AIM for Infrastructure Visibility in the Data Center
LeaAnn Carl

AIM for Infrastructure Visibility in the Data Center

By delivering greatly improved visibility into the network, AIM systems improve security, MTTR, and service agility.

LeaAnn Carl is the product line manager for CommScope's Automated Infrastructure Management (AIM) solution. 

Data center managers are always implementing new applications and network technologies, and that often means deploying new optical fiber and equipment. The migration to higher speeds can add complexity as new optical interfaces are deployed: Some equipment is suited to duplex fiber, while parallel fiber paths are best suited to other types of network equipment.  As a result, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to track and manage the large number and variety of connections to ensure that work proceeds efficiently and without the risk of costly application outages.

Automated Infrastructure Management (AIM) systems provide the visibility that is critical to support the rapid migration to higher speeds, and the fabric-like nature of modern data center networks, where everything is connected to everything else with an evolving mix of duplex and parallel connectivity. In this article, we’ll look at how AIM systems improve data center visibility and governance.

Visibility Challenges in the Modern Data Center

A modern data center can house thousands of devices connected by tens of thousands of optical circuits, some duplex and some parallel. Manually drawn network diagrams are often obsolete as soon as the ink is dry, and using other primitive tools like Excel spreadsheets does not provide an overall view of the data center network with the ability to drill down to specific connections or devices. This state of affairs presents challenges in five key data center management scenarios:

  • Unscheduled connections or disconnections: Too often (and just once may be too often), network technicians will inadvertently plug a cable into the wrong port or disconnect the wrong cable. In most cases, the network administrator has no knowledge of this error until it causes downtime for users or applications, with ever costlier consequences.
  • Troubleshooting: One key goal in the data center is to reduce downtime and mean time to repair (MTTR). When a situation arises that needs repair, every minute counts, and it can take hours for a technician using a manual network map to trace the problem to the right cable or device.
  • Finding the location of a network device: Manual record-keeping systems typically list the characteristics of networked devices, but do not necessarily keep track of the device’s location and end-to-end connectivity trace. Even if the location is listed, it may have been necessary to move the device or its connections at some point, and this change was never documented. This can make finding a particular device a challenging and time-consuming exercise.
  • Service provisioning: When provisioning services, technicians or administrators often have to hunt for available ports on switches and patch panels, and they may not take the shortest or most efficient route from the switch to the service device.
  • Server decommissioning: When retiring or replacing a server, it is important to ensure that the server connectivity is also removed and the status of infrastructure and switch ports is updated in the process—freeing up switch port and panel capacity. In a typical data center, verifying status of connectivity elements left over after server decommissioning may require a technician to manually trace cables to see where they lead – a process that can take hours.

How AIM Systems Help

AIM systems combine automated network mapping, connectivity state awareness, reporting, work order management, and alarms to provide the critical visibility needed into the interdependent physical layer as well as the myriad devices connected to it. An AIM system knows where every cable goes, where every networked device is located, and which ports are in use or idle. An AIM system performs the following functions:

  • Accurately documents the end-to-end connectivity between networked devices
  • Tracks, in real time, all changes to physical-layer connections
  • Generates alerts for unauthorized or unplanned changes
  • Issues alerts when changes occur on critical circuits
  • Discovers and tracks network-connected devices
  • Generates electronic work orders for guided deployment
  • Delivers full reporting capabilities, including generation of custom reports
  • Identifies unused IT assets and cabling available for reuse
  • Simplifies and streamlines work flows through powerful process automation

AIM is an innovative way to help administrators manage their networks and drive more value out of their physical-layer investments while addressing the three main challenges IT managers face today: optimizing capacity, optimizing availability, and optimizing efficiency.

Optimizing capacity – With its ability to track utilization of panels, cabling, and switch ports, an AIM system provides real-time data on how physical-layer assets are being used while assisting in the planning process. As a result, addressing capacity challenges is not achieved solely by purchasing additional infrastructure; rather, the AIM system’s sophisticated tools reveal all active and inactive ports, enabling administrators to purchase only what is needed.

Optimizing availability – An AIM system reduces time-intensive manual processes, generating electronic work orders and enabling guided administration of connectivity changes. As a result, both human errors and network downtime are minimized. Visibility into end-to-end circuits means all changes are fully documented, and in the event of a network failure, a root cause analysis can be quickly established, with service quickly restored.

Optimizing efficiency – Real-time management of the physical layer ensures that stranded switch ports are identified and repurposed, rather than remaining idle while continuing to consume power. AIM systems provide this real-time management and also optimize server deployment and de-commissioning.

As an analogy, an AIM system provides Google Maps-like functionality for the network infrastructure. It provides a holistic view of the network and how the infrastructure and assets are being used, as well as the optimal connectivity routes between devices, enabling users to optimize the allocation and use of the network’s resources and to troubleshoot problems quickly.

AIM Systems Benefits

By delivering greatly improved visibility into the network, AIM systems improve security, MTTR, and service agility.

Security improves with AIM because the longer a security breach goes unaddressed, the more dangerous and costly it can be. AIM systems alert administrators to security issues and help them pinpoint security problems by identifying the location of an improperly connected cable, for example, or by searching for the location of an affected device and rapidly dispatching a technician directly to that device.

MTTR can be slashed with an AIM system because the system can not only identify the precise location of the problem, but also generate an automated work order that walks the technician through the steps required to fix the problem. An AIM system enables guided patching, where the system can send an electronic work order down to each rack and guide technicians with an electronic display and blinking lights on ports to direct them to where they should connect a patch cord, for example. Guided electronic work orders improve speed and accuracy while keeping track of activity and automatically updating documentation, even for complex parallel and duplex circuits.

Service agility improves greatly with an AIM system because the network administrator can know in advance how a change in services will impact the network infrastructure, and can plan the service rollout with detailed instructions about how to connect cables, switches, servers, and other devices. Service provisioning capabilities eliminate the need to manually select connectivity routes and ports, automatically selecting the optimal primary and backup connectivity routes. Trial and error is eliminated, and with it potential hours of delayed service implementation.

AIM systems now conform to several international standards, including the definition of a standardized API that can integrate the AIM system’s information with other network and data center management tools such as change management tools, DCIM systems or network management platforms.

As data center networks migrate to higher speeds, the data center infrastructure is becoming more complex as equipment and applications are added over time, and manual record-keeping is no longer sufficient to optimize the network. AIM systems that are capable of tracking duplex and parallel optical connectivity can deliver an accurate, real-time view of all data center connections to improve security, MTTR and service agility.

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