Must-have data center utilities: Picks by IT pros

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

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.

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.

2. Nagios

What is it? Another utility recommended by just about every manager we consulted, Nagios is an infrastructure and capacity planning tool. One common use is to send alerts to IT staff through an SMS message or email when a networking component, storage drive or server fails.

Who needs it? For those in a complex IT environment, Nagios helps monitor processor loads, disk usage, server temperatures and networks to provide a better understanding of an overall infrastructure.

How much does it cost? Like Cacti, Nagios is an open-source tool and is entirely free to download, although there may be costs for technical support from a VAR and for any training needed. Nagios charges about $600 per year for support and maintenance.

Why is it better than the competition? One key feature is that it works with many disparate devices such as temperature sensors, applications, network switches and servers. Like Cacti, Nagios has an extremely active user base that has released about 2,000 free add-ons.

What are its limitations? Nagios is a powerful monitoring tool, but to use the software you have to write a script that taps into the endpoint you want to monitor -- or find one that is already available. While you can pay for the extra support and maintenance, there is no commercial backing from a company like HP or Microsoft to make sure the tool is working optimally in your environment.

What do customers say? "Nagios is an enterprise-class monitoring system that we have used to not only monitor our data network, but our network of computer room air-conditioning, UPSs, generators and environment sensors to guarantee data center reliability," says Core NAP's Bieser.

3. Veeam Backup and Replication v5

What is it? Veeam serves a much-needed function. The software works within the VMware virtualized environment to make quick backups and provides a way to streamline user-requested restores. You can restore one virtual machine or an individual object.

Who needs it? In a data center that relies on virtual machines, Veeam is used for making backups and has the distinct advantage of making archives in a few hours. Currently, Veeam works only with VMware, but it will be expanded to support Microsoft Hyper-V in the near future, according to a company spokesman who would not specify a time frame.

How much does it cost? Veeam costs about $600 per socket for the basic backup and replication software, which includes one year of support and maintenance.

Why is it better than the competition? A key feature has to do with verification. As part of the backup process, Veeam loads the VM from a recently created backup, adds it to the ESX server and tests the VM to make sure the backup actually worked.

What are its limitations? Larry Walker, vice president of IT at Chelsea Groton Bank in Groton, Conn., uses Veeam in his data center. He says he has not found a local expert to help troubleshoot problems, and there is no local training on how to use the software. This has not been a major issue but has delayed some initial restores because his staff had to learn the ropes on their own. He also says there is no way to move the VM backups to a tape storage system. Veeam works only with virtual machines and does not work directly with physical servers.

What do customers say? "With Veeam, I remotely replicate and/or remotely back up all my VMs every night to our DR site," Walker explains. Within 30 minutes, his Active Directory servers, SQL servers and six Level 1 file servers are archived and their data is available to users.

4. Cfengine

What is it? Another oft-recommended data center tool, Cfengine is used for configuration management: A database holds user and server settings, including passwords and directory permissions.

Who needs it? Cfengine is specifically geared for data center system administrators who are looking for more consistency in configuration management. The tool is used to check software installations to make sure they are consistent within the data center and the company. It's also used by security analysts to look for security holes that result from an inconsistent software patch process.

How much does it cost? Cfengine is available as a free open-source tool or as a commercial product that includes support and maintenance. In the latter case, pricing varies according to company size and how the product will be used.

Why is it better than the competition? Frank Breedijk, a security engineer at Schuberg Philis, an IT outsourcing company, uses Cfengine for configuration management. He says that one of the main differentiators is that the tool works autonomously; it can find and correct system errors in his data center without human intervention.

What are its limitations? Breedijk says Cfengine works best in a Unix environment. Although it will work in data centers powered by Windows servers, the results are unpredictable.

What do customers say? "With Cfengine, you create a self-healing system which becomes resistant to configuration changes by the user," Breedijk says. Also, if IT staffers make all configuration changes via Cfengine, "rolling out a new system becomes a lot easier, because all you need to do is roll out a base installation and a Cfengine client, and all the other changes get applied automatically," says Breedijk.

5. Vitamin D Video

What is it? It's an offbeat physical-security system for the data center. Vitamin D Video is an open-source webcam that can be used to monitor a data center. It includes a motion detector and can send the IT staff a text message or email if the system detects movement near a rack or at the entrance to the data center.

Who needs it? For those in a multisite environment, or anyone who needs to perform remote monitoring, Vitamin D Video is a helpful security and monitoring tool. It can be used for anything from checking to see if a cabinet door was left open in a data center to checking for intruders or keeping track of third-party contractors to see whether they are performing the work as specified.

