Dell Remote Access Controller 6
iDRAC6 and Dell Management Console combine into a powerful remote server management tool.
You recommend hardware based on features and price – but how about how easy it’s going to be to configure and administer?
Dell’s integrated Dell Remote Access Controller 6 (iDRAC6) is an out-of-band, sometimes called lights-off management (LOM), hardware controller that gives you the ability to access and maintain servers over a local or wide area network or remotely over the Internet without having to leave your desk.
The iDRAC6 offers a good range of management and monitoring features, including a keyboard virtual mouse (KVM) facility that allows remote control of the server desktop and remote access to flash storage which can be loaded with system drivers, boot images and configuration settings.
It can also be used in conjunction with the Dell Management Console (DMC), Dell’s latest systems management application for servers, computers, printers, storage and other types of hardware (based on Symantec’s Altiris Notification Server, which collates inventory, reporting, OS monitoring, patch management and configuration information under a single Web interface.
What the iDRAC does
Network Fish tested the Enterprise version of iDRAC6 installed in a Dell PowerEdge R710 server, which features a dedicated management port intended for the card, loaded with a 64-bit version of Microsoft Windows Server 2008.
The iDRAC6 has its own processor, memory, battery and network connection, and access to the system bus, which means you can log in to servers whether they’re powered up or not, to make configuration changes, troubleshoot and reboot from a CD or other image even when the remote server’s core operating system has crashed.
The iDRAC6 remains active and accessible as long as the server is plugged into a power source, though the system itself does not have to be switched on. You can always access the iDRAC6 configuration settings by plugging in a mouse and keyboard to the server itself and pressing CTRL-E during the boot sequence, but there’s no need to make a trip; you can access the same utility remotely using a Java-based Web client - as long as the iDRAC6 is configured with an IP address.
We assigned a static IPv4 IP address (the card also provides IPv6 options), subnet and gateway from the boot configuration menu, a task that you can also perform using the iDRAC6 LCD panel on the front of the server.
Typing that IP address into a Web browser from our laptop (Internet Explorer 6/7.0, or Mozilla Firefox 2/3.0 are supported) displayed the iDRAC configuration screen though we needed to change the network interface card setting from ‘shared’ to ‘dedicated’ first.
What’s on offer
Inputting the default username and password (‘root’ and, for some reason, ‘calvin’) brings up the iDRAC Web interface, which provides extensive power monitoring features, delivering information on minimum, maximum and average power consumption for example, as well as voltage readings on specific components like CPUs, batteries and system boards. Different alerts can be sent to a defined email address, including messages warning of critical temperature, battery life, CPU, PSU or fan status. The event log records major system activity to provide a record of boot ups, power downs, and sensor events like the integral SD card being removed of the case opened.
Console redirection gives you KVM (though you need to download a small Java client from the Dell Web site before logging on). This is exceptionally easy to use with a combination of both menus, macros and keyboard or mouse input; it duplicates some of what is available within the Web interface, such as system power off, graceful shutdown, restart or reboot. It also displays the server boot sequence rather than just the Windows desktop, and though there’s no obvious file transfer facility, you can configure and access a network share using the KVM.
The virtual media option within the remote console allows you to load a local disk image file onto the remote server, to install applications or an operating system. Clicking on the virtual media menu option shows a list of local drives, and you can load specific ISO images and then map these to the remote server’s virtual drives.
This lets you map an image from a hard drive, CD/DVD drive or a USB stick, for example, and then run the application on the remote server as if it were loaded locally.
You can boot from an ISO image loaded onto the virtual CD by pressing F2 during startup to enter the BIOS settings menu and changing the boot priority for the virtual CD to be the primary boot media. We were able to boot from a Windows Server 2003 installation disc in our laptop DVD drive using this method, although it did need further configuration of the virtual drive set up on the RAID array to get access to the server’s hard disks.
