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Dell: When is a vCenter plug-in not a vCenter plug-in?

Just a few short weeks ago Dell launch their Management Plug-in for VMware vCenter.

Just a few short weeks ago Dell launched their Management Plug-in for VMware vCenter. I was recently fortunate...

enough to be given a guided tour of its capabilities, and to discuss with Dell their future plans. I was even lucky enough to be offered remote access to a pre-configured environment – that was handy because I don’t run Dell servers in my lab environment, although I recently took on loan two Dell Equallogic’s arrays as part of my ramping up ready to write the next thrilling installment on VMware’s Site Recovery Manager. For now it’s a bit make-do and mend with a couple of antiquated HP Proliants that went out of warranty some years ago!  So it certainly was very useful to have a one-on-one session with the guys from Dell – because there’s nothing like seeing the technology in action as opposed to a steam of endless PowerPoints!

Before I get into features and functionality, lets talk about price and terminology. That’s usually the last thing on my agenda – but I feel there might be chance to clear up a misconception. When in the VMware community we use the word “plug-in” we very often think of some teeny-tiny piece of software that extends the functionality of vCenter by adding a little option here and there. Often these teeny-tiny bits of software are free, and written by enthusiasts trying to make a name for themselves in the vCommunity. When vendors write these sort of plug-ins often times they are treated like “Easter Eggs” compared to the main course, and a way of ticking the box that says “We integrate with VMware.”

As the session went on I began to realize how the term “plug-in” is somewhat out of place in this case. The Dell Management Plug-in is so much more than just some teeny-tiny plug-in, and so long as Dell remains committed to it as strategy then I can see how in the long-term vCenter will be the central point from which you manage your VMware, and your Dell assets. It’s precisely this direction that Dell is espousing, so there’s more to this management lark than adding a “connect via RDP” to the VM menu in vCenter.

On the cost front there’s a sliding scale of – the more Dell servers you have the more you pay. And I will leave it to you decide whether these constitute value for your money. I guess what I really need to do now is get into the features and functionality – and that will help you decide how much bang you're getting for your buck.

$299.00 Dell vCenter Plug in – 3 11G servers – 1 license, version 1.0, 3 year Maintenance Upgrades – core
$799.00 Dell vCenter Plug in – 10 11G servers – 1 license, version 1.0,  3 year Maintenance Upgrades – core
$1,799.00 Dell vCenter Plug in – 50 11G servers – 1 license, version 1.0, 3 year Maintenance Upgrades – core
$2,999.00 Dell vCenter Plug in – up to 1000 11G servers – 1 license, version 1.0, 3 year Maintenance Upgrades – core

It seems likely that Dell will be reviewing this pricing as the market evolves, and they gain feedback from customers. So it seems likely that they will modify the licensing policy to allow for multiple vCenter instances that are common in large corporate datacenters.

Broadly speaking, the Dell Management Plug-in functionality can be broken down into enabling you to carry out management tasks in four main areas:

  • Monitoring & Alerting
  • Deployment & Provisioning of Physical ESX host
  • Firmware Updates
  • •Hardware Management

At the heart of the plug-in is a virtual appliance that acts as a broker to management interfaces of host, and for that integration to work there will be a need for robust set of permissions and rights to control who can do what and where. The Dell Management Plug-in has these from the get-go with it piggy backing on the APIs within vCenter:

As well as adding innumerable alarms and alerts along side the built-in ones from VMware.

Dell did a lot of work to make these alarms meaningful and useful. As you might know in a great number of products these alarms can be quite cryptic at times. They also included some interesting remediation actions based on the result of the alarms. So with the Dell Management Plug-in if your server experiences a PDU failure, this can be trapped as an alarm. The plug-in can then trigger a maintenance mode on the affected host, to evacuate all the VMs whilst you carry out essential hardware – and avoid the situation where an unnecessary HA event is triggered because of the unexpected failure of the second PDU.

The Dell Management Plug-in adds an additional tab to vCenter which allows you to monitor the status of the hardware – above and beyond the kind of common objects you see within “health status” of the vSphere Client.

