The Hidden Costs of Embedded Service Processors

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This vendor-written tech primer has been edited by Network World to eliminate product promotion, but readers should note it will likely favor the submitter's approach.

Enterprising saloon keepers in the late 19th century offered free lunches to attract customers, then served up beverages at artificially raised prices, giving rise to the popular adage, "There's no such thing as a free lunch."

Today our industry is serving up "free lunches" in the form of embedded service processors (ESPs). While ESPs are "free" in servers from major suppliers, in reality they have hidden costs. In fact, when you look at total cost per server, ESPs with limited functionality may be comparable in price to KVM-over-IP switches while ESP operational costs can be higher.

ANALYSIS: Data center electrical costs are skyrocketing: Raritan

Some of the ESP hidden costs include the IP address, switch port and cable run needed for each ESP -- versus only one IP address needed for a KVM switch that can manage multiple servers.

Then there are the ESP add-on costs for important management features such as virtual media, terminal services, power management and two-factor authentication. Licenses for these can cost as much as $500 per port. Some KVM-over-IP solutions, on the other hand, come with these advanced features, with a complete solution costing about $200 per server.

When it comes to remote access -- which enable lights-out data center operations and the management of remote branch offices -- ESPs perform several important jobs: They monitor a server's on-board instrumentation (temperature sensors, CPU status, fan speed, voltages), provide remote reset or power-cycle capabilities, and enable access to basic input/output system (BIOS) configuration information. But ESPs fall short in performing three key remote management functions: be able to access all target servers and devices, provide secure access and be easy to use.

A major shortcoming in ESPs is their inability to manage heterogeneous environments. By their very nature, ESPs are vendor-specific server solutions and provide access and management features specific to their supplier (the top ESPs processors include IBM Remote Supervisor Adapter, HP Integrated Lights Out, and Dell Remote Access Controller). That is very limiting considering data centers usually consist of equipment from multiple vendors.

The most effective way for IT to maintain all data center devices -- including servers, network, power and storage devices -- is through a single management interface. ESPs require multiple log-ons and a range of user interfaces to manage heterogeneous gear. KVM solutions are vendor and technology agnostic. From a centralized management interface, they provide unified management for the entire infrastructure -- including all vendor equipment and across different hardware generations. (Another ESP shortcoming is that legacy equipment must be replaced or upgraded in order to use new ESP versions.)

Gartner's John Morency, a research vice president who covers the management of disaster recovery and IT resiliency, recently examined the two remote access technologies. He wrote: "Currently, the principle enablers for lights-out operations are the use of keyboard, video and mouse (KVM) switches and hardware service processors that support the level of equipment console access required to support basic equipment configuration, event monitoring and change management. Service processors are hardware-vendor-specific and typically do not support all the models of any one server product vendor's product line. Given this limitation, recovery managers may be better-served by the use of remote KVM switches similar to those used to support server and storage equipment."

KVM platforms, after all, are typically more convenient than ESP tools:

• Some KVM solutions provide optimal video quality at any bandwidth, supporting up to 1920x1080. ESPs, on the other hand, typically max out at 1280x1024.

• Look for KVMs that can access servers from a remote client running on Windows, Linux, Mac or Sun, using Internet Explorer, Firefox or Safari browsers. By comparison, iLO2 limits you to IE only on Windows, and Firefox only on Linux.

• You want a KVM solution that makes it easier to manage many remote servers -- such as video scaling, full-screen mode, and Absolute Mouse Synchronization, which provides perfect mouse synchronization on servers and eliminates the need to adjust mouse settings on target servers. ESPs typically offer little, if any, of these features.

Then there are the security issues to consider. Often, a default username and password is left in place for each ESP. Consequently, anyone armed with the default credentials can manage servers -- without identification. Conversely, a secure KVM solution -- especially one with a common-sense approach to user management -- provides remote, secure, logged and compliant access, so the right users are able to access allowable resources. It should provide a convenient single point of integration with Active Directory and other authentication technologies, such as smart cards, common access cards and related security standards.

Finally, ESPs are not necessarily as easy to deploy as advertised. Each card requires network setup, user privileges, SNMP scripting, etc. Conversely, configuring a single KVM switch designed to manage 64 servers takes much less time than configuring 64 embedded processors.

Multiple KVM switches can, through a single secure interface, simplify the management of heterogeneous IT environments through a unified portal. Servers connected to KVM switches, servers with embedded service processors, and power equipment can all be managed through a centralized management interface. And configuring access to service processors is easy; simply provide a range of addresses for quick, automated discovery.

Although ESPs are typically included with servers, consider the hidden costs. A comprehensive KVM solution is easier to configure and maintain, provides stronger authentication features, and addresses multiple types of infrastructure.

Raritan is a provider of IT infrastructure management solutions to advance more efficient data centers. Raritan's portfolio of hardware and software solutions address today's data center challenges -- including operations uptime, energy costs, capacity availability and asset management -- so that IT resources can be used more efficiently and be managed effectively in order to deliver business value. Raritan is one of the largest providers of KVM (keyboard, video and mouse) switches, serial console servers and intelligent power management solutions.

Read more about data center in Network World's Data Center section.

This story, "The Hidden Costs of Embedded Service Processors" was originally published by Network World.

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