Data centers are growing. There are more applications, more services and more users to service than ever before. At the same time, administrators are expected to provision IT resources more quickly – especially virtual resources – and ensure the availability of those resources as needs change.
It's a difficult balancing act that simply cannot be handled manually, so data centers are adopting some form of systems management to gain insight, facilitate increased automation and support more intelligent (and cost-effective) decisions. But the systems management landscape is changing as tools evolve and become more powerful. Let's consider some of the trends taking place.
The roles of systems management
The adoption of systems management is driven by a variety of factors, but perhaps the biggest is an increasing deployment of server virtualization, which adds a layer of complexity that systems management tools can manage and automate quite well.
"For us, it's server proliferation; both because of growth and virtualization," said Ian Parker, senior Web services administrator for Thomson-Reuters in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "Virtualization means lots more servers, and systems management becomes all the more important."
In fact, a recent data center survey conducted by TechTarget revealed that over 51% of IT professionals want to automate manual processes using systems management software over the next 12 months. Another 22% will adopt tools to help implement virtualization.
But the push behind systems management tools goes even further. Tools can free up IT staff time to pursue more important projects, and more than 45% of respondents want systems management tools for increased staff productivity. Over 24% of survey respondents want tools to help track system performance problems (troubleshooting), and about 17% will use tools to address system configuration challenges.
"We have a large Citrix farm, and the ability to create capacity on demand and have automated, consistent workflows is very interesting to us," Parker said.
Systems management tools are employed to handle a wide range of tasks today. Over 38% of survey respondents report using tools for performance management, more than 26% manage virtualization, over 22% handle capacity management, and almost 21% use tools for change or configuration management. Other respondents report using systems management tools for network management, IT service management, incident management and asset management, among other tasks. The results are hardly a surprise to Parker.
"For us right now, it's about server builds, configuration, and to some extent app deployment," he said. "We want consistent, stable, identical server deployments."
Many users, however, adopt systems management tools to handle multiple tasks such as network issues, patch management, hardware faults, application monitoring, and so on.
Selecting systems management tools
Based on survey data, Microsoft currently leads other systems management vendors with over 48% of respondents opting for tools like System Center Operations Manager (SCOM) and System Center Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM). While the notion of vendor lock-in is anathema to many IT professionals, experts say that Microsoft's influence can have a positive impact on Windows Server shops -- often simplifying the monitoring, maintenance and administration of the environment once it's deployed.
"Microsoft has made a herculean effort to integrate their monitoring suite with the products that they sell," said Chris Steffen, principal technical architect at Kroll Factual Data in Loveland, Colorado. "I think that makes perfect sense for them to do so."
And Parker agrees. "One of the biggest problems with all of these products in the past has been determining the significance of the information that you're getting," he said. "If you can trust Microsoft to vet some of this, that's probably one of the biggest plusses of using their products."
Selecting systems management tools can be a difficult process in itself, and organizations will typically evaluate tools based on their current environment, business needs and technical capabilities. Based on our survey data, 82% of IT professionals consider features and functionality to be the most important selection criteria, while another 50% of respondents consider price most important. Other selection criteria such as integration (22%), ease of installation and use (19%), and a prior relationship with the tool vendor (15%) were also important considerations.
"For me, it would be ease-of-use followed very closely by interoperability," Steffen said. "One of the reasons we went down the management path that we did was because it was really a framework that we could tie in with pretty much any of our monitoring needs into a single pane of glass."
However, just selecting a systems management tool is not enough. An organization must also have the technical expertise to implement and use the tools -- it's a serious technical challenge for smaller organizations that usually opt for simpler "point solutions." But it's also a tough cost justification for many larger businesses that need to achieve all of their monitoring goals within their chosen framework, which can be cumbersome and complex.
"If you're going to go through all the brain damage of setting it up, hopefully it will manage and monitor all of the things in your environment that you need," Steffen said. "If you have to [set it up] multiple times for multiple different products, that's about the worst-case scenario."
While systems management tools are pushing to provide greater integration and heterogeneity, it's important to remember that multiple tools may be required; and even appropriate for your specific environment. The goal is not to hold out for a single ubiquitous tool, but instead select a tool that will accomplish everyday management needs. For example, a systems management tool from the System Center suite may cover all of the basic everyday tasks that administrators require, but it might simply be easier to use a point tool to manage a certain network switch that only needs rare monitoring and management.
The future of systems management
In the future, experts expect to see greater levels of interoperability that allow systems management products to support an increasing variety of devices in the data center. As two examples, Microsoft has already opened SCOM to external management packs and SCVMM supports multi-vendor virtualization platforms like VMware VI3. In addition, management tools should eventually provide more mobility options, allowing administrators to access alerts, dashboards and other management details through mobile devices like iPhones.
But perhaps the most noteworthy direction for systems management tools is an improvement in the intelligence of automation -- allowing tools to make better decisions and implement actions autonomously without the constant overview and tacit approval of human administrators.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephen J. Bigelow, senior features writer, has more than 15 years of technical writing experience in the PC/technology industry. He holds a BSEE, CompTIA A+, Network+, Security+ and Server+ certifications and has written hundreds of articles and more than 15 feature books on computer troubleshooting. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.