Hardware

Do More with Less: Dell optimizes remote access to servers with its DRAC

Find out how to optimize your Dell server


One of the most challenging tasks for any system administrator is remote management of servers. Although many software products are available that accomplish this, such as VNC, PCAnywhere, and Windows Terminal Services, all of them are limited to running as services on top of the operating system. In some cases, such as when a server is inaccessible due to a software error or a power problem, these programs are worthless. To overcome these issues and aid in the management of servers, Dell has developed a hardware solution called the Dell Remote Assistant Card (DRAC).

The DRAC is simply a hardware card with 16 MB of RAM that you insert into an available PCI slot in a Dell server. It will work with almost any Dell server, with the notable exception of the Dell PowerEdge 1550. The DRAC contains:
  • A power connector that charges the battery backup that is built onto the card.
  • Its own 10BaseT Ethernet jack.
  • A slot for a 56K PCMCIA modem for remote dialup.

Let’s take a closer look at what the Dell DRAC has to offer. First, I will review the positive features of the DRAC. Then, I’ll discuss a handful of drawbacks. I’ll wind up by showing you some screen shots and explaining a few things to expect when using the DRAC.

The good
The DRAC is an indispensable asset for remote administration, enabling you to remotely administer a server using either a modem or a network connection even if the server is in a powered-down state. It boasts a variety of features, including those listed in Table A.

Table A
Remote access Allows you to administer a server either over a phone line via an optional 56K PCMCIA modem or a standard 10BaseT Ethernet connection
Console redirection Allows for remote management of the actual server console. The DRAC redirects console input and output to and from either the modem or the network jack. A remote workstation is loaded with software that allows this feature to work.
Remote power control The DRAC allows you to remotely power up or shut down a Dell server using the remote administration software bundled with the server. This feature has saved me more than once when I accidentally chose Shut Down rather than Log Off in Windows Terminal Services.
Watch the POST The DRAC console redirection feature also allows an administrator to remotely watch the power on self-test (POST) while a server is booting. This tool can be invaluable when troubleshooting a possible hardware error.
Server logs Any error conditions are logged into an area that allows an administrator to view them using the DRAC remote administration software.
Secure The remote password/user name combination is secured using MD5/CHAP. Users are set up individually.
DRAC features

In my experience, the DRAC comes in particularly handy when I need direct console access to a server, which remote access software does not provide.

The not-so-good
As with most tools, the DRAC is not perfect. I’ve have three minor problems with it, and there’s one major problem:

Minor problems
  • The power connector on the back of the PCI card, when combined with the Dell cable management arm, has a tendency to become disconnected unless special care is taken during installation. While it is not a big problem, it is an annoyance.
  • The DRAC has special command-line utilities to set it up, including its IP address and administrative users. It would be much more convenient if these parameters could be specified when the Dell Open Manage software is installed. The Open Manage software is the suite of programs that makes up a complete Dell server management solution.
  • You have to be careful not to set color depth too high at the console for the DRAC. I have set up my servers at either 256 colors or 16-bit color. Again, it’s not a big deal, but if you don’t think it out ahead of time, it could be an annoyance.

Major problem
  • The Dell PowerEdge 1550 server does not support the DRAC due to its size. The DRAC requires a server of at least 2U in order to be properly installed. While I would love to double server density in my racks by moving to the 1U PowerEdge 1550 from the 2U high PowerEdge 2450/2550, I can’t since I require DRAC functionality. This problem is supposed to be rectified at some point in the future when Dell will likely add the current DRAC functionality to the motherboard of the PowerEdge 1550.

  • Administration using the DRAC
    The DRAC interface provides access to a lot of hardware and software details about the server, and it encompasses most of the functionality of software packages such as VNC and PCAnywhere. When you begin a DRAC session, you need to provide proper login credentials (Figure A). These credentials are not OS-based but are configured along with the DRAC’s network setup.

    Figure A
    DRAC login


    Figure B shows the screen you’ll see once the DRAC session starts and you’ve provided proper login credentials.

    Figure B
    DRAC main page


    Clicking System Status brings up the DRAC-II Health screen, shown in Figure C.

    Figure C
    DRAC Health and System Health


    You can obtain all kinds of system information (Figure D) by clicking System Information.

    Figure D
    System information


    Clicking Event Log enables you to view all pertinent system logs (Figure E), including the DRAC log, the System Event Log, and the POST Log.

    Figure E
    Viewing logs


    And finally, the Remote Access button gives you remote access to the actual console of the server (Figure F).

    Figure F
    The remote access window into the server


    If you use PC Anywhere or VNC, this functionality should be very familiar. The DRAC has a full chipset that allows for hardware redirection of the video, keyboard, and mouse using either the network interface or modem. The Redirection Bar in the upper-right corner of the screen allows power down, screen capture, and the use of special keys such as [Ctrl] and [Alt] and the [Ctrl][Alt][Delete] sequence.

    Clicking the Power Down button on the Redirection Bar brings up the dialog box shown Figure G, which gives you a variety of ways to reset a server without having to physically be at the unit.

    Figure G
    Power Down options


    Summary
    In a nutshell, that is the DRAC. It provides an administrator with a wealth of information and can be indispensable during a critical outage, as most server problems can be easily diagnosed and fixed remotely. System administrators using Dell servers should seriously evaluate the benefits that this card can provide for remote administration of their Dell servers.

    How do you remotely administer your servers?
    We look forward to getting your input and hearing about your experiences regarding this topic. Join the discussion below or send the editor an e-mail.

     

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