What Is Infrastructure Management Software?
To suggest that IT infrastructure has changed would be an understatement. For many organizations, the once-full server room is now vacant or nearly so. Data centers are joining your servers in the cloud. Where you have local infrastructure, the reasons have more to do with performance than cost or management overhead.
The last several years have seen an explosion of cloud and hybrid infrastructure deployments. From large enterprises with thousands of servers and petabytes (PB) of data to small operations with only five or 10 servers, the economics of easier management, elastic scalability, and low-cost data protection up to and including full-on disaster recovery (DR) can’t be ignored. But, along with a network that spans premises boundaries comes the need for a new breed of management tool. For the hybrid model, this revolves around tracking both on-premises and off-premises resources with equal ease and efficiency.
That means you’ll likely be looking for different capabilities out of a modern management tool. For one, it’ll need breadth. It should cover networking hardware, including routers and switches, firewalls, virtual private networks (VPNs), and a variety of network appliances, preferably with support for both physical networking and software-defined network (SDN) infrastructure. Add to that the usual details you’ll need from your server systems, including health, CPU status, as well as memory and disk utilization. Software entries should include specific support for key services such as Microsoft Active Directory (AD), Microsoft Exchange (or whatever email server or service the organization employs), and it’ll need to at least recognize other key business applications, especially those running as web services, back-end application servers, and databases.
Finally, direct support for specific cloud-based services you’ve deployed will also be hugely important. This should include not only support for big-name vendors, such as Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, but support for the development and management standards (like REST) observed by any cloud service providers on which you rely. Today’s businesses can literally employ dozens of such services, everything from Agiloft to Zoho Books, and if these apps represent critical production systems in your organization, your management tools need to be able to recognize them.
Local Infrastructure Still Critical, But Also Changing
Despite the near ubiquity of cloud computing, most organizations have adopted the previously mentioed hybrid model, and that means IT professionals still must deal with local infrastructure. What’s changed is that much of the local infrastructure still deployed is now focused on specific legacy processes that can’t move to the cloud, and often that needs to be reflected in how they’re managed. In some cases, the infrastructure is on-site because the business’ needs are modest while in other cases it’s because a connection to the cloud is too slow or has too much latency. A popular, and more difficult to manage, scenario is that infrastructure is running in-house becuase the data it holds is too sensitive to allow out of the building.
Another variable will be the organization’s networking hardware, which even in smaller networks will be more than just several cable runs of copper Ethernet or fiber. Much of the infrastructure in today’s businesses now either supports wireless connectivity or even uses it exclusively. Additionally, your users’ endpoints are now both frequently mobile and they usually number more than one per user. And, of course, network devices are proliferating to all kinds of new deployment areas due to the slow, but inexorable growth of the Internet of Things (IoT).
In this roundup, we look at 10 products that span both cloud and on-premises deployments, each with the ability to manage infrastructure as well as other important IT resources, including application performance management (APM) and network monitoring. A key capability that most of these contenders share is support for virtualization management, typically across premises boundaries.
For example, the products should have the ability to communicate with your chosen public cloud virtualized infrastructure provider, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Microsoft Azure; and it should be able to talk to them directly at the management interface level. Methods for gathering system information include the use of industry-standard interfaces such as the Desktop Management Task Force’s (DMTF) Web-Based Enterprise Management (WBEM) and Common Information Model (CIM) plus the Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP). Some tools will simply monitor any virtual machine (VM) running in a particular public cloud the same way it would monitor an on-premises system or virtual machine, while others will treat cloud-based Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) implementations very differently from locally virtualized resources. This usually depends on how your chosen public cloud implements software-defined infrastructure. However, some means of providing a cloud interface is important in today’s changing environment, so this represents a critical evaluation and testing point for your particular organization before you decide on a purchase. What’s best for you depends on your management preferences, business processes, economics, and often regulatory or compliance issues.
While the standards for software-defined infrastructure are still evolving, things are moving closer to more universal standards. Microsoft supports an extension of the DMTF’s standards called Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) to include a command line interface called the Windows Management Instrumentation Command-line (WMIC). It is also possible to query WMI objects by using Microsoft PowerShell. SNMP can be enabled on Windows servers as well, and continues to be available on Windows Server 2016.
More Important Features
Other key features for managing your infrastructure should include, at a minimum, the ability to manage critical resources and set performance and health alerts based on a specified threshold value. The alerts should be able to trigger the notification of a responsible party through multiple channels, typically using either email or SMS. An added plus here would be the ability to automatically remediate certain problems based on a set of predefined steps, though this can easily cross over into data center orchestration, which might then require additional management software and more cost.
