Must-have data center utilities: Picks by IT pros

From real-time server graphing to capacity planning and virtual machine backup, these are tools worth checking out.

Not everything is handed to data center managers on a silver platter. Sure, a few administrative tools arrive on freshly produced discs right from the server vendor. But there are some indispensable tools you can get from third parties, open-source providers or even IT colleagues with some extra time to develop apps.

Here's a wide assortment of tools to choose from, and the reasons why data center managers recommend them.

1. Cacti

What is it? The most recommended tool on our list, Cacti, provides real-time graphing and visual cues about the health of a data center. Cacti's front end ties into the open-source monitoring tool RRDtool, which in turn collects data from SQL servers and other components. All the data collected via Cacti is stored in a MySQL database. This setup helps managers monitor performance, server load, temperature and other variables. Its tree structure lets you build reports for specific users.

Who needs it? Data center managers can use Cacti to check server load levels and network performance. For example, IT staffers might use the tool to check the metrics of a specific network switch.

Cacti real-time server graphing

Data center managers can use Cacti to check server load levels and network performance.

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How much does it cost? As with most open-source tools, there is no direct cost for purchasing or using Cacti in the data center, but support and maintenance costs can match those for commercial applications.

Why is it better than the competition? One of the main differentiators with Cacti is that, as with most open-source software, you can find existing scripts and check in with other users about how they use the tool. Cacti also supports benchmark reporting for multiple users.

What are its limitations? As with most open-source tools, you are mostly on your own when it comes to support. And the tool only works in specific scenarios: those data centers running RRDtool with a SQL database. Cacti may be limited in terms of accessing some proprietary server and network architectures.

What do customers say? "We utilize Cacti so we can identify areas to increase efficiency for everything from network paths to power usage to the temperature and humidity of the facility," says Frank Bieser, vice president and CFO of Core NAP, a colocation data center provider in Austin.

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