Group tries to steer utility computing

BOSTON (10/17/2003) - The creators of a proposed data-center standard say their efforts could help remove obstacles in the way of IT executives trying to build utility-based computing infrastructures. Observers applaud the effort but say its chances of survival are slim if the standard doesn't win support from major players such as IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc.

Outsourcing services company Electronic Data Systems Corp. (EDS) and management software maker Opsware Inc. initiated work on Data Center Markup Language (DCML), an XML-based standard for describing the various components running in a data center and how those components interoperate.

By increasing visibility into data-center operations, DCML will help control complexity and reduce management costs, proponents say.

Unruly data centers have become a problem for IT executives as numbers of servers and applications - including dozens of disconnected management systems that don't share information - have skyrocketed, said Marc Andreessen, chairman of Opsware, at an event held last week to launch DCML.

"Data centers are experiencing an ongoing, continuous onslaught of new technologies," he said.

Opsware and its biggest customer, EDS, along with Computer Associates International Inc., signed on as governing members of the DCML Organization, which boasts 25 vendor members.

Companies committing to getting the standard off the ground by early next year include network management vendors such as Micromuse Inc., infrastructure software maker BEA Systems Inc., and software start-ups such as Configuresoft Inc. and Relicore Inc.

The proposed DCML standard will provide an inventory of data-center elements, describe how those pieces interoperate and define the various policies that bind them together.

It encompasses a range of data-center gear, including network and storage components; software infrastructure and applications; and Unix, Linux, Windows and other servers.

With this information tied together, companies will be able to more easily reproduce, rebuild or re-provision any portion of their data-center environment, Andreessen said.

Users will be able to automate time-consuming processes such as deploying, upgrading and patching servers. Also, for disaster-recovery purposes, DCML can be used as a blueprint to reproduce a complete data-center infrastructure - including component dependencies, device configurations, operational rules and management processes.

Further, DCML will provide a foundation to enable utility computing, its backers say.

Linking existing IT management systems is a prerequisite to achieving the much touted but still elusive vision of a utility-computing infrastructure made up of self-healing, self-managing, self-protecting and self-provisioning systems.

"A real-time infrastructure requires an integration platform to give IT managers visualization of the components and the service, and to help them automate the process," says Donna Scott, a research director with Gartner Inc.

She says enabling the islands of network, servers, storage and applications to share data will help companies implement a higher-level and more-automated means to manage data centers.

The variety of vendors committing to DCML reflects the range of systems and technologies that must communicate with each other in today's enterprise data centers to enable more automation and, ultimately, utility computing.

Yet noticeably absent among DCML's backers are Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), IBM, Microsoft and Sun - all of which announced utility-computing strategies in the past year. Opsware partnered earlier this year with HP and says HP's involvement in the standard initially will be through that relationship.

For its part, Microsoft recently announced its Systems Definition Model (SDM), which provides a format for encoding Windows application-component requirements.

DCML backers say that ultimately users will be able to feed SDM component requirements directly into DCML-defined constraints for Windows applications.

Without the support of major players, the DCML Organization will be unlikely to effect much change in the data center, says Lance Travis, vice president at AMR Research Inc.

"They can build adapters to the systems, networking and storage components that will enable their reference code and products to work, but without the direct support of the big systems vendors, DCML will remain of limited use," Travis says.

In general, having a standard that supports provisioning and change management across multiple platforms would be beneficial - if it comes to fruition, Travis says.

However, "the gap between standards and real products is huge, and I don't expect this group to cross that gap in any significant way anytime soon," he says.

The best thing for the DCML Organization would be to finish Version 1 of the DCML specification and then get absorbed by a larger existing standards group, Travis suggests.

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