Standards Needed To Weave Server, Storage, Networking Fabric - InformationWeek
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Standards Needed To Weave Server, Storage, Networking Fabric

In a move to promote standards that simplify IT system interoperability, several utility-computing services and software makers have formed the Data Center Markup Language Organization.

As the demand grows for data centers that can operate as IT utilities which respond in real time to business demands, so does the call for standards that help companies weave servers, storage, and networking into a flexible fabric. In a move to promote standards that simplify IT system interoperability, several utility-computing services and software makers have formed the Data Center Markup Language Organization. Makers of blade servers, which are seen as the key platform for utility computing, also are being pushed to further adopt management and design standards.

Most efforts have concentrated on making it easier to manage blade servers from a single vendor. IBM last week introduced its Web Infrastructure Orchestration software, which is designed to automate data-center operations for its Intel-based BladeCenter servers running its WebSphere middleware, DB2 database, and Tivoli Storage Manager software. But steps are being taken to simplify blade server interoperability. Blade server manufacturer RLX Technologies Inc. Wednesday introduced the latest version of its Control Tower XT software, which can manage RLX blades and servers from other vendors in a data center.

Data Center Markup Language will be the cornerstone to building utility-like data centers where all IT components can exchange information, says Steve Lapekas, senior director of hosting services for EDS, one of 25 companies that launched the DCML Organization. Other founding members include Akamai Technologies, Computer Associates International, Mercury Interactive, and Opsware. "With DCML, we're trying to build a language construct that addresses the data center as a whole," says Darrel Thomas, chief technologist of EDS Hosting Services.

The group expects to begin designing the DCML framework in November and to have a DCML specification stable enough to test by early next year. Opsware, which sells data-center management software, already plans next year to ship a DCML-compliant version of its product.

Standards are more important than ever before, Illuminata senior analyst Gordon Haff says. The development of overarching data-center operating systems from Opsware and others implies a higher level of management commonality among different hardware and individual operating systems than what's been available in the past, he says

But the absence of major systems vendors Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Sun Microsystems makes Haff skeptical of the DCML Organization's ability to succeed. "The standardization part isn't rocket science," he says. "It's more of a social challenge in terms of getting all of the people who need to agree to set aside their differences and reach some common ground." IBM was invited to join the organization, but a company spokesman says there already are plenty of standards available to integrate data-center management. "We want to see more detail on what the DCML standard is all about," he says.

As this standards body gets off the ground, blade server sales are poised to grow to more than $4 billion in 2007, up from $300 million this year, according to market research firm Venture Development Corp. To ensure the market continues to expand, business-technology managers need to know that their investments will be protected from radical design and management changes, says Eric Gullicksen, Venture Development's embedded hardware group manager. "If someone comes out with an innovation, and it's not the same guy I bought from, I'm [in trouble]."

Most blade vendors, however, say there's no hurry to create cookie-cutter server designs. "Design commoditization over the next few years would be inherently limiting," says Bob Van Steenberg, chief technology officer and VP of development for blade maker RLX Technologies. RLX recognizes the need for standardized management. Last week, it introduced the latest version of its Control Tower XT software, which can manage not only RLX blades but also other servers in a data center.

Eric French, network manager for Greater Baltimore Medical Center, says he's seeing movement on the part of blade server vendors to adopt management standards. Greater Baltimore plans to by January replace the majority of its data-center operations with HP blade servers. French says he can use HP Insight Manager and OpenView, as well as server provisioning and remote deployment software from Altiris Inc., to keep tabs on not only the HP BL20p blade servers but on Greater Baltimore's IBM Unix-based servers as well. Server vendors "have already stopped thinking about servers only in terms of processors and memory and started seeing them more as tools." IBM ships IBM Director as a uniform management tool for all of its Intel-based servers. Just as Insight Manager hooks into HP OpenView, IBM Director connects directly with the company's Tivoli management software for more expansive capabilities.

Standardization underpins much of the high-volume, low-cost, connect-everything world of today's IT, Haff says. "Blade servers are an anathema for the idea of utility computing. You can't shrink down a 1U [1.75-inch] rack server any further."

Cambridge Health Alliance, a group of health-care facilities in and around Boston, has chosen a blade-server configuration from Egenera Inc. to help cut costs and support the automation of business processes such as scheduling appointments and checking for drug allergies. In July, Cambridge Health finished implementing Egenera BladeFrame blade servers to run its new Epic Systems Corp. ambulatory care suite of software. It's a move that CIO Judy Klickstein hopes will save Cambridge Health up to $1 million in infrastructure and management costs over five years. The Epic software runs the health-care organization's transactions and connects with an Oracle9 database to provide reporting.

The implementation of blade servers and Egenera's Processing Area Network management software will provide the Epic and Oracle software with automatic backup and failover capabilities within the blade server chassis. Egenera's ability to provide automated management of its servers is one of the first steps toward utility computing, but Klickstein and senior systems engineer Steve Dougherty are skeptical of seeing standards anytime soon that would let Egenera provide detailed management of other platforms. "Standards tend to be positioned as a panacea," Dougherty says. "We want to be able to go out and buy the best of breed."

Other times, standards never develop or deliver as promised. "A lot of people are jaded by the standards discussion," Klickstein says. "Look at what happened with Unix."

Standards make the most sense when it comes to the data-center management tools needed to tie together servers, storage, and networking into the much-anticipated utility computing model, Haff says. The management software available today from HP, IBM, Sun, and others can do high-level management--checking CPU use and whether the operating system is up or down, for example--but the ability to dynamically reallocate system resources across different server platforms or create virtual servers requires a level of integration and sophistication not yet available from a single management tool. Says Haff, "None of the systems vendors can manage third-party products with the same thoroughness and depth they can manage their own products."

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