How much does it cost? The Pro edition costs $199 and supports unlimited cameras. There's also a free Starter edition (one camera), and a Basic edition (two cameras) that costs $49.

Why is it better than the competition? Ketan Patel, president of Fairmount Global Telecommunications, uses Vitamin D Video in his data center as a monitoring tool because of the software's automated alert system. With some security cameras, you need to watch hours of recorded video to catch any security problems. With Vitamin D, the software can send a photo via email when the camera detects motion. Once alerted, you can then watch a portion of the video that was recorded before and after the alert. You can also send video clips to an FTP site.

What are its limitations? Patel says the software will sometimes send false alerts, especially if you do any monitoring outside of the data center. To use Vitamin D Video, you also need to install and configure third-party webcams, although he says the software works with many makes and models.

What do customers say? "Vitamin D is a free software utility that lets you turn a cheap $100 webcam into a video monitoring and alert system for your server racks," says Patal.

6. OpenNMS

What is it? This open-source networking management tool scans networks to discover new network services, provision the services, monitor changes, and investigate anomalies and events such as an SNMP trap, which is a way of notifying the network about changes without needing to send a request first. OpenNMS also tests network performance.

Who needs it? OpenNMS is intended for large enterprises with complex networking infrastructures. Most of the value from the tool comes through customization to monitor network performance. Smaller companies may find that OpenNMS is geared more toward larger data centers.

How much does it cost? OpenNMS, while mentioned frequently by IT pros as a powerful data center utility, can also be the most expensive one in our roundup. As an open-source tool, OpenNMS is free to download and install. However, support fees start at around $15,000, and training classes run about $2,500 per seat.

Why is it better than the competition? The key differentiator with OpenNMS is scalability. Tarus Balog, an OpenNMS spokesperson, says that some customers have used the product to monitor as many as 60,000 devices on an enterprise network. Another customer monitors 1.2 million SNMP data points every five minutes, and a third processes 120,000 log events every minute. Balog says deployment time is also much shorter than with commercial options -- usually just a few days -- unless a lot of customization is required.

What are its limitations? OpenNMS is an open-source tool, but the support costs can match or even exceed what you'd expect from a commercial monitoring product. The product is customizable, but that requires a high degree of technical savvy. Even Balog admits that the product has a steep learning curve.

What do customers say? "OpenNMS changed the way [our] network and server teams worked," says Mike Huot, a systems architect at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. The IT group "went from having to constantly hear 'It's a network/server problem' and then having to spend days proving it was not" to knowing exactly what caused the problem.

7. WildPackets OmniPeek Enterprise

What is it? An all-purpose networking troubleshooting utility, OmniPeek Enterprise allows you to perform deep packet inspections on your network to see what is causing slowdowns. The tool works for all kinds of network infrastructures, including VoIP and video networks. It also works on all flavors of Ethernet and on Wi-Fi networks. The interface uses a tree structure to view the hierarchy of networks. There are four different versions of the tool available, with different levels of functionality, for small businesses and individual network engineers on up to enterprise deployments.

Who needs it? WildPackets OmniPeek Enterprise is primarily used by network engineers in a data center to monitor and troubleshoot network problems.

How much does it cost? The software starts at about $5,000, depending on the data center's size, plus a yearly maintenance support fee that's 20% of the total cost. The software does not require add-on modules for VoIP or video, but distributed computing environments may need to add extra agents. These "OmniEngines" work across multiple locations and branch offices to monitor networks.

Why is it better than the competition? The pricing model is a differentiator because it doesn't require a separate module -- that is, extra fees -- for VoIP, video and other multimedia services. OmniPeek Enterprise also performs real-time network monitoring and includes analysis of the network data after the monitoring has occurred.

What are its limitations? Some network monitoring tools can generate traffic as part of the test process, but OmniPeek Enterprise is entirely passive -- it monitors only real traffic instead of traffic generated just for a test. In some cases, generating test traffic is an advantage because you can test unusual conditions such as heavy congestion at a certain time of day or from one particular department. Also, for multiple locations, network data is collated for multiple network segments, which can add some complexity for figuring out how to configure those segments.

What do customers say? "OmniPeek Enterprise allows all of us to pinpoint performance issues quickly in an automated fashion, eliminating a significant amount of time required with manual network-troubleshooting exercises," says Vince Humes, director of technology solutions for the Northwest Tri-County Intermediate Unit, an IT help desk that supports 19 school districts in Pennsylvania.

John Brandon is a former IT manager at a Fortune 100 company who now writes about technology. He's written more than 2,500 articles in the past 10 years. Follow his tweets at @jmbrandonbb.

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John Brandon

Computerworld (US)

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