The iDRAC6 Enterprise has an integrated SD card reader, called vFlash; format this with the management profile and you can use it to store drivers and non-ISO images (like a DOS bootable floppy disk image, a Windows .IMG file or a Red Hat Enterprise Linux DISKBOOT.IMG file). To format, click on the vFlash tab in the iDRAC Web client then – with the SD card inserted in the controller – click Initialise.
We used a Dell –branded 1GB SD card, which allowed us to select a vFlash partition size of either 256MB or 512MB. With an 8GB branded card, you can choose a partition of 256MB, 512MB, 1GB, 2GB or 4GB but with an unbranded, third-party card you can’t create a partition larger than 265MB, which makes it rather less useful.
The vFlash storage function is an important element of what Dell calls its Lifecycle Controller, which also includes a unified server configurator (USC) that hosts embedded drivers for various different OS’s, and stores RAID, NIC and iDRAC configuration parameters.
Dell management console
The Dell Management Console (DMC) software is available as a free download, and is based on Symantec’s Altiris Server Management Platform (SMP) 7.0, the latest incarnation of Altiris Notification Server. It requires both the Microsoft .NET 3.5 framework and SQL Express, both of which are included on the ISO image that you mount as a virtual image to install on the remote server. Other options on this ISO include installing Altiris SMP SPI (which does not install on 64-bit OS’s) and Dell Client Manager Standard.
The DMC installation is initiated by the Symantec Installation Manager (SIM) which lists the upgrades being applied, though you’ll need to do a certain amount of pre-configuration around Microsoft IIS, ASP.NET and SQL Server (SQL Server Express is a minimum requirement and SQL Server 8.0 is recommended, due to some unspecified performance limitations).
The DMC setup wizard includes the option of importing systems management data stored in previous versions of Altiris Notification Server or SMS, though the installer has to manually search for the database file containing this information. In what Dell claims is a unique feature, one of the options also allows administrators to import user settings from Active Directory (AD) rather than inputting them manually. Note that the DMC specifies the use of IE 7; if you’re using IE 8 you’ll need to click the compatibility mode button next to the address bar to get access to all the features. Dell says SIM will also detect an existing Notification Server 6 installation and let you choose which data to export before uninstalling Notification Server, after which you can install the Symantec Management Platform then run a wizard to import the original Altiris Notification Server data into the new version.
Is iDRAC worth it?
The list price of adding the iDRAC6 Enterprise module is £220 (we found several for sale on eBay priced at $290), but the experience of several buyers suggests that talking to Dell’s sales representatives during server purchase or upgrade negotiation may bring the list price down considerably. Compare that to the cost of your time and the number of site visits you’d normally make to work with a server.
Dell isn’t the only vendor with out-of-band and lights-out-management options for servers: other options include Fujitsu’s remote management card iRMC, HP integrated Lights-Out (iLO), Sun integration Lights Out Management (ILOM) and IBM Remote Supervisor Adapter II (RSA II).; but if you’re thinking of switching to Dell specifically to get iDRAC, make sure you look at these other options and particularly the way in which they interact with existing systems management tools like HP OpenView and IBM Tivoli.
If you’re already buying Dell servers for customers, iDRAC is a welcome addition (especially if you’re already familiar with Altiris). Given its ease of use and the innovative remote boot and installation options offered by the USC, iDRAC certainly makes sense as an upgrade to existing Dell servers or Dell server purchase plans.
Integrated Dell Remote Access Controller User Guide
The Official Dell iDRAC6 user guide:
What you need to know about the Dell DRAC
Some tips and tricks for getting the most from iDRAC:
Configuring and using virtual media
Dell’s online guide includes some handy troubleshooting tips in the FAQ:
For help with Dell Migrations
IT Expert recommends the services of UK based Network Fish
Migrating to the new Dell Management Console
How to migrate data from Altiris Notification Server or the Dell OpenManage IT Assistant to the Systems Management Console: