APC's good Big Brother

Capable NetBotz monitoring system usefully combines multiple sensors and surveillance

How’s the weather in your datacenter? Could you pull up a time line graph of temperature, humidity, and maybe even video footage of the room on a whim? Using APC’s NetBotz monitoring appliances and InfraStruXure Central management console, you could.

Environmental monitoring for server rooms, wiring closets, and datacenters isn’t exactly uncommon, but advances in this field are making it far easier to tap into that data and make it work for you. APC’s NetBotz solution provides a wide array of sensors, microphones, and cameras, as well as software that ties it all together. In the past few months, I’ve installed a number of NetBotz hardware sensors and cameras in and around the lab and fed all of their data into the APC InfraStruXure Central server. I’ve never had so much information on the climate in the lab, not to mention the video clips of me swearing mightily while trying to rack a 130-pound Sun server.

The NetBotz monitoring appliances come in a few different flavors. The NetBotz WallBotz 500 is a black metal box with power, network, and USB connections that can be mounted on the wall or on an included articulating arm. On the side of the WallBotz are card-edge connectors that can be used to dock sensor modules or cameras; additional sensor modules and cameras can be connected via USB to the same unit.

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Other NetBotz models include the NetBotz 400 and the NetBotz 420, which is a rack-mount version of the 400. These are lower-end units that offer most of the environmental monitoring capabilities of the 500 but lack the USB ports to connect other sensors or cameras. 

Fly on the wall
The NetBotz appliances are bulky and a bit unwieldy, with the WallBotz 500’s cabling scattered along the bottom of the unit and the fixed camera lens requiring manual focus. In a datacenter environment, it would be simpler to have all the sensors and cameras cabled back to a rack-mount unit, allowing cameras to be placed where needed without having to worry about the placement of unrelated sensor leads. This is possible but requires putting in place more hardware than is strictly necessary. That said, each NetBotz unit I tested was built like a tank, and they withstood far more abuse than a normal environment is likely to dish out.

Each sensor pod or camera pod can be docked directly to a compatible NetBotz unit, or cabled off using standard USB cabling. The maximum distance for USB 1.1 is 80 feet, and you can go this distance with the NetBotz pods using USB extension cables, which are surprisingly expensive. Once in place, sensors for temperature, humidity, dew point, water presence, and airflow are available, as are magnetic triggers to record when datacenter doors are opened. Each of these sensors can be managed independently, given their own alert thresholds, and controlled by scriptable actions. With the speaker outputs on the camera pods, it’s even possible for WAV files to be played through those speakers when a threshold is met. This means that if you want the USS Enterprise door snick to be played whenever the datacenter door is opened, you can have your wish.

The NetBotz cameras do not pan, tilt, or zoom, and they require manual focus, but the video quality is suitable for most applications. The cameras also function as motion detectors. Alerts can be generated when movement is seen, and the camera can begin recording a video stream to disk, including the scene slightly before the alert to capture the entire event. These videos are stored as clips in the InfraStruXure Central console, and they’re referenced by camera name and date. The search functions permit basic timeframe searches, and clips can be pulled up quickly. I noticed a few instances of dropped frames, but generally the playback was smooth. You can configure captures at frame rates between 1fps and 30fps.

Although InfraStruXure Central isn’t a requirement, it’s certainly handy for collecting data from many sensors. Available in a standard 1U or 2U rack server, InfraStruXure Central functions as a clearinghouse for all monitoring appliances, consolidating video and environmental data and offering a functional UI for live and historical monitoring of any unit or collection of units. Initial setup is simple, but navigating the plethora of options within the UI can be daunting at first. Nonetheless, I’m glad APC leaned toward increased functionality at the slight expense of usability.

Single sentry
Even without InfraStruXure Central, the NetBotz WallBotz 500 hardware is quite usable. The built-in Web browser offers at-a-glance sensor readouts, alert status, sensor graphs, and full-motion video at up to 30fps at 640-by-480 resolution within a browser.

Configuration of the device must be done via the Windows-based NetBotz Advanced View tool, which offers the same views as the Web UI as well as the configuration tools. As a stand-alone device, the WallBotz 500 can generate e-mail alerts based on configurable thresholds and store video clips on an external NFS volume or SMB drive mount. This allows for continuous video clip archiving but doesn’t offer the same level of clip searching and indexing that’s available through the InfraStruXure Central console.

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With or without InfraStruXure Central, the NetBotz devices can generate warning e-mails when thresholds are eclipsed, though getting those thresholds just right can take some tweaking. When thresholds are reached, the number of alert e-mails sent by default can be staggering. In one high-temperature situation, the WallBotz 500 sent nearly 50 messages in a 20-minute period. It’s slightly aggravating but also inescapable — you’ll definitely know there’s a problem.

Overall, the NetBotz solution offers plenty of monitoring functionality in datacenter and closet locations, and the video functions are certainly useful, but to fully realize the benefits of the video surveillance you’ll need InfraStruXure Central. I’m hoping that the next iteration of these devices does away with the USB-only connections and leverages PoE to allow camera and sensor pod placement within 300 feet of any PoE switchport, connecting via TCP/IP back to the central NetBotz device. PoE support would extend the usefulness of the NetBotz solution significantly. For now, it’s a solid way to gain both immediate and historical information on the environmental health of any location.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Security (10.0%)
Management (20.0%)
Configuration (20.0%)
Capability (20.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Scalability (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
APC NetBotz and InfraStruXure Central 4.0 9.0 8.0 8.0 9.0 8.0 7.0 8.1
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