Report Card: Solution Innovation: B+ (AFCOM)

Got back from the March 2012 AFCOM/Data Center World in Las Vegas and have finally captured my notes here. Whew, clearly a who’s who in the physical layer for data centers. Nearly every vendor on the planet who caters to the physical mechanics part of running IT was there. Software and hardware vendors alike. The raised floor folks, the cooling folks, the power distribution folks, and the software management DCIM folks. If something touched the data center of the future, they were there showing their current offerings. As such, it was mostly a laundry list of the same players we have seen for the past several years, showing their solutions’ progress.

AFCOM 2012: Real Data Center Progress Being Made!

AFCOM 2012: Real Data Center Progress Being Made!

YES! There REALLY IS progress and innovation beginning to poke it’s furry little head out of the ground. I am happy to report that many of the innovative approaches I have seen emerging for the past few years are progressing nicely…  customers really can get their hands on technology that directly answers an actual need that exists today. Are these solutions coordinated or integrated? In general, No. Are there hints of the maturing DCIM future? A resounding YES!

Note: On this blog site I have previously not mentioned any vendor by name. I strive to be VERY vendor neutral. With this installment, I am breaking new ground and being specific about what I see. (In subsequent entries on this blog site I will also treat specific products fairly and in context by name if it makes sense to do so).

While I visited a bunch of vendors, a couple of standout notes on seventeen of them (in no particular order other than how I walked down the aisles at various times during the day):

1. NER. New England’s booth was clean and crisp. Lots of energy in the booth with an even dialog about their Data Center assessment services and their available hardware product lines. Well organized booth and they were showing new additions to their self manufactured Ultimate Core product line, an in-row cooling fan system (pulls air from underfloor perf-tiles) as well as a new visual temperature sensing and vertical display strip that they MANUFACTURE themselves. The vertical display strip attached to the front of any perforated rack door and visually displays (high/low)  temperatures at various points along the cabinet top to bottom. Think of this as At-a-glance rack temperatures from bottom to top, in granular ‘Per-U’ fashion. Nice, simple.

2. Server Technology. Leaders in rack-based PDUs for 2 dozen years, they were showing their new Sentry Power System, which is a set of cool technologies embedded inside their PDUs and management software that tightens up the management of power in large, distributed environments. They also had their 60 Amp three phase PDUs, the highest capacity rack-based PDU I saw on the show’s floor. With their Sentry Power System, ServerTech is finally the first PDU manufacturer to address the real-world scenario of managing hundreds or thousands of PDUs deployed across an Enterprise. (Hint: The embedded pretty GUIs look great in trade shows, but how does that translate to operating a 500-cabinet data center? NOT!)

3. Emerson. Well orchestrated, discussing their new Trellis components in both hardware and software. One of the coolest hardware boxes on the floor was their top-of-the rack aggregator which supports 42 or so LAN ports just waiting for ILO and IPMI boxes to be plugged in. Think of this as a LAN switch, with specific intelligence to interact with the various protocols found in the various server vendors’ baseboard management chips. (i.e. IPMI, ILO, etc) Finally a LAN box that is MADE for servers’ BMC access and low-level management. Overheard them telling visitors to the booth that the Trellis software they have been talking about for the past 18 months was coming in ‘the next month’.. can’t wait!

4. FieldView Solutions – Fred and his team as always with roll-your-sleeves up value. Anyone looking for power and cooling management would be really pleased to see their progress. With V5.0, they now have tight integration with Microsoft’s BI tools and provide and open ODBC documented interface for their data store. Loved the new Colo/Multi-Tenant support (secured access/security/visualization)and some clean new eye-candy found in the Heat Maps. Saw a mention of new integration with Intel’s DCM program, but didn’t kick the tires just yet.  I am a bigger fan every time I see their normalized data model and it really shines when you have the time to look.

5. Cormant / CableSolve – I was not deeply aware of these folks until recently, so it was great to see them in action. Their Version 6.3 Cablesolve DCIM software has a great deal of multi-platform innovation,  and was recently re-written in HTML5 to allow integrated web/mobile/tablet/iPad access into their live model. In a nutshell, the technician making the changes to various racks actually updates the DCIM model in real-time. They, themselves are part of the workflow as it happens! I see big promise here…

6. Power Assure. Brad and Clemens should be proud. Power Assure is moving much higher up the food chain and is managing workloads and adjusting power consumption in the process. Far beyond their early wares that simply turned servers ON and OFF, they now cooperate with the server and virtualization power management technologies to orchestrate and optimize and they even interact with Intel’s CPU Stepping power technology. I am also a big fan of their PAR4 IT energy metric which attempts to quantify efficiency and helps drive strategies towards reducing costs. Anyone thinking about “Work-Per-Watt” metrics, including the next gen of PUE-like like The Green Grid’s new DCeP offering, should have a look at Par4.

7. Rackwise – Probably the biggest change here was the partnership they made publicly to Intel’s DCM program. They were pushing that story heavily and apparently looking to Intel’s DCM structure to provide a great deal of monitoring and real-time energy knowledge for their data model. Version 3.6 now fully supports Intel DCM. Intel is also apparently helping to market their solution in Europe and APAC. Of additional note, heard about the influx of great new talent to their ranks including new field resources. Good showing, looked like their booth was busy regularly.