Service-level agreements (SLAs) provide a way for organizations to measure the availability of mission-critical resources in order to meet agreed upon levels. Managing third-party or cloud-based services to determine if an SLA is being met could be a measure of interest as well. Products with SLA-focused features make meeting these requirements significantly easier. Reporting features should be closely tied into these SLA management capabilities to include the ability to generate reports on a regular schedule.
Many organizations provide remote access to systems inside their corporate network by using some type of VPN service. Adding the ability to connect to a system inside the network (even if the VPN hardware or service goes down) brings an extra safeguard to remote management. Similarly, having the ability to remotely execute a script or set of commands gives an IT administrator one more tool in her toolbox to prevent a trip to the data center.
Mobile apps bring convenience and an extra level of functionality, though sometimes at the expense of security. Giving an admin the ability to manage a remote system from a mobile device can save both time and money. While an externally accessible webpage gives some value, a native app typically works much better. Configuring remote access to an on-premises server can present some problems depending on how the capability is implemented.
What We’re Looking For Now
While all of the above capabilities remain important, the world has changed since the last time we delved deeply into infrastructure management, so we’re looking for more things now. The last time we published a roundup of 10 infrastructure management platforms, the cloud was less dominant, Windows Server 2012 R2 was the latest version, and everyone still had Windows 7. Today the world of servers has been moving strongly towards Linux for some years, Microsoft has been shipping Windows Server 2016 for almost two years, and the cloud is more of the standard rather than the exception.
Equally important, mobility is a fact of life in the enterprise. While these aren’t reviews of mobile device management (MDM) platforms, the existence of mobile networking support is a must. Likewise, the ability to interact with IoT management platforms will be important for many businesses, even though these aren’t reviews of IoT managers.
As the cloud becomes dominant and web-based services become critical to both back-end business and front-end commerce, the ability to provide constant monitoring of the health of key servers and their services becomes essential. That means more IT administrators need to become accustomed to managing more than just servers, routers, and switches. Depending on the organization, they’ll likely need to also manage multiple web servers running in-house developed apps; or they’ll need to manage e-commerce servers and associated point-of-sale (POS) which can include both servers and endpoints. Because data is exploding in every kind of business, the typical IT administrator’s storage mnanagement requirements are increasing, too, and becomign critical in the case of healthcare or fintech data repositories. Lastly, the IoT issue can pop up in the most unexpected ways, so don’t ignore this capability just because your organization hasn’t yet encountered it. IoT is more than just a factory floor consideration. Physical security, facilities management, even fleet management and many more traditionally “disconnected” areas of the business will soon have IoT extensions. Your management stack needs to be prepared and be able to provide immediate alerts via as many channels as necessary.
How We Tested
At a high level, our testing process included evaluating each product in the areas of installation and setup, quality and ease of use of the management interface, depth of reporting, and number and usefulness of additional features. Installation and setup have declined a little in importance if only because most large enterprises use software distribution platforms that now perform those tasks. Some products opt for “agent-less” management, which means they’re relying on the usually higher level of management that can be accomplished through standard protocols such as SNMP and WMI. If the installation process becomes burdensome, then it will become of greater interest, of course.
Judging a management interface can be a subjective process, so you should look closely at the screenshots that accompany each review. But it is possible to call out a few key capabilities. Clear graphics help an admin to see the health of the systems being managed quickly but not every installation needs to see the same things. Flexibility is critical here, and the ability to customize and organize graphics in a logical manner is important. Reporting is a critical feature area for infrastructure management, so the ability to generate exactly the reports you need is also critical.
Another primary component of great infrastructure management services includes the ability to see detailed information about key pieces of hardware such as servers and specific software services. Automated alerting and remediation make it possible to see faults immediately and take action. Trend-based reporting and monitoring help determine utilization levels and identify potential bottlenecks before they become a problem. For this reason, we used simulated outages to test alerts and notifications.
Compiling a wish list of the most desirable features for your infrastructure management service means first sitting down with your IT staff and mapping out what infrastructure you’ve got deployed today and where. Then, prioritize each element based on how critical it is to particular business processes. From those rankings, decide which of those infrastructure elements you need to track, how many people need to be on call to track them, and how you want those people to be alerted. Finally, map out where you think your infrastructure deployment roadmap will take you over the next two or three years, and then determine what requirements you’ll need to meet to make that happen.
Once you have that list of essential requirements, you should be able to look at each one of these services and determine how well they meet those requirements. If more than one service qualifies, then you’ll need to do some testing on your own to see which one best suits your needs. Pricing varies, starting with free, and then moving from a low-end, per-instance, per-month price of $0.60 to $1.16 per workstation per month.
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