Satellite orbits around server management

A new product from Opsware Inc. may help agencies solve the problem of managing servers spread across remote locations.

Sometimes the server dispersion is a relatively straightforward arrangement with a central office connected to regional offices nationwide. Sometimes it's more complex and the remote servers are aboard ships or at inaccessible locations. Regardless of the situation, server management is a growing challenge.

"As the price of servers continues to drop, the number of servers is exploding," said consultant Steve Schanzer, a principal at S2 and Associates and former director of information services at the Defense Intelligence Agency.

"The need is there because configuration management is a major problem," he said. "The number of servers is expanding. There are multiple data centers out there managed by different organizations."

The new product, called Opsware Satellite, will become available this summer as a component of Opsware System 4.1, said Eric Vishria, director of product management.

Opsware System is designed to automate server operations, including the deployment of applications and disaster recovery, he said. The new Satellite component is intended to expand that capability outside a single data center.

"You could have a [remote] data center on a ship someplace," he said. "If you can still apply the same policy-based approach to managing those servers [as in the main data center], you can achieve the same return on investment. We're trying to help customers bring the same benefits to all servers."

Satellite communicates with remote servers via any available network, such as Internet connections, Vishria said. But "when servers are on ships, a lot of times they really are space satellite uplinks."

Opsware technicians spent about six months designing Satellite, making it as secure and versatile as possible. "We've tried to design it with every possible constraint in mind," Vishria said. "We can't think of a situation where it's just not going to work."

Although the need for remote server management is growing, Opsware has stepped ahead of its competitors, said John Humphreys, research manager at IDC.

"There's a lot of remote management capability" among competing products, he said. However, "the ability to provision applications remotely is relatively new. The ability to manage those applications remotely is new."

Opsware has had little historical presence in remote server management, he added. But the company does have traction in the government that it can use to develop a federal market for Satellite, Humphreys said. The company will also try to expand into the commercial market, using government customers as reference accounts, he predicted.

"There's a lot of remote offices out there, and [Satellite] opens them up," he said.

Automation tools for server management can bring an enormous payback, Schanzer said. Without the tools, "it's a manual process," he said. "You have to send people out to load software, to make sure servers are configured properly. Once a team leaves, things can change in the local environment, and you never know about it. And as long as everybody's on the network, a change in one place can affect everyone on the network."

DCML ties things up

Opsware products use Data Center Markup Language (DCML), which officials at Opsware and about 65 other companies are developing to allow interoperability of management systems, Vishria said. The language is not an approved standard yet, but the coalition of companies is working toward that goal, he said.

"It's designed to standardize the way that data-center environments and the policies around them are described," he said. The effort was driven by customers who told company officials that they needed to be able to exchange information between Opsware and other systems, he added.

"As we started talking to other vendors, we decided that everybody has this issue," Vishria said. Opsware, EDS, BEA Systems Inc. and Computer Associates International Inc. launched the DCML effort together.

Marc Andreessen, founder of Netscape Communications Corp. and chairman of Opsware, described DCML as "HTML for the data center" when the effort to develop the language was unveiled last fall. The DCML Organization released a draft of the specification earlier this month at Computer Associates' CA World conference.

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