8. Ice Edge – From Calgary. Lots of us were asking WHO they were. Spartan booth with 3D CAD-like fly-throughs. Looks like they are a facilities modelling provider from AB, with a new push toward the Data Center. Looked like AutoCAD with some focus on IT and facilities. Still felt like mostly a fit for floorplans and walls, rather than IT racks and equipment. Friendly staff. I look for more from them over time.

9. No Limits Software – Dave is on to something once again. Newcomer NLS is shipping their Version 2.0 of RaMP Software which squarely focused on scalable real-time monitoring. Think Real-Time monitoring and device discovery of devices in the rack. Think about integration of any number of brands of active devices, power and environmental sensors. Servers and blade chassis. Topology awareness and aggregation at the rack, row, pod, etc. NLS is shaping up to provide real-time understanding to otherwise disparate data information across a wide range of IT gear. I expect to see some marquee customer names kicking the tires on NLS soon as they offer a very mature approach which appeared to me to be easily deployed ‘out of the box’ (really).

10. Chatsworth Products – The days of two-story booths with spaceship light shows are mostly gone, but Chatsworth had something bold to say and their crisp arctic color scheme matters! Seriously, their booth was high tech and elegant. Traditionally masters of sheet metal and everything else mechanical in the DC, CPI was showcasing their hot-aisle containment solutions including their new TeraFrame rack with a self-closing door. They were also showing their new line of power distribution products. Well attended booth. Displayed racks were solid and precise. Looked like bet-your-business racks. The TeraFrame rack in the booth was painted Glacier WHITE and did it look sweet! 

11. FLIR. Everybody loves seeing thermal images. FLIR from the Boston area has become the standard in thermal imaging but has always been expensive and hence hard to justify for the masses. They have now introduced their “i-Series” of entry level cameras (a handheld line with 3 models, increasing in pixels, the i3, i5 and i7) starting around $1200 or so, which means they can easily become just another tool or resource for Data Center energy studies. Finally a thermal tool could become as commonplace as a CAT5 cable tester or a Fluke Multi-Meter. For technicians dealing with data center heat and cooling issues and diagnostics, I see a fun little FLIR i3 in every toolbox!

12. nlyte – Two main milestones; Some great new stuff in Version 6.2 including easy allocation of bulk assets, better cabling visualization and extensive What-If features (which can then be elevated to approved projects). Additionally they appear to be deepening their partnering efforts.  Looks like Skanska and ABB are both getting tighter with nlyte as a component of their own solutions being marketed. Customers appreciate Eco-System plays, and nlyte is positioned as a good choice in the Data Center lifecycle management space, a core DCIM player that will ultimately build-out supporting cast, with vendors like OSIsoft, ABB, Skanska, RFcode, ServerTech, etc.

13. Redwood Systems – Who knew in the early 1970’s (when LEDs become commercially available) that LEDs would become an important option in the energy-focused business model thrown upon us. LEDs are now bright and long-life and have augmented CFL and other low-power fixtures. Originally Redwood developed a great fixture and control solution based upon LEDs alone, but new at the show was how they can now apply their advanced CONTROL framework to all kinds of fixtures including traditional, CFL and LED. Turns out you can consider fixtures separately from control and get benefits from EACH! Promoting their control of traditional fixtures will surely gain them more traction and demonstrate their deep knowledge of control logic applied to building lighting.  Go Redwood!

14. RFcode – Simplicity. Wireless sensors in Data Center environments. These matchbook sized sensors can be stuck almost anywhere within a couple hundred feet of their cell repeater hub. Add to that their new rack-location complements, and they are building an amazing active-RFID solution. Where devices are installed, and what the environment readings are anywhere you can place a sensor.  (And being from Texas, they are just plain nice people to work with). best of all, RFcode knows it’s place. In their pitch to prospects, they clearly state their goal to “make DCIM better”. Say what you do, do what you say!

15. Visual Data Center – Steven and his team have introduced one of the new 3D entries in the DCIM space. Solid integration with common active devices, and yet high fidelity representation of the data center. They have one of the earliest entries in the DCIM space to offer VM awareness, where they can correlate VM instances to physical servers and study energy impacts due to virtualization, etc.  ALso saw they have new integration with Intel’s DCM power management solution. With their newest version 4.1 offering, they have introduced a range of pricing, including full Enterprise management editions,  Monitor-only versions and even their own Hosted versions. They were also discussing their VDCanywhere handheld complement that allows on-the-go access to the data and visualization of it. I see real progress here and their booth was fairly popular with attendees.

16. Universal Electric – We know these guys as the “Starline Bus” folks. I have always been amazed by how tangible hundreds of AMPS is when it is staring you in the face. Here at the show Starline was showing their recently introduced 800 AMP buses and the associated paddle plug-ins. Of specific note here was their adoption of common plugins across their 250, 400 and now 800 AMP buses. Makes it easy to re-use some of the higher volume components as the power chain capacity increases over time. Copper is king once again!

17. Tate (Floor Systems) – I have always been amazed by the innovation possible at the floor-tile level. Who Knew? Tate’s booth was pretty impressive since even as a temporary trade show installation, it was solid, precise and production ready.  Tate was showing a wide range of their products including their new in-floor cooling solutions which they call DirectAire, SmartAire & PowerAire. Essentially they plumb exchangers which are mounted and vented directly under the floor below a given rack, the latter unit including a FAN to push more air volume. Think of this as spot cooling on a data center scale.

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Mark Harris Fremont, CA
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