InfoWorld review: Dell AIM automates today's data center

Dell's adaptive infrastructure management framework has something competitors don't: support for heterogeneous hardware

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Dell AIM: Essentials and prerequisites
AIM provides a Linux-based controller that is tied into just about every aspect of a data center. It has hooks into the physical servers' out-of-band management processors (DRAC, ILOM, or ILO), and can manage blade chassis from a variety of vendors. It has hooks into the relevant portions of the switching infrastructure, be they Cisco, Dell, or Juniper switches, as well as storage switches from Brocade and Cisco. AIM can also reach out to Dell's own EqualLogic iSCSI SAN arrays to automatically provision storage.

Beyond the hardware, the solution also leverages agents running on each server instance, as well as agents installed on VMware ESX servers and other hypervisors. Further, the controller is tied into VMware's vCenter, Microsoft's Hyper-V, and Red Hat Xen virtualization frameworks.

As with any solution so ambitious, there are some up-front requirements. First and foremost is the need for the underlying network topology and configuration to be clean, well defined, and well designed. A normal implementation includes a central L2 network built specifically to allow the AIM controller to discover the various physical and virtual servers in its domain and manage them via DHCP and PXE. However, the controller will function in an L3 network as long as the requisite broadcast packet forwarding configurations are in place on the management VLAN.

As your production networks and VLANs are defined, they are displayed in an interactive network diagram, much like a live-action Visio layout, in the AIM GUI. This GUI drives everything that AIM does. To deploy a server persona -- a complete server profile including OS, applications, and hardware and networking requirements -- to a specific server node or virtual server farm, you simply drag it to a block on the diagram. The end result is that server personas can be run on either physical or virtual servers and remain connected to the networks they require, no matter where in the infrastructure they happen to reside. Personas can even be given minimum and maximum hardware rules, in which case AIM will try to run the persona on a high-end system, but if none are available will boot it on a low-end box.

AIM accomplishes all of this with the aforementioned switch interaction. When a server persona is booted on a physical server, AIM knows which switch and which switch ports that physical server is connected to, and it makes the requisite configuration changes on that switch to allow the correct networks to be presented to the persona. The switch can also be called upon to create VLAN trunks if required or to link aggregation configurations. On the storage front, if the persona is running on a Fibre Channel SAN, the server's HBAs will be configured to present the appropriate LUNs. If all that sounds like a very complex task, rest assured, it definitely is. But after initial configuration is done, the complexity is hidden beneath AIM's slick, Flash-based GUI.

The other side of that coin is virtualization. AIM is cognizant of the hypervisor configurations via hooks into the management frameworks of the three supported virtualization solutions and can make adjustments to the virtual switches as necessary. AIM can even present the correct VLANs to those hypervisors and ensure they're available to the personas that may be running as guests on those hypervisors.

There are also gradients of automation. For instance, you can instruct AIM to address any particular switch in read-only fashion, where it can gather information from the switch but is not allowed to make any modifications. In this case, when switching changes need to be made, AIM will simply alert admins about what alteration is required. It's also possible to prevent AIM from ever modifying certain switch ports, such as uplinks and so forth. In this way it's possible to implement AIM in baby steps rather than immediately handing over all the keys to the controller.

AIM's view of the physical network and server interconnections shows representations of the Ethernet switches in use, which switch ports are connected to each physical server, and the server personas running on those servers.
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