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Bare-metal provisioning puts OSes, applications on tap

Are operating systems and applications irrevocably tied to the servers that run them? Perhaps not.

Imagine keeping a block of servers ready for whatever program you need to run at that instant. As peak demand hits, copies of the program can be quickly added to these servers. As demand falls off, they can be removed just as quickly, making way for the next needed program.

A handful of companies have started offering software that enables organizations to operate their data centers in this very manner, called bare-metal provisioning.

'IT operations today are very labor intensive,' said Steve Levine, vice president of corporate marketing for Cassatt Corp. of San Jose, Calif. Automating administration tasks wherever possible can help reduce maintenance costs, but it also lets agencies allocate resources far more dynamically, makers of bare-metal provisioning software claim.

Remote provisioning itself is nothing new. Companies such as LanDesk Software Inc. of South Jordan, Utah, have long offered software to remotely install operating systems on computers across a network. Bare-metal provisioning makes even more dynamic use of networked computers. It lets administrators quickly toggle operating systems and even applications on servers to meet fluctuating demands.

In addition to Cassatt, companies entering this fray include Virtual Iron Software Inc. of Acton, Mass., and Scyld Computing Corp. of Annapolis, Md., which is a subsidiary of scalable-computer vendor Penguin Computing Inc. of San Francisco.

The basic idea goes something like this: Instead of devoting data center servers to one fixed set of applications on one operating system, you store only reference copies of a few operating systems and applications on central servers. When the organization needs a particular service, it can quickly spread copies of that operating system and application out to however many servers are needed to execute the task.

In most cases of bare-metal provisioning, the operating system isn't even installed on the hard drive of the server, but rather just runs in the working memory. A server needs only a network card that allows the machine to boot an operating system over the network.

Cassatt's software, called Collage, controls a collection of servers by using a small number of dedicated servers as administrative nodes, Levine said. The administrative nodes hand off an operating system, either Microsoft Windows or Linux, and associated program to one or more of the data center servers.

Scyld's software, called Scyld Beowulf, works in a similar manner. The software places on each machine a stripped-down Linux operating-system kernel, device drivers for all the hardware it detects, and the required application and related libraries.

Since the server doesn't carry the overhead of running a full operating system, it creates a lightweight virtual environment for that application, said Donald Becker, president of Scyld.
A large application might run 10 to 15 percent faster than it would on a server with a fully-installed operating system.

Cleared for upgrades

The bare-metal approach also cuts the time required for enterprisewide software upgrades and reconfigurations, Becker said. The upgrade doesn't need to be installed on each machine, but only on the reference implementation.

'It is easier to fix one machine than a thousand machines,' Becker said.

Steve Elliot, research manager for research firm IDC Corp. of Framingham, Mass., said remote-provisioning companies are moving toward support of more complex data-center environments, but the field remains young. In particular, he is skeptical of companies claiming to be able to dynamically provision complex applications.

'Application architectures are only getting more sophisticated. There are a lot of different processes involved in application management that increase the complexity,' he said.

An application may require a cadre of supporting elements, such as databases, storage systems and even other applications. All of those interelated components need to be managed as one entity.
Another challenge these companies face is dealing with the varying number of operating systems, servers and applications that exist in any given data center.

Mixing it up

'When you start talking heterogeneity and the way different types of platforms interact, then it gets a lot more complex very quickly,' Elliot said.

Sun Microsystems Inc.'s new provisioning software'available later this year'is designed to manage a wider environment than Sun's own equipment. The Sun N1 System Manager eventually will be able to provision not only the Solaris OS but Red Hat Linux and Microsoft Windows.

Unlike Scyld and Cassatt software, Sun's actually installs the operating system onto the hard drive of each computer. But it also offers a lot of features that allow administrators to automate management tasks, allowing them to provision servers far more quickly than by hand.

This software, now available in beta, can seek and discover machines on a network that have no operating system, said Hal Stern, Sun's chief technology officer. The administrator can then cluster these machines into groups and remotely install operating systems and applications through an administrative console.

Using bare-metal provisioning tools in such a manner organizations can help organizations manage resources more efficiently, Sun officials say.

'The more dynamic the environment, the more payback you get,' said Jim Sangster, marketing director for Sun's availability products group.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

Reader Comments

Mon, Mar 9, 2009

Good analysis, Joab. We use LinMin www.LinMin.com and their bare metal provisioning and imaging products. Very solid, very affordable. Many of our staff were used to "traditional" (expensive and capable) solutions like IBM Tivoli, Altiris, etc., and were somewhat surprised (shocked?) when they saw how easy LinMin was to use, for practically free (a few dollars per system). But it's the ease of installation and the flexibility that won them over ("hey, I don't care what it costs, does it make my job easier?") We provision and image every imaginable version of Linux and the good old reliable Windows 2003 server. Check it out.

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