May 17, 2005

Vendors add Linux systems management functions

Author: Paul Korzeniowski

Increasingly, corporations are turning to Linux servers to support important business applications such as customer relationship management, enterprise resource planning, ecommerce, supply chain management, and Web sites. As the operating system becomes the foundation for these vital applications, administrators need system management tools that outline how well the servers are performing and pinpoint the source of any performance problem.

Vendors understand users' desires for delivering these tools, but their attempts to meet that need have produced mixed results. "There certainly are more systems management tools for Linux today than there were a few years, but none of the tools meet all users' desires," said Sam Elliott, a research manager at International Data Corp. Elliott cites tools such as BMC Software's Patrol, Computer Associates International's Unicenter, Compuware's Vantage, Hewlett-Packard Co.'s OpenView, Heroix's eQ Management Suite, and IBM's Tivoli.

One of the challenges system management software vendors face in meeting users' needs is the vast array of possible problem spots. They start with items such as how much power a device is receiving, and work their way up to how quickly a database management system can process an ecommerce transaction. Users find that the tools can help with basic management functions, such as whether a device is working, but fall short of telling them whether their database management system needs to be tuned.

Hardware lies at the foundation of the management pyramid, and the management functions, which consist of items such as the performance of power supplies, fans, voltage monitors, and system temperature regulators, have been improving. One reason for the improvement is that vendors have been working on ways to collect performance data and pass it to system management tools via standard interfaces, such as Intelligent Platform Management Interface (IPMI). Developed by Intel Corp. and supported by hardware vendors such as Dell Computer, HP, and NEC Corp., IPMI is implemented at the silicon level and uses a baseboard management controller to capture performance data and send it along to various management applications.

Administrators need other tools to monitor whether all of the different hardware components have the resources needed to complete their functions. These tasks include monitoring CPU utilization, setting thresholds for memory usage, examining file reads and writes, and deducing how well a CPU is handling multi-threaded transactions. Traditionally, there have not been a lot of these tools available for Linux, but that has been changing recently. "As Linux has become a more viable commercial product, vendors have turned their attention to building more effective systems management tools for it," said Cameron Haight, research vice president at Gartner, Inc.

As they have looked to expand their system management support for Linux, some vendors tried to leverage work done with other operating systems. Because there is a lot of similarity between Unix and Linux, certain suppliers ported their Unix tools over to Linux. Compuware tried that route but didn't think it was viable. "We found that the differences between Linux and any version of Unix were so great that it made more sense for us to go back, start from scratch, and build a tool for Linux than it did for us to fine tune one of Unix implementations for Linux," said Jeff Ventura, product manager at Compuware.

Because vendors have offered systems management tools for different operating systems for different periods of time, the richness of information that administrators can collect about an operating system can vary significantly. IDC's Elliott said that administrators are able to collect information from other operating systems more easily than from Linux.

One reason is that Linux does not feature as much inherent internal monitoring functions as other operating systems. "The goal with Linux is to keep its kernel small and fast," said Sam Greenblatt, vice president at Computer Associates. "Meeting that objective means it does not offer as much collection metrics as other operating systems." In order to collect that information, users have the option of adding applications, such as online transaction processing monitors like BEA's Tuxedo and IBM's CICS, on top of an operating system, but there aren't a lot of those products available for Linux and they carry a hefty price tag.

In addition to the hardware functions, there are also software housekeeping tasks that Linux must undertake, such as patch management, which is undertaken to fix inefficiencies or plug security holes in an operating system. Distributions also need a quick and easy way to install new system software and device drivers. Gradually, systems management vendors have been enhancing their products, so they offer more of these types of functions to Linux users; for instance, BMC has worked with Red Hat to ease deployment of any patches that have to be made to its distribution.

To handle such items, hardware vendors developed management tools that work with their computers and recently began porting them to various Linux distributions. IBM's Director software and Dell's OpenManage system management products now run on Linux.

System management does not stop at the server. As companies deploy more applications and the volume of data being stored increases, corporations need to monitor their disk storage as well as their system resources. This has been becoming a more difficult challenge with the advent of more efficient disk storage techniques, such virtualization, where a variety of different servers share storage subsystems. As a result, system management tools need to be enhanced to track the performance of sophisticated features such as application partitioning. For instance, IBM's Tivoli Storage Manager integrates data backup and archiving functions into its systems management suite.

As companies have moved to Web applications, the variety of devices on the front and back ends of a transaction and the volume of data being generated has increased dramatically. Traditionally firms added new technicians every time a new device was added to the IT infrastructure, according to Gartner Group's Haight. "Currently, firms are under pressure to cut costs and most are trying to cut rather than add staff," he said.

Vendors have developed ways for companies to consolidate management functions. Traditionally, IT departments manage their servers individually, but now, tools like BMC's Patrol, Computer Associates' Unicenter, Compuware's Vantage, HP's OpenView and Heroix's eQ Management Suite, and IBM's Tivoli offer them the ability to oversee Linux, Windows, and Unix systems from a single console.

The tools have been moving away from monitoring discrete items, such a server or an operating system, and now focus on how information flows on an end-to-end basis. "We know our customers want us to provide them with tools so they can monitor not only Linux but the database management systems and applications running on top of it," said Compuware's Ventura.

Management tools rely on various standards to enable them to collect information from a variety of devices. The Remote Monitoring (RMON) specification determines whether or not a device is connected to a network. The Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) enables companies to capture utilization information from various devices. The Common Information Model (CIM) is geared to storing device performance data in consistent formats in database management systems. The Web-Based Enterprise Management (WBEM) standard helps firms provide technicians with Web browser access management data.

While a number of systems and network management standards have evolved through the years, none has garnered sufficient support so IT departments can quickly and easily collect management data from a variety of devices. "CIM is basically a Microsoft-only specification, and no one is really using WBEM," Gartner's Haight said.

To help fill that void, the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) has been working on the Web Services Distributed Management (WSDM) standard. In March, the group ratified the standard, which is designed to help vendors build management applications based on Web services. This new standard is designed to make it simpler for companies to examine management data in an integrated rather than piecemeal fashion, so IT departments can more effectively use their systems management personnel.

Whether WSDM will emerge as the glue IT managers have been looking for to tie their different management systems together is not yet clear, but Gartner's Haight thinks there is at least that possibility. "Unlike with CIM and WBEM, support for WSDM is coming from application software tool suppliers like BEA and Tibco," he said. "The previous initiatives were limited to systems management software suppliers."

Vendors are expected to begin delivering WSDM-compliant products by the end of the year, according to Haight. In the interim, systems management tools will offer Linux users both good news and bad news: more system management tools that can monitor the Linux operating system, but no tool that is yet able to easily collect information on an end-to-end basis.

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