Data Center Best Practices

Leading-edge operators and consultants share their tips on building ultraefficient, ultrasecure, and ultrareliable facilities.

J. Nicholas Hoover, Senior Editor, InformationWeek Government

February 28, 2008

5 Min Read

The notion of data center automation has been around for years, but there's still no such thing as a data center that runs with no human intervention. Not that some companies aren't trying.

Even reference customers of innovative vendors are just starting with automation. SunTrust Banks started using BladeLogic six months ago for automated server provisioning and is beginning to use it for automated compliance and management. The infrastructure is fully rolled out, but the automation is in relatively early stages. SunTrust was driven to BladeLogic mainly for cost savings and a need to be more efficient with its time.

Before installing BladeLogic, SunTrust had to manually install all of its server operating systems and manually lay down third-party applications on top of those systems. Now, says Dexter Oliver, VP of distributed server engineering, "you rack a server, you push a button, and then the next button lays on the third-party applications."

Even with BladeLogic in place, there's no way to make sure the installed configurations stay intact once the systems go live, other than through periodic human monitoring. SunTrust's next step is to take products such as WebSphere and WebLogic that have specific configuration needs, build templates for those applications, and provision and maintain those configurations automatically, whether the apps are installed on virtual or physical machines, Windows or Linux.

All that hands-off work frees up people to work on strategic projects, Oliver says. He would like to automate more but says that in order to get there, technologies and methodologies that can integrate the various tools in SunTrust's management toolbox still need to be created. "You've got configuration management databases, you've got this tool that does patching, this tool does monitoring," he says. "That orchestration piece is something that will need to be further developed."

Plenty of others would like to go as far as SunTrust plans to go. Communications technology company Mitel Networks is one. It runs Hewlett-Packard technology that can do scenario testing on workloads for disaster recovery. Mitel would like to proactively manage those workloads. "We originally invested in workload management just for failover scenarios, but we're now looking at it as a way to set up policies and then manage workload automatically," says David Grant, a Mitel data center manager. "We're prepared to invest some time and effort into this because we see our future in the IT space being tied in with this."

Mitel bought into a vision HP calls the Adaptive Enterprise. The company is pushing toward a heavily virtualized environment, aiming to evolve the data center so that "workloads will run where they need to run." It's already easy for Mitel to replicate servers and move virtual workloads around, but the next step is to automate that process.

Server and application provisioning isn't the only automation happening these days, as runtime automation is still going strong. One national insurance company is automating as many processes as it can using Opalis Integration Server. It started automating month-end processes, then moved into early detection and repair of problems, and collection and central storage of audit logs. The month-end processing went from taking 30 people two weeks to do to taking five people a total of three days.

"Our data centers are pretty dark," says Larry Dusanic, the company's director of IT. The insurer doesn't even have a full-time engineer working in its main data center in southern Nevada. Run-book automation is "the tool to glue everything together," from SQL Server, MySQL, and Oracle to Internet Information Server and Apache, he says.

Though Dusanic's organization uses run-book automation to integrate its systems and automate processes, the company still relies on experienced engineers to write scripts to make it all happen. "You need to take the time up front to really look at something," he says. Common processes might involve 30 interdependent tasks, and it can take weeks to create a proper automated script.

One of the more interesting scenarios Dusanic has been able to accomplish fixes a problem Citrix Systems has with printing large files. The insurance company prints thousands of pages periodically as part of its loss accounting, and the application that deals with them is distributed via Citrix. However, large print jobs run from Citrix can kill print servers, printers, and the application itself.

Automation Takeaway

>> Automation isn't fully baked yet, but it's getting there. Provisioning and patch automation should be part of any data center.

>> Run-book automation and virtualization can be used to improve operations and security, and to provide audit trails.

Now, whenever a print job of more than 20 pages is executed from Citrix, a text file is created to say who requested the job, where it's being printed, and what's being printed. The text file is placed in a file share that Opalis monitors. Opalis then inputs the information into a database and load balances the job across printers. Once the task is complete, a notification is sent to the print operator and the user who requested the job. Dusanic says the company could easily make it so that if CPU utilization on the print server gets to a certain threshold, the job would be moved to another server automatically. "If we had a custom solution to do this, it probably would have cost $100,000 end to end," he says.

No data center is perfect, and even the innovative few have their own foibles. For those companies that have already driven down the path of hyperefficient, secure, or automated data centers, there's a lot more to be done. That's the mark of true innovators: never giving up the good fight to stay ahead and keep the competitive edge.

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About the Author(s)

J. Nicholas Hoover

Senior Editor, InformationWeek Government

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