How To Use Tablets To Manage A Data Centre

Data centre staff aren’t immune from the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend, but do tablets have a practical application when it actually comes to managing data centres? The answer is ‘yes’, but you need to plan carefully and recognise the potential limitations of popular tablet platforms.

Data centre picture from Shutterstock

Joseph Furmanski has been overseeing a data centre tablet project at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), which runs two data centres supporting a total staff base of more than 55,000 employees. “The goals in the data centre are pretty clear,” he said during a presentation at Data Center World in Las Vegas, which I’m attending as part of our ongoing World Of Servers coverage.

“With the levels of electronic health records we support, we have to have 100 per cent availability. Notice there are no nines in that number. We work very hard to do this and do lots of risk analysis.”

How Tablets Could Help

Furmanski was motivated to explore the use of tablets as a management tool because of a familiar problem: difficulties in attracting expert staff. “There aren’t a lot of people of a younger age. We have to train a new generation and get them excited about working in the data centre, and the key is using devices that they’re familiar with.”

He was also keen to update existing systems. Furmanski maintained a USB key with an offline copy of disaster recovery documentation, but that required manual updating every month and was easy to misplace. Shifting to a cloud-based solution accessible from tablets was a potential solution.

Documentation generally is a challenge for data centre management. “People don’t always follow paper documentation; they find ways to get around, or they think they know what to do so they don’t use it.” That actually helped sell the approach to UPMS executives. “We had to first convince our management that we weren’t just doing it to have fun. We showed them that our online documentation system was ineffective. In many cases, there’s so much good documentation there that they can’t get to the actual solution quickly.”

Tablets could potentially help with automating the 15-page checklists which staff used to ensure all data centre elements were operational, Furmanski figured. While comprehensive, those documents actually made it harder for managers to identify issues. “There might only be one or two things to pay attention to, but there’s a 15-page document to go through,” Furmanski said.

Tablets also enabled a simplification for training in site procedures , which can be time-consuming and unproductive: “Problems happen so infrequently that training is usually a waste, and those that do pay attention only have a 25 per cent chance of using it.”

Finally, Furmanski was keen to cut down on the need to attend the site for key staff. “We stretch employees a lot with off-hours work and we wanted to try and minmise that.”

No Programming, iPad Limitations

[related title=”World Of Servers” tag=”wos5″ items=”9″]Given approval for a basic pilot, Furmanski faced an immediate challenge: there was no budget for specific application development or custom programming. While UPMS does have a mobile applications group, its priority was patient and physician applications, not back-end systems. “We were told ‘get to the back of the line’.”

To make the project affordable, it would have to use existing apps as much as possible. While some specialist data centre developers do offer monitoring apps, they’re not always common, especially for older equipment.

The initial project used a pair of iPads (already widely deployed elsewhere in UPMS) and concentrated on some basic tasks: documenting issues with new equipment, and creating systems to provide training and documentation for supporting devices within the data centre. The former was simple but very useful: “Every time we receive something, we take a picture of it.”

Digitising documents for support and DR was also straightforward, though it required staff resources during the conversion process. For training purposes, QR codes were attached to every piece of equipment in the data centre, from servers to air conditioning equipment. If a fault occurs, staff can scan the QR code and be linked to a relevant training video or support site. With more complex faults, they could use Skype to call a subject matter expert.

The support material was stored on an internal system, rather than a public cloud provider. “Our folks don’t want anybody to know about the inside of our data centre,” Furmanski said. “Don’t put instructions on how to shut your generator online. The cloud is a wonderful thing to have, but the tablet is a pretty insecure device. When that data is out there, you don’t know who is going to get to it, and if you read the T&Cs you’ll see it says ‘thank you, it’s our data now too’.”

One crucial early requirement was a case with a handle so that the iPad could effectively be operated one-handed. That wasn’t a major problem to solve, but enabling secure usage through a mix of applications proved a bigger challenge.

“We hit a big stop with integration. When we started to try and link these things together, we found that everything we did, we had to log back in. We found that every other task or so, we were logging in.”

“This is something that we found that is not just specific to us in the data centre. We found in our hospitals, where we had a proliferation of these devices — the physicians got all excited — the same problem happened. The iPad had a lot of good vertical applications but they couldn’t integrate with each other. Doctors hate doing the same thing over and over again. They really hate logging in. Single-sign on is vital, but really hard to do. With these devices, SSO is a very difficult thing to achieve.”

The availability of programmers meant that problem could potentially be solved for the medical applications, but it wasn’t an option for the data centre team. Enter a perhaps unexpected saviour: the Microsoft Surface. One of its key selling points is integration with Active Directory, which made it potentially appealing for UPMS.

Active Directory Surfaces

“We did some prototyping with Microsoft on the Surface,” Furmanski said. Initial trials didn’t go so well: ” We found at first with the RT versions that they did not meet our needs. They could do simple functions but most of the apps weren’t available. We had to wait for the Surface Pro.” Eventually, Furmanski opted for an HP tablet which is being populated with a standard UPMS image and used elsewhere in the organisation.

That doesn’t mean the iPad will disappear from UPMS, but it’s unlikely to be an official corporate standard in any department. “We learned from the iPads that we’re not going to let it profliterate out of control again. People can bring their own device but we’re not going to buy them.”

“There’s a lot of gains from moving to the Surface technology. The security integration tests have worked really well on this device. They’re fully integrated with Active Directory — that’s the key,” Furmanski said. “Windows 8 passes the context through from application to application. With other devices, that context gets lost.”

The ability to deploy existing Windows apps for relatively niche functions such as power system monitoring was also a big selling point. “We found that we can run almost any Web or Windws-based application on here,” Furmanski said. “That opens up this device to run the other tools we were already using. For our future DCIM tools, we’ve made it a requirement that they have to be able to run on this device.”

UPMS is now preparing for a full rollout of the new tablets for data centre staff later this year. “The key is to keep it very low cost. The biggest cost was the staff labour to create the content.”

In a non-Active Directory environment, the Surface would have less appeal, and for many of the tasks UPMS sought to automate, any tablet would suffice. The big lesson for any data centre contemplating tablet usage? There are definite potential benefits, but you need to plan and resource properly.

Lifehacker’s World Of Servers sees me travelling to conferences around Australia and around the globe in search of fresh insights into how server and infrastructure deployment is changing in the cloud era. This week, I’m in Las Vegas for Data Center World, looking at how the role of the data centre is changing and evolving.

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