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Communication Pressures

07 July 2007

The growth of remote working and associated smart communications tools puts pressure on even the
smallest computer room. Marc Marazzi offers some advice on how to manage the growing demands on
bandwidth from video, voice and data

THE WIDESPREAD PROLIFERATION OF SMART PHONES, Blackberries, instant messaging, IP telephony and email as legitimate business communication channels is putting more pressure on IT resources. As a result, data centre managers and facilities staff are faced with increased responsibility for managing these business-critical applications with often no extra budget to support it, forcing them to take drastic action to achieve the balance they need. Any data centre, regardless of whether it is a small computer room or large enterprise facility, must address this issue.

The stretching of resources is inevitable and is likely to continue for the foreseeable future as recent events have demonstrated. Last year, sudden changes to carriage regulations at BAA airports snarled-up business traffic entering and leaving the UK. The net result was that the convenience of air travel was called into question by many but, regardless of whether businesses continue to fly staff to meetings or not, there has been an impact on IT resources and facilities.

If companies opt to restrict people from flying because it is deemed to be inefficient, they may well turn to bandwidth-hungry online video and conferencing collaboration tools. On the other hand, if they decide to continue allowing people to travel, staff will need guaranteed remote access to systems from the departure lounge. The circumstances surrounding the introduction of these regulations may be exceptional, but they clearly illustrate the challenge faced in more and more data centres.

But how many organisations are equipped to support such demands? Not only is there an issue of providing the bandwidth to handle video, voice and data, there is also the knock-on effect of managing these resources alongside the regular demands of the network. This places a massive strain on resources, both in terms of people and controlling the conditions within environments such as the data centre.

This pressure for home working continues to grow. Just two or three years ago, only a few people would work from home, but rising business overheads are making the prospect of a remote workforce even more appealing. However, managing the remote access of systems for 40, 50 or even several hundred employees is a very different proposition altogether, especially when those individuals will also have multiple means of accessing the infrastructure. Regardless of the disparate locations of staff, organisations need consolidated, centralised management facilities in order to run the infrastructure effectively. The security implications associated with these trends are, in themselves, a major challenge for both the IT team and facilities manager to overcome, but one which must be addressed.

Convergence of technologies is an example of how the security issue is being accentuated. Take the emergence of IP infrastructures, carrying both network and communications applications simultaneously, for example. Due to the evolution of blade technology, it's now commonplace for one cabinet to contain servers for multiple business-critical applications. If these servers require regular physical access, there is an inherent risk that the person responsible for IP networking could, inadvertently or deliberately, compromise the availability of the telephony system and viceversa.

Under such circumstances, there are a number of key factors influencing the growth in popularity of centralised, remote management tools. For example, with more servers and serial devices to control, remote management enables administrators to gain secure, centralised systems access from any location through a standard web interface. The ability to identify and resolve issues without requiring a physical presence in the computer room or data centre, has a significant impact on response times and helps IT and facilities managers to meet the business' growing demand for real-time resolution.

The question of who should have access to what in the computer room or data centre is growing in importance thanks, in no small part, to the demands of regulatory compliance. However, the true extent to which remote management technologies can resolve the issue has yet to be explored to any great extent. The ultimate goal of data centre and facilities managers is to create a lights-out scenario, controlled remotely and without any need for physical access, but there have been a number of stumbling blocks in attempts to achieve this.

The extent of the back-house systems required in order to support these facilities and their associated management tools can have serious implications on the environmental conditions of the computer room. And there's no doubt that the growth in popularity of high-density blade servers is playing a major part in this. Such deployments increase the infrastructure's capacity but they also have a huge impact on the ambient temperature of the facilities and the cooling measures required in order to keep the system up and running. To further compound this, blades are now being shipped and / or deployed in pre-configured racks, custom-built to maximise available space in the data centre or computer room, but leaving no place for conventional server management tools such as at-the-rack KVM switches.

Because of this, there is a growing demand for environmental monitoring facilities, especially granular tools such as IPMI. Already embedded within a significant proportion of the servers currently being shipped and implemented in the data centre, it remains a largely untapped resource. However, as blade servers become increasingly common place, the ability for administrators to exploit this functionality and gain greater control will play a key role in managing servers and maintaining availability. Facilities and IT staff need to know about potential problems before they impact business and hardware monitoring, both internal and external to the server, enables more proactive computer room management.

The future role of IPMI may not just be limited to monitoring components of the IT infrastructure. There is a compelling case for introducing embedded monitoring capabilities into other elements of the data centre to increase the level of control that can be exercised over its non-tech components. For example, to attain true 'lights-out' status, it is essential that the IT and facilities manager is able to control every aspect of the facilities without physical intervention.

But how does that individual know if the air conditioning units are on the verge of a major malfunction? They will be able to proactively monitor every aspect of the IT infrastructure but will have no insight into the status of the cooling facilities which are a fundamental factor in keeping systems up and running. Typically, air conditioning is managed by facilities rather than IT but, should embedded monitoring capabilities be introduced to this vital aspect of the data centre environment, it would be a significant step closer to the lights-out infrastructure. And the same approach could be adopted for other aspects, such as the internal conditions of server racks and CCTV.

Developments of this nature would add a further level of control and reduce the financial cost of downtime. The range of issues that can be resolved remotely is such that only a hardware failure should result in the need for physical entry into the computer room or data centre environment. Using remote management tools enables organisations to restrict access to authorised personnel in these circumstances, but it also creates audit trails to support businesses in compliance with regulations such as Sarbanes Oxley and Basel II. By providing a company standard portal to manage every network device, it also forces people to go through certain processes, thereby facilitating further compliance with standards such as ITIL.

One of the other critical areas that IT and, more frequently, FMs need to examine is how they go about resourcing at a human level. We've already established that budgets are likely to shrink, making additional staff recruitment highly unlikely. Instead, proof of expertise is likely to be required in the form of training and certification of staff, with access, roles and responsibilities determined by relative, accredited skill sets. It's highly advisable at this stage to look at the various accreditation schemes offered by vendors and service providers and to plan resources accordingly.

Shrinking budgets and increased levels of responsibility for business critical applications are causing organisations to re-evaluate their systems and resources. The flexibility of remote management technologies, both in terms of supporting future expansion and the development of new applications, the ability to increase data centre security and monitor environmental conditions of the computer room could provide them with a cost effective, longterm strategic solution to support the ongoing management of the infrastructure.

....Marc Marazzi is EMEA director of marketing at Avocent, manufacturer of connectivity and management solutions for enterprise data centres, branch locations and small to medium size businesses worldwide.

Link: Avocent

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