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.


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.