Dell AIM automates today's data center

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AIM provides a variety of ways to move server personas around the infrastructure, depending on the source and destination of that particular persona. Take a physical server, a Dell PowerEdge R710, running a Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 persona, for example. That particular persona exists on an iSCSI LUN and needs to be booted on another server -- say, an HP ProLiant. Within the GUI, that persona would be shut down, assigned to either a specific ProLiant system or to a pool of ProLiant servers, and then started.

When the start action is made, the controller sinks its hooks into the management processor of the ProLiant and turns the server on. As part of the integration into AIM, the server has been configured to boot from PXE on the management network interface, and proceeds to do so. The controller sees the PXE request and feeds a specific bootstrap shim to the server that causes the necessary MAC address and, if necessary, Fibre Channel WWNN (World Wide Node Name) changes to take place, then reboots the server again.

The subsequent reboot shifts the PXE boot to the iSCSI LUN, and the RHEL5 persona boots on the HP host. With sufficient prep of that persona, the HP OS agents can be present and utilized alongside the Dell tools, VMware tools, Hyper-V tools, and so forth, so that the persona can feel right at home no matter what host it happens to be running on at the moment.

Several layers of network virtualization may come into play here. A virtual NIC controlled by AIM can be presented to each persona and each required network presented to the OS through that conduit. The server OS remains unaware of the underlying hardware changes and simply sees that it has interfaces that are on the right networks.

In other cases, the persona definitely knows that the underlying hardware has changed, as it may have previously booted on an Intel Westmere-based server, and is now running on an AMD Opteron system. Both Linux and Windows will boot gracefully throughout these changes, although Windows is more prone to the occasional hiccup deriving from significant underlying hardware changes between boots.

Dell AIM: Virtual server management

It's also possible to move personas from physical servers to virtual servers and back again, but there are some key differences in management styles and techniques that need to be understood.

First, within AIM, virtual servers are treated much the same as their physical counterparts. For instance, a vCenter configuration might have several physical hosts in a cluster and many dozens of virtual servers running on that cluster. However, those virtual servers are generic -- they're just resources to be used when a persona needs somewhere to run.

This means that they can't be named in any meaningful way or considered as anything other than a collection of resources. You might have virtual machines named VCVM-2P2G-01 through VCVM-2P2G-20, which might represent 20 virtual servers configured with two vCPUs and 2GB of RAM, while another set of VMs might have two vCPUs and 4GB of RAM. Each of these sets of virtual machines might be organized into specific server pools within AIM, and the personas destined to run on them would then be assigned to whichever pool is best suited to handle their particular workload.

Thus, perusing your VMware infrastructure from vCenter will be somewhat opaque, since there's no concept of what server personas are running on what VM; all that information is kept in the AIM GUI. That said, Dell offers a vCenter plug-in that connects to the AIM controller and displays much more information, including hosts, personas, physical servers, and networks from within the vSphere client. It's a handy way to check on AIM information without leaving the vSphere client, but it's not really a substitute for the AIM GUI.

Integration with Microsoft's Hyper-V and Red Hat Xen is handled the same way as with vSphere. These hypervisor managers are simply repositories of computing resources defined and connected to AIM, allowing AIM to place personas when and where needed.

Dell AIM: A long way to the top

While the end result is quite impressive, it's important to note the realities of converting an existing infrastructure for use with AIM. To put it simply, it's a lengthy process.

Each switch, storage array, physical server, and virtual server in the pre-AIM environment must be discovered by the AIM controller. For switches and storage gear, this is handled by configuring the AIM controller with the IP and authentication information for each of these devices. For existing physical and virtual servers, it means defining the management processor IP, type, and authentication, and providing the same pathways to the virtualization solution management tools.

That's the easy part. The hard part is getting all of the existing physical and virtual servers into AIM. This is a manual step that must be done for each server, physical or virtual.

As with many admin tasks, it's easier on Linux. A Linux server can be turned into a persona by installing a few RPMs and running a script, assuming that the destination LUN has been presented to the server already. The script creates the file system on the LUN and copies everything over. Once that's done, the server exists in AIM as a persona and the physical incarnation can be turned off. Generally, this conversion can be scripted rather easily.

On Windows, creating a persona from a server requires downtime. The server must be booted from a Windows PE-based conversion tool that can then be used to mount an existing LUN or to create the LUN if the destination storage array is a Dell EqualLogic box. Following the LUN creation, definition, and mounting, the tool then copies the server over to the new LUN and inserts the required drivers into the system on the fly. After the conversion process is done, the server exists as a persona in AIM and can be assigned to a physical resource and brought back online.

Dell expects that its customers will require the assistance of Dell engineers to get the solution up and running from scratch, with a handoff to IT admins somewhere down the line. However, the company also thinks it's feasible to automate and streamline the installation process in the future.

As with any data center automation solution, AIM will require a substantial up-front investment, both in terms of budget (the solution starts at $1,810 per socket) and effort. Once you're past that hurdle, a solution such as AIM will significantly improve day-to-day operations of the data center. After all, that's the goal. The only question is whether it's time to take the plunge.

This story, "Dell AIM automates today's data center" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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