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Settle unanswered questions about your DCIM system

Researching DCIM can trigger a lot of questions. Here's how to evaluate DCIM tools to avoid post-purchase remorse.

Your DCIM system might be basic or big. Either way, you shouldn't be running a data center today without it.

Even after your organization chooses a data center infrastructure management (DCIM) tool, plenty of questions remain. In fact, you may have more questions after you select a product than you did before.

It's not easy to determine if DCIM software will accomplish what you're expecting, or if it will provide the information you need instead of volumes of data you can't really decipher or use. There will be problems, surprises and complexities.

The big deal about starting small

DCIM has been a buzzword in the industry for years, but interestingly, it still can't be precisely defined. There's no particular way to outline what constitutes a good DCIM, no simple way to determine what would be best for your operation and no formula for how much effort a system will require to operate.

Generally, DCIM is thought of as the gathering of IT and building facilities functions within an organization. Its goal is to provide admins with a comprehensive examination of a data center's performance, so that energy, equipment and floor space are used at optimal efficiency. Some organizations have had tremendous success with their DCIM implementations. Others have some degree of post-purchase remorse, finding they didn't know enough when they took the leap.

The most comprehensive DCIM packages allow you to start relatively small -- say, with power measurements and power usage effectiveness tracking -- and then add capabilities modularly as you get more comfortable with using the information. It takes time and experience to know what features will be most useful, so it's not a great idea to buy too much at once.

Keep in mind that DCIM won't be the answer to every problem, and it could even add to your difficulties. For example, watching temperature and humidity is basic. Adding the capability of monitoring your cooling equipment to predict potential problems is valuable, but it's a complex feature to implement.

It's not easy to determine if DCIM software will accomplish what you're expecting, or if it will provide the information you need instead of volumes of data you can't really decipher or use.

Strategically placed sensors are relatively easy to install, especially with the amount of wireless technology now available. Measuring water flow, fluid pressures, pump vibration and other mechanical pickups requires equipment shutdowns and heavy work to integrate. Even incorporating the masses of data available through IP connections to air conditioners can be daunting.

Much of that data is there for manufacturers to track performance and failures, and each device delivers it in its own format. The DCIM system needs to parse the data, and integrate it with the monitors from the rest of the mechanical chain, to deliver useful information. The most comprehensive packages should have software modules prewritten for the most popular computer room air conditioning units and computer room air handlers, but it requires a lot of custom configuration. Still, having a system that will watch for mechanical anomalies -- and alert you to impending failures before they occur -- can be extremely valuable, especially in lower-tier facilities that can't depend on redundancy to keep going.

Inventory tracking almost seems out of place in a system that evolved from managing power and cooling, but this feature can be a useful part of a DCIM package. It takes staff time to implement but once it's in place, it can practically maintain itself -- especially when radio frequency identification tags or other autosensing approaches are included.

Knowing what hardware you have, how old it is and where it's located or been moved to can save a lot of tracking time. When it's integrated with data from the internal monitors in modern servers, it can be invaluable. You might identify equipment with decreasing utilization, be able to investigate why and repurpose that equipment or its applications. You may even choose to shut it down.

The magic word is data. It's necessary, but it can be overwhelming. Do we really want more of it?

What most differentiates one DCIM system from another is what it does with that mass of data, what kinds of information it gives back, and how useful, easy to access and coherent the information is.

A good test is whether a data-savvy IT person, who has not been specifically trained on the system, can recognize and act on a major alarm quickly and without assistance. If not, the graphical user interface logic is questionable. A trained specialist is rarely around when problems hit. Minor alarms -- if properly defined -- and predictions of failing equipment are rightfully the province of a specialist, but major alarms should be actionable by anyone qualified to be in the data center in the first place.

During a product demonstration, have the sales engineer simulate a major problem, then call on a staffer to step forward and diagnose it -- without assistance. If a DCIM product is overly complex or the functions and displays aren't intuitively obvious, shop around for another product.

Support will matter

It's a challenge to deploy DCIM, but you'll need to plan for what comes after you've got the system up and running. For this, support will be essential.

Like anything else, a DCIM system is great when everything's running right. But when it isn't, or when you need to make changes, the amount and quality of help you get, for how long and at what cost, is crucial.

Good support for configurations, upgrades, troubleshooting and ongoing operational training should all be included in the maintenance cost. And there should be a quick escalation path to the best people. Don't waste time with someone who's just reading a script, giving you directions off a screen and not really listening. Your DCIM-trained people are IT professionals. They should be talking to other professionals -- not to the equivalent of robots.

Try a vendor's help desk before buying. See how many menus you need to navigate, and who you're talking or messaging with once you get through. Nothing is worth your investment if maintenance is a convoluted, time-consuming challenge.

Ultimately, DCIM should become as normal in a data center as power supplies, air conditioners and servers. But it's probably more difficult to select and implement correctly than any of those other elements.

Vendors will make many promises, and they'll try to dazzle you throughout the sales cycle. But if you are thorough in your research, chances are you'll end up with a product that meets your needs and that you can use effectively.

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