Lights out management - still waiting for the bulb to glow

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My extant APC infrastructure is definitely looking like the limiting factor on my ability to build a simple and low-cost LOM for my network. If I want to manipulate any of my APC gear, it looks like my only simple options are SSH or being stuck using the web interface. Anything else is SNMP. SNMP leads me into the second stage of this quest: finding a centralised management tool to run my LOM setup. The problem I run right into here is that, so far as I know, there are absolutely no tools out there dedicated strictly to LOM. Every piece of software I can find that incorporates LOM capabilities is backed onto a much larger desktop management application. What’s worse, the LOM capabilities are often treated as an afterthought; the applications focus far more heavily on monitoring or application/operating system deployment.

Desktop management is obviously a sector that a lot of companies hope to make an absolute killing on. (This is amusing, given the steady rise of VDI.) The information available from most commercial desktop managers has many buzzwords and happy, fluffy phrases that say absolutely nothing of value. The only signal you can extract from the noise is that you are getting exactly nowhere until you talk to a sales rep.

As the worst offender, I point the finger at Symantec on this. I know for a fact that their Altiris gear can do everything I need it to do, but what products exactly I need, and how much I will be paying for the privilege were impossible to determine. I could spend an entire day looking over that website trying to extract usable information, but after about 45 minutes I gave up and relegated Symantec back to the “thanks but no thanks” category for the next five years. Provide information without the requirement of salespeople or I will simply move on, thank you.

As a notable contrast, Dell’s KACE website was fabulous. I could quickly and easily find every scrap of information I wanted, and they even had a “chat with a live pre-sales rep” button. This connected me with some wetware able to quickly and easily answer my questions, for which I must admit to being mightily impressed. A little bit of snooping around the website reveals that they apparently offer an enormous range of desktop management and desktop deployment toys that I now covet. Sadly, all the cool toys I want are spread out over multiple different appliances and they are simply priced out of reach.

Equally disappointing was that while these KACE appliances do support the WOL I need for this project, they support neither my APC gear, nor vPro. Still, they get kudos for an excellent website that was simply head and shoulders above the clouds of obfuscation offered by the competition. The place of honour for the open source centralised monitoring and management crowd is split for me between Nagios and Zenoss. They are both absolutely fantastic network monitoring tools, and they will stunningly actually talk to my APC equipment. Sadly, while you can use either product to built alert or event triggers to try to make your network more self-healing, neither offers much in the way of default options or templates for this.

Furthermore, they don’t incorporate WOL (unless you use an external executable and an event script you write yourself), and there is simply no way to integrate any remote access tools. Whether it be vPro, VNC, RDP or Teamviewer, there is simply no integration of remote control facilities in these products. Both are spectacular at telling you when something has gone wrong, they simply have little emphasis on do anything about it. Sadly it looks as though if I want to go open source, I’m having to use alternate tools to do the actual out of band management portion, placing the open source tools firmly outside the realm of practicability for s project dedicated to LOM.

This brings me to Microsoft’s System Center suite of applications. Configuration Manager (SCCM), Operations Manager (SCOM), Data Protection Manager (SCDPM), Service Manager (SSSM), Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM) and Essentials (SCE). There is also Opalis in this family, but I’ll admit to knowing absolutely nothing about that one. All Systems Center applications naturally bear a cost for the server software, as well as CALs for each machine. (Anyone getting the feeling that Microsoft really wants to charge you a lot to manage you servers?) Of the System Center suite, three applications can integrate with vPro, and are probably the most common applications in use to do so today.

SCCM has been quoted to me several times as the answer to nearly every desktop or server management problem I could imagine. A few days after I’d gotten over the fairly sharp learning curve, I am reluctantly beginning to agree. The cost is fairly high (especially for server management licences) and it isn’t winning any cross platform awards, but it does do a fairly good job of helping you manage your network. As you might expect, SCCM integrates nicely with remote management applications, as well as other System Center applications.

If you can swallow the cost, SCCM has absolutely excellent WOL support, good SNMP and is extensible via a plug-in framework that is nicely filled in by “the Microsoft ecosystem”. Quest Software leads the pack here. If you are looking for software to support your LOM project, you’ve found it. The last time I touched this product, it was still “System Management Server” and I was fairly underwhelmed by its capabilities. Today, I’m absolutely blown away not only by SCCM, but the entire System Center suite.

Well, almost the whole suite. The exception is Microsoft System Center Essentials (SCE), which is, compared to its bigger brethren, painfully crippled. It has no WOL support, limited remote management, terrible reporting abilities and no plug-in functionality to speak of. It might be marginally useful for SME work, but it won’t do proper LOM.

Frankly, there are open source tools that do almost everything it can better and cheaper. If you can stump up for the full suite of grown-up System Center applications, do so, but SCE just isn’t worth the time or the money. So what am I going to do to finish up my LOM project? I don’t have the funds to fork out for the System Center suite, and the open source community has failed to come up with the right shaped peg for this particular hole. I could do it by hand with the simple tools I found, but I actually did find an alternative. After much research, and many different attempts at implementation, I learned one lesson that will encompass my entire next article. It’s called Spiceworks. ®

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