DCIM: what it is and what it does

Data Centre Infrastructure Management holds unquestionable worth, but with the wealth of DCIM tools in the market, IT managers must choose carefully.

Curious about DCIM? Choosing a data centre infrastructure management tool can be a daunting task, but doing so can go a long way toward making your data centre more efficient.

DCIM is a relatively new term that many vendors are now using to refer to their tools and technologies for lifecycle management of a data centre. DCIM brings together what used to be stand-alone functions such as data centre design, asset discovery and management, capacity planning and energy management. In some cases, it even encompasses certain systems management functions. 

DCIM incorporates facilities management (FM) and information technology (IT) functions, and the crossover is both its greatest strength and its biggest problem.

Why IT and facilities need DCIM

A data centre manager often butts heads with the FM team because FM sees the data centre as just one part of its overall domain, whereas, for the data centre manager, it is the main focus of his department’s very being. This can lead to finger pointing when the FM group doesn’t move fast enough or refuses to adapt an existing data centre facility in order to meet energy distribution needs of growing equipment densities. Ultimately, that causes the business to suffer from a sub-optimal data centre.

DCIM helps in such situations by enabling FM and IT to work together against a common dataset so that each can be better informed. 

Let’s say a data centre manager needs some extra kW of power for a new IT platform architecture. The FM team, however, doesn’t have access to the power cabling it needs outside of the data centre facility.

By plugging DCIM tools into the FM team’s tools such as building information systems (BIS), the data centre manager can then understand the constraints that are outside of the data centre itself. The manager also understands what changes he must bring to the facility based on future equipment plans. 

Likewise, the FM team gains greater insights into what will be required from the facility when it comes to power and cooling and can start to plan accordingly.

The main players in the DCIM market include Emerson Network Power, Modius, nlyte Software (formerly GDCM) and Romonet. There are also a host of smaller, more niche software vendors.

DCIM had virtually no market penetration until 2009. But thanks to the highly dynamic nature of data centres and the strong focus on energy efficiencies driven by, for example, power usage effectiveness (PUE) measures, DCIM is playing a bigger role in data centre managers’ tooling strategies.

DCIM tool requirements

That said, what should a DCIM tool be able to do? 

At a minimum, any DCIM system you pick should include the following things:

  • Basic data centre asset discovery: A DCIM tool should be able to create an inventory of what already exists within a data centre facility, including servers, storage and networking equipment and other network-attached systems, as well as facility systems such as power distribution units, uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) and chillers, typically added manually.
  • Advanced asset information: A DCIM system should also include databases of equipment along with real-world energy requirements. Data centre managers must remember that using “plate” values (the power details printed on the equipment) will lead to massive over-estimation of energy requirements. This is because plate values give the rating of the power supply -- not the average energy draw.
  • Granular energy monitoring: Whether it’s done through the use of specialised power distribution units or by making the most of intelligence built directly into the equipment, DCIM tools must be able to monitor and report on real-time energy draws. This will help data centre managers identify spikes that can indicate the start of a bigger problem and lead to remedial action.
  • Detailed reporting: DCIM tools’ dashboards should be capable of providing different views for different individuals. For example, an FM employee may want to see the loads being applied against a power distribution unit, while an IT employee may want to know if there is sufficient power available for an additional server in a specific rack. Both teams need to be able to work against the same data, drill down through the views to identify the root cause of a problem, and discuss areas of mutual concern with one another.
  • Computational fluid dynamics (CFD): Today’s data centres are prone to overheating, and it is important to ensure that cooling is applied effectively. CFD analyses air flows and shows where hotspots are likely to occur. The CFD analysis should also be able to provide advice on how to change the air flows to remove such hotspots.
  • 2-D and 3-D data centre schematics: Preferably, the schematics produced by a DCIM tool should be active, operating against live equipment data and filterable. For example, it should be possible to look only at the network wiring, or only at the server topology, or only at the ducted cooling systems -- or to be able to overlay a mix of different systems as required. The schematics should display CFD Computational Fluid Dynamics analysis results to help data centre managers visualise hotspots and understand if there is an easy solution such as re-routing some cooling.
  • Structured cabling management: Many data centres, particularly those with raised floors, rapidly lose any structure to their cabling, using long cables when shorter ones would do, and looping or pushing any extra cable length out of the way. The lack of structure is not just messy; it also impedes air flow and can result in data transmission issues stemming from interference between power and data cables. Structured cabling -- where data and power are carried in different sectors and the cables are bundled in an engineered manner -- can help avoid such issues. DCIM software should show where cables should be placed and tell the user what length of cable is actually required.
  • Environmental sensor management: With data centres running at higher temperatures and increasingly using free or low-cost cooling, DCIM tools must integrate with environmental sensors to alert IT when temperatures are exceeding allowable limits. With this information, the IT team can take action such as increasing cooling or identifying an underlying issue such as an equipment failure. A DCIM tool’s environmental monitoring and management capabilities should not be limited to temperature but also include humidity, smoke and water and even infrared sensors.
  • Event management: A DCIM system must be able to initiate events based on what it identifies. Such an event engine has to integrate with an organisation’s systems management software, its trouble ticketing systems and its security systems so that all actions that take place within the data centre are appropriately logged.
  • “What if” scenario capabilities: Increasingly, DCIM systems can help data centre managers try out new ideas and gauge their impact. For example, increasing the energy requirements on a specific rack may require changes to its power distribution and cooling capabilities, whereas placing the new equipment into an existing, partially-filled rack elsewhere may mean that the equipment can be introduced without any changes to the facility. DCIM systems should not just be able to show the direct outcome of a proposed change, but should also be capable of advising alternative approaches.

These are some of the attributes that any DCIM system you are considering should have. 

More on DCIM

How to successfully manage a data centre using DCIM tool sets
Role of DCIM systems in data centre energy efficiency
DCIM tools inch closer to facilities-IT Kumbaya 

The DCIM tools have many other capabilities too. Common features include measuring and managing carbon emissions, automated system design to help with platform and facility migration, and cost and capacity planning. But, it is up to each organisation and its data centre team to select a tool based on what is most important to them.

DCIM is now something that data centre managers must consider to ensure that their facilities run at an optimal level. Failure to use DCIM tools will result in lower systems availability and  less flexibility for supporting the organisation.

Clive Longbottom is a service director at UK analyst company Quocirca Ltd. and a contributor to SearchVirtualDataCentre.co.uk.

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