Note:

  • The Hardware option shows FRUs, Memory, NICs, PCI slots, Power Supplies, Processors, and the RAC including its IP, MAC address and type
  • The Storage option here defaults to showing the local PERC RAID controller card of the Dell server
  • The Firmware option allows you to upgrade the firmware directly from Dell or from your own local source. This firmware update process integrates with VMware’s maintenance mode such that if DRS is enabled for “Fully-Automated” then the Dell Management Plug-in will evacuate the hosts of VMs, before attempting to apply the firmware bundle

  • Once the firmware update has been completed then you can trigger a maintenance mode, and a reboot, or alternatively postpone the reboot until VMware’s Update Manager patches ESX – both the firmware and VMware updates are applied at the same time.
  • The Warranty Status – displays your provider details, together with the start and end dates – and calculates how many days left of warranty you have.

The option to Launch Remote Access and the OMSA open up separate web pages and you will be challenged for user credentials. I did ask Dell if they intend to add a “pass-through authentication” element to the DRAC board. My idea is just as you can open a console on a VM, you should be able to get a console on a physical server too. The plug-in has that right now, but you would still need to authenticate the DRAC. Most BMI/RAC cards I’ve used support a configuration that is to Active Directory or an LDAP service – and my theory is that we could cut down the number of logins by intertwining the vCenter credentials passed-through to the DRAC. Dell said that was something they were thinking about doing in future releases. I guess by then we will be “locking” our vCenter sessions, as we currently lock our workstations – to prevent intercepted access.

The part of the Dell Management Plug-in that really caught my eye was its capacity to deploy ESX and other hypervisors to the hardware.  I thought this was already quite sophisticated. It allows you to add in Dell servers to the management page and identify them by the DRAC details, the installation is carried out across the network without the use of PXE, and include parameters such as how to RAID up the local storage controller ready for the installation.

There’s two parts to the setup routine – the first to create a “Hardware Template”, which then can be selected through the wizard. This template defines the generic settings for the server, and can be created by merely pointing at existing “reference server”. In this respect the hardware template, is very similar to the way VMware “Host Profiles” can be created from an existing ESX host.  The other type of Dell template is the “Hypervisor Template” which prepares the system ready for specific virtualization platform in my case, VMware ESX. These “Hypervisor Templates” can automate VMware specific tasks such as joining the ESX host to vCenter:

I think the master plan would be that deployment would merely be a process of registering a new server by its DRAC, and then first applying the Dell templates (Hardware and Hypervisor), and then once the installation is completed the VMware Host Profile would be applied. This would at a stroke dispense with the need for complicated scripted installation of the past – assuming you’re a VMware Enterprise Plus customer with access to the Host Profiles feature. During the Dell part of the process the deployment wizard allows you to select the appropriate templates, and set the server-specific details such as its IP address, hostname, and selecting which NIC would be used for the ESX Service Console or ESXi Management Network.

Of course there’s always room for improvement – so I hope to see even more integrated approach to DRAC access in future releases, and also a more robust engine for gathering all this useful information in a reporting feature. For the moment there is a summary on the “Cluster” tab in the vSphere Client, together with the ability to export Dell system log information. From the firmware update perspective I suspect that Dell will want to integrate more closely with VMware Update Manager, than they have been able to do in this release. This will enable Dell customers to do both firmware and VMware updates from one location.
Conclusions:
Overtime I imagine that Dell will consolidate their various plug-ins into one Über plug-in that will allow you to manage Dell PowerEdge Servers and blades, Dell Equallogic Arrays and Dell PowerConnect Ethernet switches. That’s the story that played out with the storage vendors like NetApp and EMC. They started off with a collection of different plug-ins, but eventually consolidated them into a single plug-in.  It’s clear that Dell wants to take on the likes of Cisco UCS and HP Matrix in the “buy from one OEM” war that is brewing on the horizon. It’s hard to see how the “best of breeds” approach will survive without that kind of coalition we have seen with the VCE programme – as its precisely this sort of integration customers will be looking for in the “Stack Wars”.

If you look at the range of plug-ins currently available you can see perhaps VMware's clever little plan may now be beginning to bear fruit. When I was a VMware instructor I used to explain to my students that VMware’s sneaky plan was to make vCenter focus of folks daily administrative lives – with VMware encouraging its partners to plug-in to it. In that way they were offering core extensible management platform from which other vendors could snap-in additional functionality. I think it’s unlikely that this level of integration will entirely usurp the full-functionality of a vendor’s management tool. But if a plug-in gives the administrator access to the 10% of the functionality they use 99% of the time, then its hard to see why they want to crank up yet another administration tool when it may be easier, quicker and simpler from vCenter than elsewhere.

This was last published in February 2011

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