How Do I Select a DCIM Tool to Fit My Data Center?

Although similar in many respects, every data center is unique. In choosing a Data Center Infrastructure Management (DCIM) solution, data center managers might choose very different solutions based on their needs.  It is somewhat analogous to two people choosing a lawn care service. One might simply want the grass mowed once a week.  The other might want edging, fertilizing, seeding and other services in addition to mowing.  As a result, they may choose different lawn service companies or, at the least, expect to pay very different amounts for the service they will be receiving.  Before choosing a DCIM solution, it is important to first know what it is you want to receive from the solution.

It is also important to remember that DCIM cannot single-handedly do the job of data center management.  It is only part of the overall management solution. While the DCIM tools, or sometimes a suite of tools working together, are a valuable component, a complete management solution must also incorporate procedures which allow the DCIM tools to be effectively used.

Choosing a DCIM Solution

It is important to remember that DCIM solutions are about providing information. The question which must be asked (and answered) prior to choosing a DCIM solution is “What information do I need in order to manage my data center?” The answer to this question is the key to helping you choose the DCIM solution which will best suit your needs. Consider the following two data centers looking to purchase a DCIM solution.

Data Center A

Data Center A has a lot of older, legacy equipment which is being monitored using an existing Building Management System (BMS). The rack power strips do not have monitoring capability. The management staff currently tracks assets using spreadsheets and Visio drawings. The data has not been meticulously maintained, however, and has questionable accuracy. The primary management goal is getting a handle on the assets they have in the data center.

Data Center B

Data Center B is a new data center. It has new infrastructure equipment which can be remotely monitored through Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP). The racks are equipped with metered rack PDUs. The primary management goals are to (1) collect and accurately maintain asset data, (2) monitor and manage the power and cooling infrastructure, and (3) monitor server power and CPU usage.

Different DCIM Deployed

While both data center operators would likely benefit from DCIM, they may very well choose different solutions. The goal for Data Center A is to more accurately track the assets in the data center. They may choose to pre-load the data they have in spreadsheets and then verify the data. If so, they will want a DCIM which will allow them to load data from spreadsheets. If they feel their current data is not reliable, they may instead choose to start from ground zero and collect all of the data manually.

If so, loading the data from a spreadsheet might be a desirable feature but is no longer a hard requirement.  Since the infrastructure equipment is being monitored using a BMS, they might specify integration with their existing BMS as a requirement for their DCIM.

Data Center B has entirely different requirements. It doesn’t have existing data in spreadsheets, so they need to collect the asset data as quickly and accurately as possible. They may specify auto-discovery as a requirement for their DCIM solution. In addition, they have infrastructure equipment which needs to be monitored, so they will want the DCIM to be able to collect real-time data down to the rack level. Finally, they want to be able to monitor server power and CPU usage, so they will want a DCIM which can communicate with their servers.

Prior to choosing a DCIM solution, spend time determining what information is required to manage the data center. Start with the primary management goals such as increasing availability, meeting service level agreements, increasing data center efficiency and providing upper-level management reports on the current and future state of the data center. Next, determine the information that you need to accomplish these high-level goals. A sample of questions you might ask includes the following:

  • What data do I need to measure availability?
  • What data do I need to measure SLA compliance?
  • What data do I need to measure data center efficiency?
  • What data do I need to forecast capacity of critical resources?
  • What data do I need for upper-level management reports?

Defining Requirements

These questions will begin to define the scope of the requirements for a DCIM solution. As you start to narrow down the focus of the questions, you will also be defining more specific DCIM requirements.

For example, you might start with a requirement for the DCIM to provide real-time monitoring. This is still rather vague, however, so additional questions must be asked to narrow the focus.

How do you define “real-time” data? To some, real-time data might mean thousands of data points per second with continuous measurement. To others, it might mean measuring data points every few minutes or once an hour. There is a vast difference between a system which does continuous measurement and one which measures once an hour. Without knowing how you are going to use the data, you will likely end up buying the wrong solution. Either you will purchase a solution which doesn’t provide the data granularity you want or you will over-spend on a system which provides continuous measurement when all you want is trending data every 15 minutes.

What data center equipment do you want to monitor?
The answer to this question may have the biggest impact on the solution you choose. If you have some data center equipment which communicates using SNMP and other equipment which communicates using Modbus, for example, you will want to choose a DCIM solution which can speak both of these protocols. If you want the DCIM tool to retrieve detailed server information, you will want to choose a DCIM solution which can speak IPMI and other server protocols. Prior to talking to potential DCIM vendors, prepare a list of equipment with which you want to retrieve information.

Similar questions should be asked for each facet of DCIM — asset management, change management, real-time monitoring, workflow, and so on — to form a specific list of DCIM requirements. Prioritize the information you need so you can narrow your focus to those DCIM solutions which address your most important requirements.

This is the forth article in the Data Center Knowledge Guide to DCIM series. To download the complete DCK Guide to DCIM click here.

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  1. Great overview, Michael. The DCIM market is truly "hot" right now, and I'm finding that end-users are somewhat confused in their approach to the products available. You give two good reference examples here. I'm finding that end-users are also balancing the degree of automation that they would like to have. Another trend I'm seeing is that some firms are viewing the data center as a blending of "above and below the white space." That is, the DCIM scope applies to both MEP infrastructure and IT infrastructure. The latter case introduces even more challenges.

  2. Tara C.

    I'm glad you mentioned requirements - as a BA - these are of utmost importance to me. You bring up a good point about procedures ("a complete management solution must also incorporate procedures which allow the DCIM tools to be effectively used.") For procedures - What are some of these procedures? How can my company be sure the DCIM solution is used effectively? Do you have another article on this topic?