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Converged hardware battle masks systems management war

As data center upgrades occur, systems management is the Trojan horse in converged hardware.

As Cisco, Hewlett-Packard and other hardware powers try to grab more of the data center IT budget with their fancy converged hardware, the real, somewhat hidden, battle is playing out in systems management software.

More of these hardware folks -- and let’s include storage kingpin EMC in that mix -- are putting more pieces of the overall systems management puzzle into their data center hardware.

While putting management Trojan horses into servers, networking gear and storage is not new, the scale is bigger and the stakes are higher as more businesses look to revamp their data centers for broader efficiencies or for a full-fledged cloud computing push, IT pros said.

Whereas in the past, a data center would update storage, servers and routers as each component hit its end of life, more companies are considering converged hardware. In that process, the bundled systems management piece may be the deciding factor, said an executive with a large Midwest IT integrator who requested anonymity because he is allied with several of the players.

While it’s early to say which converged platforms have momentum (Cisco’s Unified Compute System and HP’s Matrix products debuted less than two years ago) , more businesses are asking about those offerings  and specifically about their integrated systems management.

"A lot of it is coming down to the management software. People really like UCS Manager [for example] versus HP Insight Manager or IBM’s Tivoli stuff. It's got the cool factor," he noted. Customers see it as newer, more modern and more network-focused than the legacy systems management offerings, he said.

This integrator recently completed an RFP for a large customer that was weighing an HP, IBM, Cisco decision, and Cisco UCS got the nod, largely because of its management software, he said.

HP is a systems management legacy player with its OpenView franchise (now part of HP’s BTO management lineup), but more to the point, it bundles Insight Manager with all of the gazillion servers it sells; EMC is pushing Ionix with storage; VCE’s vBlocks ship Ionix’s Unified Infrastructure Manager (UIM); and Cisco UCS would not be UCS without Cisco UCS Manager.

“Management is where the real battle is. These vendors are competing to manage all these ‘things,’” said Leigh Carpenter, solutions architect manager for Nth Generation, a San Diego-based HP partner.

She would add still more players into the systems management melee. “Look at Oracle, VMware, BMC, CA, HP … they’re all after the management piece because that’s where there’s real opportunity to get people to adopt a standard and own that management. People are desperate for a one-window view to monitor and manage everything,” she noted.

What about the Big Four?
Clearly, the Big Four legacy systems management players -- CA, BMC, IBM (with Tivoli) and HP (with BTO) are knee deep in this. And the two companies without hardware franchises -- CA and BMC -- are really in the spotlight.

Some see this lack of hardware as an advantage for them because they can continue to tout hardware agnosticism. 

While more management may ship with each piece of hardware, the overall complexity of data centers is not really going down and that leaves an opening for the BMCs and CAs of the world, said Dennis Drogseth, VP of Enterprise Management Associates.

“Generally, innovations in infrastructure hardware that make it more dynamic and more cross-domain accelerate the requirements for better service management, and that’s why vendors like CA and BMC -- and IBM and HP for that matter -- are becoming more important,” Drogseth added. “If people claim that all of systems management is buried in the infrastructure [hardware], they’re just wrong. Smart infrastructure, just like a smart child, creates its own problems.”

The whole notion of getting one hardware and systems management vendor plays into the one-throat-to-choke argument that large IT vendors like to make. Whether many  customers actually buy into that notion remains questionable. Some like the idea of getting all their data center gear, support and services from one player. Many others think that scenario gives that one vendor way too much control over pricing and support negotiations.

Bernd Harzog, CEO of research firm APMExperts, said HP, Cisco and others had better do a great job managing their own dynamic environments because that’s table stakes here. “But the  prospect for any one of them succeeding in the broad systems  management world isn’t good. No one will trust a hardware maker to manage someone else’s hardware well.”

CA has done a good job refreshing its portfolio for cloud computing, buying Nimsoft and otherwise updating its mainframe legacy.

Still many in the IT community think the old 80/20 rule applies. Their view is that the management that comes with data center hardware will do much of what customers need without incurring the heavy cost burden of third-party systems management. And that could really ding those companies that specifically focus on systems management.

Systems management: The “other” category
VMware is another player with a huge stake here. It wants to be “the” systems management provider for all the customers using its virtualization. And in that world there’s also a range of third parties -- Veeam, Quest, Zenoss, vKernel and others -- that provide other infrastructure management pieces. Above them there’s a whole set of application management vendors. This profusion of players with often-overlapping capabilities leads to confusion and represents a “full employment act” for analysts and consultants that know the lay of the land, one of those analysts joked.

Microsoft’s Systems Management Center suits Windows islands within larger heterogeneous shops but is not seen as a data center management play, observers said. Having said that, those Windows islands can be huge and Microsoft has shown some willingness to acknowledge the presence of non Windows software. It bought Opalis to gain entry into non Windows realms and 2012 versions of Microsoft management products will pull together more cross-platform capabilities. Betas for these products are likely due in March.

 Systems Center VMM, for example, will manage VMware, so Microsoft is starting to “get” cross-platform management, said Dave Sobel, CEO of Evolve Technologies, a Windows-Centric MSP based in Fairfax, Va.

In general, however, it looks like Microsoft’s systems management tools running all those desktop tools will continue to feed into the bigger all-enveloping systems management offerings.

IT pros will continue to watch this battle carefully as more data center refreshes continue. The bottom line for vendors and customers alike, according to a VP for a large New England integrator is: “If you own the management piece, you own the customer.”

Let us know what you think about the story; email Barbara Darrow, senior news director. Also, check out our blogs: Data Center Facilities Pro, Mainframe Propeller Head, and Server Farming.

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