Servers

Tools for diagnosing server problems remotely


Have you ever worked for a company that locates its server room in an inconvenient or uncomfortable place? It's no fun to be shivering in the server room for the better part of a day reinstalling an operating system. It's also no fun to have to travel a couple hours back to work just to restart a stalled server.

Today I want to talk to you about some ways that you can remotely manage your server room and not be dependent on platform or vendors.

IP-based Power Distribution Unit (PDU)ap7902j_sfl.jpg

One way to avoid that inconvenient commute to restart a stalled server is with an IP-based Power Distribution Unit (PDU).

APC makes pretty good IP-based PDUs with nice Web interfaces. If you're looking at other brands, you'll want to make sure they offer the ability to stagger "power-on" timings. This will prevent all the servers from powering on at the same time should there be an extended black-out - possibly tripping the circuits or damaging your servers.

The more advanced models will also display the power drain by outlet or as an entire unit. This could help you diagnose power-related problems remotely, and let you better estimate the load on your UPS.

Serial-IP adapter

esp-16.jpgDespite the shift towards IP-based appliances, there remains some server room equipment that still requires serial connectivity. The common ones would be your humble analog or GSM modems.

Equinox - now under Avocent -- makes serial hubs that can connect directly to your serial-port based devices. The output comes in the form of an Ethernet port that connects to your network. You can install a free software driver on servers that need to access the serial devices, which also transparently creates the appropriate COM port.

Other companies such as Digi International and Axis Communications manufacture and sell such devices as well.

Using a serial hub is superior to the traditional method of installing a PC-based adapter board. Since your serial devices are now on the network, it's very useful in terms of business continuity (BC). Rather than having to run back to the office in the event of a hardware failure to swap out a hardware card or cable, it's now possible to remotely set up another server to take over the serial devices over the network.

In fact, teamed with the likes of VMware's VMotion technology, it's possible to have your serial devices seamlessly fail over onto another hardware server.

IP-based KVM

kh1508i.jpgMost of you have probably heard of software such as VNC or PC-Anywhere. These are pure software solutions, however, and are susceptible to server lock-ups - such as the blue screen of death (BSOD), or the software daemon crashing. So why not take it a step further, and get the ability to do KVM on a hardware level instead?

The clear advantage here would be that a hardware-based solution such an IP-based KVM (or IP-KVM), is generally compatible across all hardware platforms, be it Sun Solaris, Windows, or Linux. In addition, such solutions will support DOS or Windows for Workgroup 3.11, as well as Windows Vista.

There are some aspects about IP-KVMs that I will talk about in more detail in a follow-up article. Shown in the above picture is an ATEN KH1508i IP-KVM that I'm currently in discussion with ATEN to review terms of overall usability and GUI.

KVM-Extender

ce800.jpgThe KVM-extender is similar to a video extender -- described below -- in that the keyboard, video, and mouse can be situated up to 150m (or more) away from the server or desktop. This is useful in situations where the server has to be physically located at a place that's not conducive for work.

Depending on the exact functionality that you desire, it might be possible to daisy-chain a KVM-extender with a standard KVM to handle additional machines. A KVM-extender might be a cheaper alternative if you don't have the budget available to get an IP-KVM outright. I shall be putting the ATEN CE-800 unit shown in the above picture as well as the VE-150 video extender (below) through their paces.

Video Extenderve150.jpg

The Video Extender is a class of device by itself. It's entirely possible to place a computer monitor as far as 150m away from a server or desktop machine. (You'll usually require STP -- shielded cables, to achieve this maximum distance).

Video Extender can prove incredibly useful in a factory or retail setting in which the display has to be placed in a server closet far from the server.

About

Paul Mah is a writer and blogger who lives in Singapore, where he has worked for a number of years in various capacities within the IT industry. Paul enjoys tinkering with tech gadgets, smartphones, and networking devices.

22 comments
asperks
asperks

This is a worthy article on hardware for server rooms, but there aren't any tools here for diagnosis. Perhaps the article should be renamed?

hodgese
hodgese

Not to sound like an ad, but... we have abandoned KVM's entirely and use HP's iLO Advanced, which lets you have KVM-like control over an IP connection. It also lets you see fan speeds, temps, system configuration, perform a hard restart, mount drives/ISO's remotely, etc.

ryumaou@hotmail.com
ryumaou@hotmail.com

It's not that the article is bad, per se, since knowing what the latest and greatest remote control hardware is like can be of benefit. Rather my problem with the article is that it has virtually nothing to do with the title. How does a KVM switch allow me to diagnose anything? A better title might have been "Hardware for when you're too lazy to walk down the hall to the server room" or "Remote console control hardware". At least, both of those would have been a more accurate description of the content of the article. How did this slide past a professional editor? Or are there any watching these articles?

MaranathaP
MaranathaP

While the options mentioned might be viable options for an enterprise environement, it would be nearly impossible to justify the cost to small or mid-sized companies simply for your convenience. I think most people would agree that software only products are quicly replacing those hardware devices.

reisen55
reisen55

FAR better is use a web site such as www.dyndns.org to establish an internet based connection with your client's network. You can be miles away from the server and efficiently log into the network to diagnose problems. The problem with this article is that all of these pieces of hardware, and they are good, require that worst of all nightmares: cables.

laman
laman

Quite disappointed in this poorly written article. There is nothing technical in it.

