Solving this problem may simply be a matter of supporting a remote disaster recovery (DR) site or as challenging as streamlining related sites distributed across a vast geographic region. In every case, there's an urgent need for remote management. When properly planned and deployed, remote management technologies can reduce travel expenses, accelerate response times and streamline critical support tasks.
Multiple facilities and software shortcomings
For Adventist Health System (AHS), a geographically distributed healthcare business in Lake Mary, Fla., data center support posed a serious problem. AHS faced the challenge of supporting 26 hospitals and additional satellite offices, where each facility hosts a unique collection of servers and other IT gear. Hands-on management was simply too cumbersome to be effective. "That posed a lot of challenges for us with access to servers and IT equipment remotely," said Ruben Flores, an IT manager at AHS. "It required driving, sometimes hours, to validate a problem on a server or access something."
AHS applied a limited number of software tools that were generally available with common operating systems such as RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol) and third-party solutions, including PC Anywhere. The problem with software-based tools was their operating system dependence. Any problems with the operating system or application execution would cripple remote management, Fores said. "If there's anything that interrupts the software layer, that's the end of your access," he said, also noting that different facilities might use different remote management tools, further complicating the management process.
KVM over IP's remote management
Ultimately, Flores and the AHS staff considered hardware-based remote management technology. The move would overcome the limitations of existing software tools and -- if extended throughout the company -- would provide a single unified management environment. AHS quickly focused on "KVM over IP" (or iKVM) technology, which enables administrators to effectively access remote servers as though they reside on each physical system.
A KVM switch has long been a staple of data center administration, allowing an administrator to switch a single keyboard, display and mouse between multiple servers on demand. This approach enables administrators to then take direct control of a server while avoiding the expense and clutter of separate user interface devices for every system.
But KVM over IP devices take this practice a step further. Keyboard, video, mouse and other device control data is compressed and encapsulated into Ethernet packets, enabling IT professionals to share their user interface with almost any server across a network. It's remote control in the truest sense.
KVM over IP technology provided several key advantages for AHS. The products were hardware- and software-agnostic, so they would support any server without regard for manufacturer or the underlying operating system. This also meant that the products could be deployed to all remote locations, finally bringing all remote equipment under a single management umbrella.
Several manufacturers feature iKVM offerings, including Avocent, Minicom, Raritan and Rose Electronics, but AHS quickly settled on Avocent's DSR KVM over IP Switches and DSView 3 Management Software. "There were more manufacturer-based solutions that we noted were specific to IBM or Dell or HP," Flores said. "As we did further research, we realized all these things were basically OEM'ed from Avocent."
Rather than risk vendor lock-in with an OEM'ed version of the product, AHS dealt directly with Avocent to ensure that the product would continue to support heterogeneous systems. Flores notes additional capabilities that added even greater value to the product, including virtual media technology (allowing software installation on one server from a CD loaded on another server), Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) security and Active Directory integration.
When evaluating an iKVM device, it's also important that the equipment provides adequate support for the scope of your own specific needs. "How many ports does it have, how many users does it support simultaneously?" said Dave Sobel, the CEO of Evolve Technologies, a solution provider in Fairfax, Va.
Sobel further underscored the importance of network bandwidth. Although iKVM equipment typically uses only modest bandwidth, multiple users working on multiple servers simultaneously can drive bandwidth needs up, and this can become problematic -- especially with distant locations where latency becomes unavoidable.
AHS approached its iKVM deployment as a three-phase process, the first phase being an inventory of all equipment and determination of exactly which products had to be purchased for full deployment. After that, the products were systematically installed at each site. Finally, the remote equipment was integrated with the central management software. Flores notes that the plan came off with no significant hitches, but he stressed the importance of building a project plan in advance. The only wrinkle was an issue with firmware levels in the Avocent hardware. "We ended up doing a little work with Avocent on provisioning resources and figuring out a strategy on how to do a mass upgrade of thousands of dongles to make sure everything's at the same [firmware] level," he said.
The move to a single standard remote management technology proved to be a culture shock for some sites. "Really, in the end, it ended up helping everybody," Flores said, adding that each site finally retired its own remote management tools and integrate with the central KVM over IP product. "All of us can be using the same tool, same methods, same access, and there's unified control over the entire IT environment versus this hodgepodge of solutions, which ends up being expensive and inconsistent."
KVM over IP results and expansion
For AHS, the shift to iKVM technology has brought sudden and dramatic results. Flores recalls one remote site that experienced a downed-server incident, where a server was assessed remotely -- saving at least one trip to correct the physical fault. "The bottom line is greatly improved efficiency in working with all of these systems over multiple locations," said Alan Hite, the director of IT operations at AHS.
Sobel echoes this sentiment in terms of experience in the field, noting that fewer IT staff can effectively manage far more equipment and locations than might otherwise be practical -- or even physically possible. "You might have a data center team in Dallas that's remotely managing gear all over the U.S. if they have the ability to 'remote-in' to all the parts that they need."
While AHS has not completed a formal ROI analysis, Flores and Hite are quick to note that reduction in travel costs and reduced downtime more than justify the investment in KVM over IP technology. Sobel agrees, citing the potential for additional savings in staff reduction.
AHS is currently wrapping up the initial deployment and integrating the last sites into the management software, but Flores is already looking to the future of this technology. "I'm working with the network team looking at [remote management of] the network devices," he said, indicating that some network devices can be integrated under the existing management software. "That's something we're going to be evaluating, and if there's value, we'll actually kick off a project around it."
Steve Bigelow is the senior technology writer for SearchDataCenter.com. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org..