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Partners weigh discovery, capacity planning tool choices

Sizing up your customers' complex IT environments today often demands you use sophisticated tools instead of guesswork. Partners weigh in on an array of tools for discovery and capacity planning and discuss which one works best for them.

Channel companies are employing a mix of free and price-marked tools to size up their customers' increasingly complicated IT environments.

In past years, experience, rules of thumb and comparisons with customers of similar size may have been enough for solutions providers to determine the proper configuration. But customers' complex server, storage and networking deployments make the seat-of-the-pants approach somewhat risky. Organizations run a mix of physical servers and virtual machines and operate multiple tiers of storage with different capacity and performance characteristics. Resellers and integrators need to deal with more variables.

A range of tools and utilities, however, automate the task of discovering the devices that are tethered to customers' networks. Such tools collect utilization and performance data and then report the numbers for guidance in capacity planning.

Tools come from a couple of sources and provide various degrees of infrastructure coverage. Storage vendors, for example, sometimes offer their channel partners free discovery and capacity planning tools. Software companies -- ranging from major players such as Microsoft and VMware to smaller, more specialized companies -- also offer utilities. Solutions providers may need to use more than one tool to get the job done, especially when they go beyond servers and storage to explore desktops and mobile devices.

While discovery, planning and configuration tools have existed in various forms for some time, the latest crop of tools surpasses the earlier technology.

"Tools have become very sophisticated these days," said Joe Brown, president of Accelera Solutions, a Fairfax, Virginia-based solutions provider that focuses on the cloud and virtualization. "They are much easier to operate than they used to be."

A range of tools

As a virtualization specialist, Accelera leverages much of its tooling from VMware. For example, the company uses VMware's vCenter Operations Manager, which, according to VMware, probes the performance, capacity and health of an organization's IT infrastructure.

We certainly have more than enough data. It is more about how you analyze the data and what the best scenarios are for the customers.
Joe Brownpresident, Accelera Solutions

The vCenter Operations Manager utility, sometimes referred to as "vCOps," can be purchased as part of VMware's vCenter Operations Management Suite. But VMware offers the Foundation version of VCOps for free with every edition of vSphere, the company's server virtualization platform.

Brown said his company uses vCOps as its primary tool in server environments for such tasks as evaluating resource consumption and planning for future capacity requirements. He said the VMware tool lets the company evaluate a customer's current hardware environment and workload, and then determine the central processing unit (CPU) resources and I/O Operations Per Second (IOPS) necessary to support the same workload in a virtual environment.

While Accelera uses VMware tools for capacity planning on the server side, the company uses Lanamark Inc.'s Lanamark Suite for a more comprehensive view that takes into account desktops as well as servers, Brown explained. Lanamark Suite discovers customers' physical and virtual infrastructure and supports desktop virtualization and cloud migration planning.

Brown said Lanamark helps Accelera determine what it would take to transition a customer from its current computing model to a cloud-based approach.

"This tool will walk you through the process of modeling what ... the target cloud environment would look like," he said.

Outside of virtualized environments, Accelera uses tools associated with Microsoft System Center, which is used for managing Windows Server networks.

A one-tool focus

Other companies focus mainly on one discovery and capacity planning tool. Advanced Computer & Network Corporation (AC&NC), a storage solutions provider based in Pittsburgh, works with the American Megatrends Inc. (AMI) StorTrends product line and the StorTrends iDATA utility. The iDATA tool is a component of the AMI StorTrends Profit Program, a channel initiative launched in June.

Gene Leyzarovich, president of AC&NC, a StorTrends channel partner, said iDATA gauges customers' storage performance, latency and network utilization among other attributes.

"It gives us a snapshot of what they have and how we can size the storage equipment for them," he said, noting that the company has been using the utility for about four months.

Using the free-of-charge iDATA, AC&NC can look at network utilization to determine whether the customer needs gigabit Ethernet or 10-gigabit Ethernet technology. Leyzarovich said the tool also tracks IOPS usage, which he said helps determine storage requirements for virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) projects.

Leyzarovich said iDATA provides the features the company needs to size the customer's environment and propose the appropriate storage gear. He said other tools, by comparison, may just provide network monitoring or I/O monitoring. Another benefit: iDATA serves as a sales tool that the company can lead with when approaching prospective customers.

"It helps us to eliminate a lot of the back-and-forth with the customer," Leyzarovich said.

Previously, the company would ask a long list of questions over several phone calls to get a sense of the customer's IT environment and requirements. The iDATA tool, however, provides the data without the need for multiple consultations.

"It gives you a full picture right away," Leyzarovich said. "It probably saves five to 10 phone calls."

The launch of AMI StorTrends' 3500i product, solid-state drive (SSD) hybrid or full-flash storage-area network (SAN) array, prompted the company to create iDATA. AMI StorTrends rolled out a pre-production beta of the 3500i last October and soon found that customers were clamoring for a tool to size their SSD capacity requirements.

A customer may seek to replace a number of traditional spinning disks, which could include a mix of 7,200 RPM, 10,000 RPM and 15,000 RPM Serial-Attached SCSI products, Justin Bagby, director of AMI's StorTrends division, explained. Without a tool, attempting to translate such an environment into SSD capacity and IOPS would amount to guessing, he added.

As a basic input/output system manufacturer, AMI has an in-house utilities development group, which created iDATA. The tool was released in beta mode in January and went into production in April. The utility supports Windows, but a Linux version is in beta and slated for production in about a month, Bagby said.

The iDATA tool lets a partner select a customer's networks and discover the attached servers. The tool creates a list of the servers and also identifies all the disks on a server or every data store on a VMware ESX host. The partner selects which servers and storage equipment to monitor and chooses how many days to conduct the monitoring, from one to seven.

The iDATA utility collects data on such measurements as IOPS, throughput, read/write ratio, peak disk latency, peak queue depth for direct-attached storage and SAN, CPU utilization, and memory utilization. The tool also shows capacity growth over the monitored time span and extrapolates that number over a 12-month period. The tool generates a report file at the end of a monitoring run.

Tool limitations

Automated tools take the guesswork out of sizing storage and server configurations, but they face some limitations. For one, channel partners need to be mindful of the day and time that the tools run. Leyzarovich pointed to the example of a customer assessment conducted during a holiday week that came up with 6,000 IOPS, while 10,000 IOPS was a typical reading for peak hours during the customer's normal business week.

Brown, meanwhile, suggested that tools for analyzing the mobile environment could use some work. Mobile tools require partners to install a software agent on each monitored device, which Brown said can prove cumbersome in some cases. And tools lack cross-platform support, which forces solutions providers to collect data from a number of different utilities and then attempt to rationalize the data, he added.

Another difficulty is not the fault of the tools, but rather a consequence of their ability to extract data from customers' IT deployments. Brown said the top challenge isn't collecting information, but how to use it for the customer's benefit.

"We certainly have more than enough data," Brown said. "It is more about how you analyze the data and what the best scenarios are for the customers."

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Which discovery and/or capacity planning tools do you use? What are their best/worst features?