Kantonus
Kantonus

In the coming articles you have announced on this subject I hope will not forget to look at the pure software based solutions available on the market. Please look into the pros and cons of the two solution types - hardware versus software. Gunnar

ctp
ctp

HP's iLO and Dell Drac and all the other management processors available today are really good solutions and can eliminate KVM's but they introduce a new set of problems. Who is connecting to your iLO? What did they do when they were connected? If you have regulatory compliance issues these are real important questions. Take HIPAA for example. If I have control of a console and put a system in single user mode all through an iLO, I can extract information, make configuration changes etc and no one will ever know. Scary and potentially costly since the potential fines are huge. ctp ----- Clyde T. Poole

duwayne
duwayne

We are preparing to move equipment to a co-location facility- this includes a PBX, email relay/spam filtering server and related peripherals. This is the ideal situation to use IP-KVM and PDU units. If your server is down the hall, software remote access is fine, but when you have a BSOD and the server is 50 miles away, you'll thank someone that you had an IP-PDU attached to reboot the server without travel.

paulmah
paulmah

Because the above equipment basically allows you to IP-enable your hardware, the only actual increase in cables come from the UTP patch cables and maybe a separate network switch. This might actually be offset by the reduced number of proprietary console cables, or even the possibility of removing the need for a dedicated monitoring/configuration box etc. Regards, Paul Mah.

paulmah
paulmah

The purpose of this article (or so I hope!) is to inform/educate IT professionals who might not deal with hardware on a day-to-day basis on the various options available to "extend the reach of their server room" so to speak. I named specific brands that are deployed in my company as I personally find that it saves me time to figure out new hardware when I am pointed to actual products that are on sale. Ultimately, I feel that IT professionals are even more fastidious than most when it comes to researching and comparing the technical merits of various products. As such, whatever I recommendation really serves only as a starting point. Kudos to you if you are already aware of these hardware. :) Unfortunately, it will probably mean that you might derive little value from this article. Regards, Paul Mah.

xburntherichx
xburntherichx

I would agree. I saw nothing remotely informative in this article. It seems to be a thinly disguised advert.

ctp
ctp

The reality is that "consoles" come in a lot of flavors these days. Some systems still have (privledged) serial ports. Some only have graphical interfaces and need something that provides that interface elsewhere. And then there are the newer devices that have "management processors" that provide emulation of the privledged serial consoles but also add their own connectivity and uses to the mix. No hardware only solution will provide a "one interface gives connectivity to all" solution. With harware we wind up having to know which piece of hardware gives me access to what system. If you mix some software with the hardware you really can have an interface that gives you connectivity no matter which connection method with all the interfaces shown in a single place. ctp ----- Clyde T. Poole

mford66215
mford66215

How about "Hardware tools to remotely connect" instead. None of these tools help me to diagnose server/rack issues, they just let me do it from farther away.

chuckmba@adelphia.net
chuckmba@adelphia.net

To control access to I created an MS Access database to store the passwords. When someone needs a password user IDs are taken, reference ticket and reason are logged in a separate table before the password is revealed. If the using the database needs the password all they do is click the link and the password is entered into the clipboard to be pasted into the password section on the web page. If someone screws something up, accounts were not properly created, or IPs change, I can use an HP utility to change things by logging on to the server, mapping a drive and make the changes without having to down the server. I also wrote a password generator to create new passwords that saves the new password in the table and clipboard which allows the password to change and eliminating typos. I want to simplify the process by creating another macro that will allow the user to change the password with another HP utility with having to remote desktop into the server or through the ILO.

ryumaou@hotmail.com
ryumaou@hotmail.com

Well, at least half the article was actually useful for you, then. The KVM and Video extenders would only be good for a "down the hall" solution. And, while useful, just being able to see the screen and remotely reboot the server doesn't equate to "diagnostics", at least, not in my book, even if it does fix the problem. What about the next time it happens? The article itself wasn't really bad, but the title was totally misleading.

paulmah
paulmah

Point taken here. The title could have been more precise. Regards, Paul Mah.

ctp
ctp

Chuck, If you want me to answer your question about software solutions we need to take it out of the forum. Feel free to contact me at clyde_poole@email.msn.com. ctp

chuckmba@adelphia.net
chuckmba@adelphia.net

I started this way back when Compaq called the product Remote Insight Board and we needed something to maintain them. We use Perl to maintain local Administrator accounts that changes the password 24 hours after use. I'll admit I'm not a programmer and only code when I have to. I would love to put this into SQL and have it all automated but I have learn SQL first. As far as using SSH is concerned, we have that turned off. I believe that is a data protection decision. What software solutions are out there? I had no idea how to search for this.

ctp
ctp

While I understand your intent your solution seems very complex. Have you considered (1) using SSH and public key authentication (2) combine this with a sofware access solution that maintains and always up connection to the iLO so that others can't use brute force to breack into the iLO (3) and log every access through the sofware solution including everything they do (pretty much required in HIPAA and SOX situations.

stephen.wittner
stephen.wittner

We have a data center located in another state (colo facility) and we already use all these devices. But as others have stated this article should have had a better title. IP based PDU have helped many times, as well as the serial hubs (console port on Cisco Routers).

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