What you need to know about Data Center Infrastructure Management (DCIM)

What exactly is Data Center Infrastructure Management? Is DCIM truly a new idea or just a repackaging of the same old methods?


The cloud may be here, but it's not omnipresent nor will it fit the needs of every company. There is still a need for traditional in-house data centers across many kinds of organizations. Even if your company does use the cloud, you might have a hybrid configuration or at least a network and electrical backbone in your facility, which warrants close monitoring and inspection. Of course, you may be a cloud provider yourself, with a supersized data center that warrants the best management solution on the market!

Data Center Infrastructure Management (DCIM) isn't a brand new topic; it has been around since at least 2009 and is steadily gaining momentum. 451 Research claimed in April of 2013 that "the growth rate of DCIM far outstrips that for the datacenter equipment industries and for the enterprise IT segment as a whole." It should be noted, however, that 451 also states DCIM is small by comparison to other elements of enterprise software "such as IT service management, ERP, databases or security." Slashdot.com reported in June of 2013 that: "the growth of cloud services and the datacenters that support [DCIM] could leap from an estimated $450 million this year to $1.7 billion by 2016." With this much growing potential in store, it's worth looking at what DCIM can offer.  

Of course, just because something is deemed new doesn't make it an automatic benefit across the board - nor does it mean the trend or product is really "new." Thin-client computing is considered by some as merely a reboot of mainframe operations, which have been around for decades. The Apple iPad, launched in 2010, was deemed the first tablet by many who somehow overlooked Microsoft's Tablet PC ten years earlier. Malcolm Gladwell outlines the amazing transformation of Hush Puppies shoes from stodgy outdated footwear to reinvented fashion craze in his fascinating book, "The Tipping Point." We live in a society where things get rehashed and revisited and what's old becomes new again. With that in mind, is DCIM just another re-telling of the same story, like the film "The Amazing Spider-Man" in 2012? In my view, the answer is no.

What is DCIM?

It's safe to say many IT professionals are familiar with traditional methods of infrastructural monitoring such as downtime alerts, server component and/or resource evaluation and network latency checks. Products such as Nagios, WhatsUpGold, Dell IT Assist and Dell Management Console are standard fare when it comes to keeping an eye on the health of your physical systems, software, and environment. DCIM is this, but it's also more, much like replacing your breakdown-prone Ford Pinto with a finely-tuned Cadillac convertible. It will still get you to the same places but with wider range, power and capability to do new things (like impress your neighbors!).  

How is DCIM different?

Traditional infrastructural monitoring has been largely about one piece of the jigsaw puzzle, with many other pieces glaringly absent (or for which new technologies showed a need that these products couldn't fill). For instance ,maybe you can tell your servers are up, but have no way of knowing how many servers you can fit in your space and still safely cool. DCIM fills in those gaps by introducing concepts such as:

  • Asset tracking
  • Change management
  • Analysis of virtual/logical systems and how they interact with physical hardware
  • Management of "utility" operations like electricity, heating and cooling from a usage, efficiency and cost savings perspectives
  • Maximizing system utilization for best efficiency
  • Consolidation of resources/locations
  • Optimizing physical infrastructure (including space management) to enable higher capacity
  • Multi-layered monitoring
  • Future planning via modeling scenarios

There are plenty of existing software and/or products which handle some of these areas, of course, but the goal of DCIM is to unify them within one centralized point of administration so "the left hand knows what the right is doing" – and so do all the other pieces of the puzzle.

What are some examples of DCIM in action?

  1. As outlined in a scenario by Gary Bunyan at datacenterknowledge.com, a company wants to gain insight into all of their assets including technical (running programs) and financial (serial and asset numbers). DCIM performs this function but, rather than dumping the asset information into an Excel file where it gathers dust, it provides contextual ongoing data about the assets and how they relate to one another to help spot cost cutting opportunities, reduce risk, and better manage the data center. Furthermore, issues such as the impact of the asset on other assets. as well as on the business overall, can be explored.
  2. Emerson Network Power discusses several scenarios of DCIM, one of which involves providing data center technicians "the visibility and control to optimize performance while maintaining or improving availability. With this level of progression, data center management becomes truly proactive as personnel can anticipate potential failures and automatically shift compute and physical resources to eliminate downtime while increasing resource utilization to optimize efficiency across the data center." Having users page you at 3 AM to report email is down is so 2003.
  3. Yevgeniy Sverdlik of www.datacenterdynamics.com writes that DCIM can keep tabs on "all devices within the IT infrastructure and ongoing health monitoring of each of them as well as monitoring of things like energy consumption, temperature, humidity and airflow. The software uses that data to create a digital model of the infrastructure, updating it as changes occur. The model, ideally presented in an accessible graphical format, is a key aspect of a DCIM solution, as it visualizes interrelationships between devices in the infrastructure. An analytical engine is what interprets the data the solution collects to find problems or inefficiencies." It's no longer enough to just monitor the data center to make sure it doesn't get too hot or check to see if someone left the door open.

Who are the vendors and what do they offer?

Some example vendors and their products are listed as follows:

It should be pointed out this this is a field with some growing pains so a magic solution is not a 100 percent universal guarantee. Kevin Fogarty, the author of the Slashdot article referenced above, points out a report from Heavy Reading which indicated vendors need to "adapt their products to manage virtual as well as physical datacenter assets, while scaling their products to accommodate the telco datacenters supporting public cloud services."

Where can I find out more?

Besides the vendor links and other articles discussed in this article, a great DCIM blog you should check out is called dcimexpert.com