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Server automation: Nice-to-have or need-to-have?

Cisco and Hewlett-Packard tout automated provisioning as a core feature of UCS and BladeSystem Matrix, but it's unclear whether misized virtual environments find the functionality useful.

A core selling point of new converged infrastructure offerings such as Cisco UCS and Hewlett-Packard's BladeSystem Matrix is the ability to create service profiles and templates, enabling users to quickly add new resources to a cluster.

[With templates], the amount of time, people, test and Q&A all get dramatically reduced.

Jeramiah Dooley,
director of managed services, Peak 10 Inc.

But data center architects remain divided on how useful the capability is, particularly in dense, virtualized server environments.

After some up-front planning, management tools such as the UCS Manager that comes with Cisco's blade chassis and the HP Server Automation software that comes with Hewlett-Packard's BladeSystem Matrix allow administrators to automate provisioning, patching and configuration management. That means administrators don't have to spend as much time on manual set-up tasks and configuring servers individually.

At Peak 10 Inc., a data center operator and managed service provider in Charlotte, N.C., the operational efficiencies promised by service profiles and templates are appealing.

"One of the things we do all the time is add new capacity to a cluster," said Jeramiah Dooley, Peak 10's director of managed services. "That might seem fairly straightforward, but with traditional systems the overall process can take three to five weeks," including the time to order servers, run cables, provision networks and storage, and finally join it to the cluster, he said.

On converged infrastructure systems, all storage and IP and network configurations are set up in advance. "You just put the blade in place and you turn it on," Dooley said, and the task can be achieved by a single person in about 30 minutes. "The ultimate customer deliverable [additional capacity] hasn't changed, but the amount of time, people, test and Q&A all get dramatically reduced."

Templates' value

But data center architects in smaller environments say the value of physical templating features is marginal to them, especially if their data centers are highly virtualized.

Dan Shipley is an operations manager at Supplies Network, a wholesale distributor of imaging and computer supplies in St. Charles, Missouri. Shipley explored the Cisco UCS as part of a data center modernization project but didn't think that UCS Manager's templating capabilities were enough to justify its purchase.

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"If you're virtualized, there's not much difference between physical machines," Shipley said. "All you need is generic cloud compute [resources]," he said. So while Cisco's UCS Manager allows users to set up templates that can automatically assign MAC addresses, storage and the like, "in reality, there's not much of a need for that because [VMware] ESX servers are so generic."

Instead of UCS, Supplies Network purchased new infrastructure based on Hewlett-Packard DL360s connected to a pair of Xsigo I/O Directors via Mellanox ConnectX InfiniBand host card adapters (HCAs). Compared with Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) solutions such as the afore-mentioned Cisco UCS, Shipley believed that Xsigo and InfiniBand had greater maturity and overall lower cost while providing most of the management capabilities of UCS Manager.

Shipley conceded that templating features are indeed important for large enterprises and service providers that constantly add capacity and customers. For SMBs, however, "once you've built your ESX farm, you don't need the capability to be constantly adding new servers."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Alex Barrett, News Director at, or follow @aebarrett on twitter.

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