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Data Center Automation

GRID for the Enterprise

Automation is coming to a data center near you. It promises to cut costs, speed up deployment, ease problem diagnostics, and protect your applications against man-made and natural disasters.

Data center automation is hot. This year alone Veritas bought Jareva, IBM bought ThinkDynamics, and Sun nabbed first infrastructure pioneer TerraSpring, then CenterRun. Oracle has made Grid the central marketing theme for Oracle 10i, promptly renamed Oracle 10g. HP has announced a comprehensive strategy, dubbed the Adaptive Enterprise, which promises to make the job of deploying applications, bringing servers up and down, and tracking data center configurations considerably easier. OpsWare, a nimble startup in the space has been working to productize its powerful ASP management software and make it available to you.

But why talk about data-center automation here? Isn't that outside the scope of WebLogic and the Web platform? The answer is that the definition of an application is not as clear-cut as we like to think. You can think of it to go from the Web server to the database. Or you can think of it to go from the user's browser all the way back to the legacy system, with the vast Internet, a few routers, a load balancer or two, a Web server, and a couple of application servers in the middle. In other words, you can easily include the entire data center in the conceptualization of the application (or applications). With so much activity around data-center automation, we thought we'd stop and consider the implications for your applications and for the Web platform.

The first step to data-center automation is inventory. What exactly is in my data center? For many IT managers that can be a daunting task: thousands of machines, running dozens of operating systems, with heterogeneous configurations. They have different clock speeds, RAM, disk capacity, number of network interfaces, or connectivity to the network. These servers have different support hardware, such as UPSs, cable configuration, etc. They have OS versions, patch levels, and installed utilities, not to mention applications. Creating an inventory of everything in the data center is a Herculean task. And since different groups often have access to different machines, and can remotely change the software or quietly upgrade or shift around resources in the data center, keeping track of it all is beyond the ability of even mythical Greek gods, let alone most IT managers.

To tackle this problem vendors are taking different tacks. Most have a model-driven approach, which invariably uses XML to describe the data center. HP's Utility Data Center (UDC) product uses FML to describe everything in the data center. Motive, a leader in service management, has comprehensive modeling capabilities. Most interestingly, OpsWare and its chairman, Marc Andreessen of Netscape fame, just announced an effort to standardize the language used to describe all the elements in the data center: DCML, or Data Center Markup Language. This is an ambitious effort: in the words of Andreessen himself, DCML "will do for the data center what TCP/IP did for networks and HTML did for Web content." Trying to rally everyone behind a standard won't be easy however. Some of the big system players like IBM and Sun envision end-to-data centers built exclusively on their technology, which wouldn't require a standard - standards are for interoperation, after all. But for its debut DCML has signed up some 25 companies, including heavyweights like BEA, CA, EDS, and Mercury Interactive.

Having a language to describe all that is in your data center is only the first step, however. Then comes the actual inventory. Some players like HP expect the inventory to be taken once, and to change little from that point on. Others, like Veritas, put a heavy emphasis on automated discovery, sparing the IT staff some heavy lifting and reducing the likelihood of errors. The manager for a relatively large IT center who was using an automated resource discovery tool confided: "What we didn't know about our infrastructure was staggering. We found out so much." Understandably he wished to remain anonymous.

With a robust model of the infrastructure many things become possible. One is configuration management and change tracking. How many times have you heard "it was working last week. Something must have changed." Yes, but what? Configuration management tools can help answer that question and pinpoint problems more quickly. They keep track of patches, upgrades, changes in network configurations, and other changes.

