What to know before selecting DCIM software

Your DCIM needs will dictate what type of software is best for your workflow. Be sure to evaluate usability, expandability and which areas need monitoring.

DCIM software is an investment in both budget and personnel resources. To get it right, the software has to deliver a reasonable return on investment.

If it won't save enough in utility costs or operational efficiency to pay for a data center infrastructure management (DCIM) system, it's a questionable acquisition. But because you won't really know what it can do until you install it, it's also a speculative investment. You must study and understand as much as you can before buying a DCIM system.

What is data center infrastructure management?

DCIM software collects data from IT and facilities and consolidates the data into relevant information and reports it in real time. This enables intelligent management, optimization and future resource planning for capacity, power, cooling, space, network and assets.

The four most important steps when acquiring DCIM software are:

  1. Decide which one or two aspects of your operation are most likely to benefit from better information.
  2. Concentrate on products with features that address those aspects and get trial versions of the two or three systems that seem to best fit your needs. See how easy they are to implement and, even more importantly, how intuitive they are to use.
  3. Buy a modularly expandable DCIM software, but only start with what you can effectively implement and use. You can add capabilities as you learn how to maximize the value of what you have.
  4. Ensure you can allocate staff resources to implement and maintain the software you select.

DCIM failures usually result from installation shortcuts and incomplete training. Some capabilities install quickly and easily; others take time. Be sure you have all the implementation support you need.

Capabilities of DCIM products

Vendors offer a wide range of DCIM software. The capabilities, options and variations are endless. The major categories are:

Energy and environmental monitoring. Tracking power utilization effectiveness is how DCIM originated. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers guidelines recommend higher operating temperatures and lower humidity levels, but actual energy savings require that you maximize cooling efficiency. Air doesn't uniformly flow, so you must monitor multiple locations in the room, in cabinets and even inside IT hardware to cool effectively with minimal energy use.

Monitoring pumps, chillers, cooling towers, piping temperatures and flow rates can predict impending failures. But such massive amounts of data can be confusing, so when you drill down to individual systems and devices, the graphical user interface of your DCIM tool must be intuitive. It must also translate data into usable information and provide multilevel alerts and alarms.

Asset and workflow management. Operations with a wide variety of IT hardware and a significant churn rate benefit from asset tracking. DCIM software can convert Excel spreadsheets into a manageable database, track hardware from order placement to delivery, generate work orders for its installation, and automatically update the database using barcodes, radio frequency identification or in-rack sensors. They may even alert you to the end of lease or useful life and record decommissioning.

Historical records are useful to spot patterns of early failure and provide total cost of ownership data to justify upgrades and replacements.

Data center visualization. If you convert plans you now keep on Visio or AutoCAD to a DCIM visualization product, 2D and 3D floor plans and rack elevations may be automatically updated from the asset management database.

Electrical diagrams enable correlation with energy and environmental monitoring capabilities, so all the information is in one place and you can examine the entire infrastructure as an entity. Additional metrics enable you to examine rack and device power usage and cooling requirements and, most importantly, help you quickly identify trouble spots.

Capacity planning and what if scenarios. This next step enables virtual hardware additions to see the effects of power and cooling. Some DCIM software can suggest locations where space, power and cooling capacity are available, and some incorporate computational fluid dynamics analysis to further illustrate and refine heat loads and cooling conditions.

Structured cable management. Some DCIM visualization offerings can take cable plans from spreadsheets and integrate them with the DCIM software.

DCIM software is getting smarter, and it now analyzes data sets in different ways.

Cabling is a complex database because there are many connections that frequently change. But when cable management is integrated, it can help you avoid patching mistakes, as well as find failed connections or switch ports. However, data entry is mostly manual. Automated tracking requires special patch panels and cords.

Network management and optimization. Some DCIM packages offer network monitoring, but to get full network optimization, you'll need specialized software that may or may not integrate with classic DCIM software. Specialized software can simplify complex, critical network management.

Centralized remote monitoring and reporting. DCIM can deliver an inordinate level of detail to your smartphone or tablet, but an intuitive user interface is still critical to provide operational information in an easily understandable form. Remote access requires a high level of security, and it should be set as read-only to prevent unauthorized access to control functions.

Some offerings can provide nearly all of these capabilities. Others focus on particular aspects; usually power and cooling, asset management, or high-level network management.

DCIM software is getting smarter, and it now analyzes data sets in different ways. Artificial intelligence is emerging for better trend analysis and problem prediction. But to do this, the package must easily interface with every device you want to monitor, regardless of brand and without incurring custom development costs.

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