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Server management grows up

Market leaders forced to evolve products to meet changing demand in today's virtual data centers

By Denise Dubie

Server management software not too long ago was considered a mature -- and in some cases stagnant -- technology, but with x86 server virtualization on the rise, the market is set to transform.

"The [server management] market is fast evolving in two directions: agentless and automated solutions for the collection of performance data and failure analysis; and the management of the virtualized environment," says Jean-Pierre Garbani, a research director with Forrester Research who recently assessed the server management market in a report. "As virtualization gains ground in the data center, so will new management solutions. Virtualization will create problems that will need to be solved by an evolution of server management."

Server management today involves more than pinging a box for availability. Enterprise IT managers must be on top of the server's physical health, its power consumption, its real estate in the data center and the number of virtual tenants it is hosting at any given time. Server management requires IT managers to understand the state of the physical box as well as ensure the performance of applications, operating systems and virtual machines running on the box. And oftentimes systems administrators are required to do all this on multiple machines and from a distance.

"My existing management tools work just as well in virtual servers as any other. The difference, however, is you don't have the advantage of seeing the whole machine and manipulating that in the same tools you do the virtual machines," says Edward Christensen, director of technical operations at in Chicago. The online automotive company uses VMware to virtualize servers on HP boxes in its development and quality-assurance environments. "I have to say managing virtual servers is more complex," he adds.

The server management market, estimated by Forrester Research to reach $404 million in 2007 (up 3% from 2006), will change in the next few years first to reflect the push toward virtualization. While most vendors have already released products designed to monitor VMware or Linux-based Xen virtual machines alongside physical servers, the feature sets will get more advanced as virtualization expands to larger deployments and moves more into production networks.

Industry watchers say existing management tools from market-leading vendors BMC, CA, HP and IBM can collect metrics and monitor availability on virtual servers today, but the vendors will have to increase capabilities to tackle performance management across multiple virtual and physical servers. And they will face competition from start-ups such as PlateSpin, Scalent Systems, Veeam and Vizioncore, which emerged in the past few years to target virtual server management.

"From a monitoring perspective, existing tools can collect and display management data from virtual machines – but the real trick is coming up with the intelligence to analyze all that data effectively," says Jasmine Noel, a principal analyst at Ptak, Noel and Associates. "Some start-ups may do that better because they focus all of their resources on virtualization."

Expressing server management

A second evolution of the tools will incorporate the ease of use and lower price points IT managers are demanding. The big four vendors -- BMC, CA, HP and IBM – and others work to offer "express" versions of their products and break down huge product suites into easy-to-deploy applications, vendors such as ASG, Compuware, Heroix, Indicative, Microsoft, NetIQ and Quest Software will also be looking to take advantage of customer demand for lower-cost alternatives to the big four.

"One of the main issues behind server management has been the difficulty in deploying and configuring agents," Garbani says.

To start, vendors will be challenged to adopt updated product architectures that require less manual work to install the software. BMC, CA, HP and IBM are working to revamp their server management wares to take on virtual environments, as traditional methods of managing systems become too cumbersome in dynamic environments. For instance, many server management products in the past required IT managers to distribute agents to managed machines -- a laborious and time-consuming process.

Now vendors offer agentless software options that can monitor traffic and use industry-standard protocols such as ICMP, SNMP and SMASH to accomplish the same tasks. BMC, for one, already offers BMC Performance Manager software, which includes agentless technologies. Vendors should adopt tools that can determine when and where an agent is needed, automatically distribute the agent without systems administrator intervention and self-configure the agent to best manage the target machine, Forrester's Garbani says.

"For large vendors to maintain market shares, they must overcome typical obstacles to server management by removing clumsy and resource-hungry agents, providing self-configuration of critical thresholds, integrating with event management and service-level management dashboards for failure analysis, and automating the deployment of products," Forrester's Garbani concludes.

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