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Dude, you're getting a control freak

Server management has been evolving at Dell over the years and continues to do so with the PowerEdge 12G server launch. The Dell Remote Access Controller 5 service processor that came out in 2006 was just what the name suggests: a remote access controller that allowed system admins to come in and monitor and manage key aspects of a PowerEdge machine out of band. With the integrated DRAC 6, or iDRAC 6 for short, service processor announced with the PowerEdge 11G servers three years later, the systems management software was completely rewritten by Dell to be agent-less and could deploy the servers and update them without having to put any additional software on the machines.

This may not sound like a big deal, but according to Kevin Noreen, director of Dell systems management marketing, managing the agents that in turn manage the servers can cost approximately $2.6m in a data center full of 10,000 servers over the course of three years. "We look at this as firing the agents," says Noreen.

With the iDRAC 7 coming out with the PowerEdge 12G machines, monitoring servers is now also agent-less in addition to deployment and updating them, explains Noreen. The PowerEdge systems can be babysat and fixed regardless of the state of the hypervisor and/or operating system running on the iron.

Just like with iDRAC 6, iDRAC 7 comes in an Express version, which has a lot more functionality than a baseboard management controller, and an Enterprise version, which has some more bells and whistles aimed at more complex server setups. iDRAC 7 is also able to run Dell's new Lifecycle Controller 2.0 server management tool, which puts all the drivers that you need for a particular machine on flash memory on the iDRAC unit so you can patch from there and not go hunting around for DVDs or files online. This Lifecycle Controller can hook into Microsoft Systems Center or VMware's vCenter consoles so admins can kick off Dell management jobs from these consoles if they want to stay inside these tools.

The media-less updating of Dell servers is not new – that was available with iDRAC 6 – but the autodiscovery of PowerEdge machines as they come online on the network is new. And because of the hooks into vCenter, admins will be able to patch the ESXi hypervisor from within the iDRAC and not have to do so by building a DVD from VMware's patches. You get the patch from VMware, push it out to iDRAC, and tell it to either patch it at a specific time or after the next PowerEdge system reboot.

The new iDRAC 7 controller can juggle over 5,000 different parameters on a PowerEdge system, monitoring the state of all of these components as they operate, and the iDRAC 7 controller now has enough storage capacity that Dell can create a "forever" log that can contain approximately 1 million server events. You can also store the complete system settings, right down to MAC addresses, on the iDRAC controller and if you blow a motherboard, you can move those settings over to another physical server and neither its applications nor the network will know it is not the same physical server when it comes back online. (The two servers will have to have identical iron, of course.)

Noreen says that along with the 12G systems, Dell is trotting out a new release of OpenManage Essentials tools for proactive hardware management. Dell's KACE 1000 management appliances do not do real-time hardware monitoring, but the new OpenManage Essentials will link into these KACE appliances and provide that functionality for Dell's servers, switches, and storage and send status alerts from the iron on up to the KACE appliance. Eventually, says Noreen, OpenManage Essentials will be extended to perform this function for non-Dell data center iron.

The PowerEdge 12G servers, when coupled with the new iDRAC 7 controller, will be able to deploy a server with 86 per cent fewer manual steps and 28 minutes faster, based on comparison tests Dell has done with prior generations of machines against the 12Gs.

Incidentally, Dell has sold 3.5 million servers equipped with iDRAC 6 controllers to date, and it is a big part of the value proposition that Dell uses to peddle its PowerEdgies.

Flash happy

Every server maker is flash-happy these days, and solid-state memory is a big component of any modern server, including the PowerEdge 12G boxes. The new servers are expected to come with Express Flash – the memory modules that plug directly into PCI-Express slots on the server without going through a controller. Depending on the server model, the 12G machines will offer two or four of these Express Flash ports, and a PCI slot will apparently be able to handle up to four of these units, according to Payne. On early tests, PowerEdge 12G machines with Express Flash were able to crank through 10.5 times more SQL database transactions per second than earlier 11G machines without flash.

Dell is also expected to launch data tiering software called Cachecade that automagically moves hot data in a system from cold spinning disks to traditional SAS-based SSDs in the PowerEdge machines.

Finally, Dell is also expected to talk about the sophisticated auto-tiering between the PowerEdge 12G servers and its Compellent disk arrays, which the company says can speed up database application response time by 86 per cent. ®

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