DCIM vendors' promises vs. data center realities

Weigh the cost, integration and staffing implications of DCIM to make a smart buy and put DCIM's monitoring and analytical capabilities to work.

DCIM tools capture a more holistic view of data center functions than IT admins have ever had, but DCIM vendors and products need time to mature -- as does IT's relationship with facilities management teams.

As IT systems increase in density, power and complexity, power consumption and cooling become more difficult to manage. "IT traditionally has had little to no visibility into or control over power and cooling systems," said Steve Brasen, managing research director at Enterprise Management Associates.

Data center infrastructure management (DCIM) tools extend traditional data center management functions into physical facility assets, such as heating and cooling systems and uninterruptable power supply (UPS) systems. IT can see how much bandwidth a server is using, as well as how much power it consumes.

DCIM products include dashboards that display real-time utilization, letting IT admins respond immediately to a system in danger of experiencing a heat or power problem. Capturing historical power and cooling data enables managers to examine data center capacity and performance, and proactively address shortcomings. For example, identifying an overtaxed HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system and choosing to upgrade it.

DCIM tools help deliver a more complete view of systems' costs to executives. Energy and equipment expenditures are tied to specific business applications, not simply to the data center. DCIM helps translate the potential impact of any upgrades, expenditures or changes.

Finally, staff can be used more efficiently. Pooling the IT and facility teams eliminates duplicate jobs and simplifies the troubleshooting process.

Positive outlook, fragmented market

Despite purported benefits, the DCIM market is not mature. Over 50 suppliers sell DCIM systems, noted Rhonda Ascierto, an analyst at 451 Research. Emerson Network Power's Trellis and Schneider Electric's StruxureWare are early market leaders, but a great deal of jockeying is expected as the market takes flight.

Not all DCIM vendors will make it on their own; some -- possibly the one you partner with for your enterprise -- will go out of business or be purchased. "Frankly, I am surprised that there haven't been more acquisitions already," Ascierto said.

That possibility looms on the horizon, where large IT management companies -- such as BMC Software Inc., HP and IBM -- have been lurking. These vendors have the resources needed to acquire a DCIM company. When they move in -- which analysts view as inevitable -- there probably will be a period of market upheaval. IT shops may lose the personal connections they developed with their DCIM vendor and find themselves dealing with strangers, new pricing models and new technologies. Smaller independent DCIM providers may fall behind the bigger combined companies.

If businesses want to take advantage of data center infrastructure management's potential benefits as soon as possible, they can expect vendor instability and volatility. If your organization is not in a rush to reap these advantages, wait for the DCIM market to shake out a bit. It should eventually become clearer how the IT and facility systems will be melded and which vendors will lead that transformation.

Adoption obstacles

DCIM adoption faces other, internal obstacles, as well. IT processes must catch up to achieve the integration potential touted by DCIM vendors. Today, these tools are largely used in stand-alone deployments.

"Most companies put a DCIM tool in to monitor a specific element -- say, a UPS system. Very few corporations have integrated their power, cooling and IT systems," Ascierto said.

Integration requires a lot of work. "IT systems are designed to move information in a digital format and rely on the TCP/IP protocol; building systems work with analog network protocols, like [Building Automation and Control Network] and LonWorks," explained Greg Johnson, director of data center software at Schneider Electric Inc.

Bridges need to connect the two, starting at the network layer. Once information moves between the management systems, data needs to be translated into standard formats. IT relies on Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) to transmit bandwidth utilization and other performance indicators. Building systems rarely support SNMP. DCIM adoption awaits standards and software that translate building performance information into formats that IT management systems understand.

Translation of building performance data to formats for IT management systems is evolving slowly, and enterprises often find few or no common building blocks between their facilities management and IT systems management mechanisms.

Such work has been done on an ad hoc basis by partnerships between DCIM vendors. For instance, Schneider Electric has integrated its StruxureWare system with IBM's Tivoli systems and network management tool. Although beneficial, such initiatives eat up vendors' product development resources, and DCIM suppliers have a lot to do. In addition to the IT systems integration work, products need to function on mobile devices, like tablets and smartphones.

Marrying facilities and IT systems creates new managerial issues, as well. Typically, the building management group and the data center team have kept their distance. "There has been some tension between the two groups at times," acknowledged Schneider Electric's Johnson.

As the DCIM market gains traction, the two need to work more closely. In the long term, IT and facilities will eventually merge in many companies.

About the author:
Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer who specializes in data center issues. He has been writing about technology for more than two decades, is based in Sudbury, MA, and can be reached at paulkorzen@aol.com.

This was first published in May 2014

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