Another thing that becomes possible, at least with some of these solutions, is to say: "I want to bring up 10 blades, with a minimum clockspeed of 2GHz, a minimum RAM of 2GB, and a minimum of 2 network interfaces. I want to load RedHat Enterprise Advanced Server at the latest patch level, load the WebLogic platform, deploy my WebLogic application. And don't forget my OpenView monitoring module." Veritas' OpForce product can do exactly that, taking a bare-metal box (a Dell blade or a high-end Sun server) and provisioning it into a fully functional BEA WebLogic Platform server. HP's UDC and OpsWare's software can do the same. While they can employ different techniques to get to the same point, from disk blasts to dynamic software install, the end result is the same. The remote management and configuration isn't limited to servers or the WebLogic Platform. OpForce, for example, can configure load balancers and databases, while UDC manages UPS units attached to servers.

Once you can remotely and programatically bring servers up and down, a new world of possibilities awaits you. One is on-demand provisioning: instead of provisioning an application for its peak possible load, allocate just the right amount of computing power for that application at any given time. A classic example would be a bank that runs a promotional campaign for one of its product lines, say mortgage refinancing. The resulting rise in usage for the application that processes these requests could be handled by going to a free pool of servers that can be dynamically provisioned to handle the additional load. If later the company decides to launch a free-checking ad campaign, the same servers can easily be retargeted to handle that.

And this can be completely automated. Given the speed at which information travels and the very nature of the Internet, load peaks are unpredictable. And while load can go up as the result of a well-planned ad campaign, it can also rise in response to a suddenly popular blog or an unscheduled mention on a television program. It can result from a natural or man-made disaster - any unexpected rise or fall in demand. Response time becomes critical. We can imagine monitoring systems detecting increasing log and immediately reacting, shifting resources where they are needed dynamically and without human intervention.

This is the vision painted by many of the players in this space, and the demos they give are impressive. As with any cool new technology though, it will take some time to mature. Many of these solutions are still too slow to respond effectively to unexpected changes in load. The languages used to describe resources, including DCML, still need to be expanded to many devices, and the software to manage these devices has yet to be written.

But the promise, and the need, is real. And we can dream of even cooler applications for the future. Imagine that you are writing an application in BEA WebLogic Workshop. You have some expectations about where, and how, it's going to be deployed. You have a pretty good idea of how many tiers, how much RAM, and what kind of database back end will be needed. Today the best you can do is to document this somewhere, and hope that 1) it won't be lost and 2) the deployment team will read and understand it. What if, while you wrote your application, you could capture these requirements formally, in a language like DCML, and package them with the application. At deployment time a utility application could match available resources with the required model from your application, and come up with a suggested configuration for the BEA WebLogic Platform and any supporting components like a database or load balancer. The utility framework could also flag any discrepancies between what it needs and where it is deployed.

Until then, there will be many developments in the utility computing space. Prices have already begun to fall from dizzying heights, and they will fall further. A standard will emerge, either DCML or another. One thing that will not change is the heterogeneity of data centers and the dislike of end-users for proprietary approaches. The transition to a utility model will be progressive, starting with application automation and progressively spreading to the entire data center.

More Stories By Benjamin Renaud

Benjamin Renaud is a strategist in the Office of the CTO at BEA. In that role he helps set BEA's technical vision and guide its execution. He came to BEA via the acquisition of WebLogic, where he was a pioneer in Java and Web application server technology. Prior to joining WebLogic, Benjamin worked on the original Java team for Sun Microsystems, where he helped create Java 1.0, 1.1 and 1.2.

Reproduced with permission from BEA Systems

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Most Recent Comments
Michael Wooten 12/17/03 08:44:28 PM EST

Hi Ben,

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I see a very distinctive set of missing functionality in J2EE, wrt it being conducive for Utility (i.e. On-demand) computing. The main missing pieces are:

1. A specification for resource scheduling (i.e. which .EAR runs when).

2. A specification for policy-based resource allocation (i.e. who gets to run which .EAR on which which nodes).

3. An XML grammar for doing federated resource allocation.

To be feasible for use in Utility computin, a J2EE application server would have to provide a lot more "intelligence" than merely undeploying and deploying an EAR on a set of nodes :-) How far do you really think J2EE technology is away from being viable for this arena of computing?

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