Perhaps one of Dell’s best kept secrets on their 11G servers (blade, rack and tower) is something called Lifecycle Controller. This innovative offering allows a user to configure the hardware, run diagnostics and prep the server for an operating system. “SO WHAT?” you are probably thinking – “HP and IBM have this with their SmartStart and ServerGuide CD’s!” Yes, you are right, however Dell’s innovation is a flash based device embedded on the motherboard that does all this – there are NO CD’s to mess with this. Out of the box, you turn it on and go.

What can Dell’s Lifecycle Controller do?  Here’s a partial list taken from Dell TechCenter:

  • Basic device configuration (RAID, NIC and iDRAC) via simple wizards
  • Diagnose the system using embed Diagnostics utility
  • OS install by unpacking the drivers for the user selected OS
  • Drivers are embed for systems with iDRAC Express, Lifecycle Controller
  • Drivers are available on Systems Management Tools and Documentation media for systems with Baseboard Management Controller (BMC)
  • Advanced device configuration for NIC and BIOS. This is available only in systems with iDRAC Express
  • Update BIOS, firmware and stage updated drivers by directly connecting to relevant updates on ftp.dell.com. This is available only in systems with iDRAC Express
  • Roll back firmware to a last known good state. THis is available only in systems with iDRAC Express
  • Supports 7 languages (English, French, German, Spanish, Simplified Chinese, Japanese, Korean)
  • Auto-discovery of bare metal systems. iDRAC can be configured in factory or using USC to connect and authenticate to a provisioning console
  • Install OS on the discovered system using drivers resident on the Lifecycle Controller
  • Install custom OS image – allows users to install OS that does not have the desired drivers on the Lifecycle Controller
  • Install OS by booting from service image on a network share
  • Remote out-of-band instant Firmware Inventory of installed and available firmware images
  • Bare metal out-of-band updates – Remotely initiate offline BIOS, firmware and driver pack update and schedule updates

Kudos to Dell on this innovation.  No CD’s means potentially faster deployment.  If you wonder – can the data on the Lifecycle Controller be updated?  The answer is YES – go to Dell TechCenter and check out the video on “Product Updates” (or click here to view directly.)

Let me know what you think about this.  Do you see this as being helpful?

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  • elidezman80

    nice stuff from DELL , sure HP will have something like this very soon

  • http://twitter.com/afrojazz Sm@sher

    With HP server you also can use SmartStart on USB flash. Of course, it isn't embedded on motherboard and you still need SmartStart CD.

    “SmartStart 8.40 is updated to include the HP USB Key Utility version 1.50 which is a Windows application that allows users to copy the SmartStart CD content to a portable USB flash drive. Users may then boot and run the CD applications from a USB flash drive rather than from the CD or DVD. Especially beneficial in headless-server operations.”

  • http://BladesMadeSimple.com/ Kevin Houston

    Yes, I'm sure you can load #hp SmartStart to a USB device, but as you've mentioned, that requires using the CD, which may not be current. I've seen many cases where the CD shipped is two or three revs behind so you have to spend additional time updating the systems once they are up and running. Dell's approach gives you the ability to get a current update before building out the system. I just think it's a very unique approach and wonder if the other vendors will take the same approach. Thanks for reading!

  • http://BladesMadeSimple.com/ Kevin Houston

    I hope #hp will have something similar soon. It seems like pretty cool technology. Thanks for continuing to read! If you like my site, please spread the word!

  • mike roberts

    Kevin,
    thanks for the great post, LC is really central to our server management strategy across Dell's product line. It touches deployment & update as you point out, significantly saving time & effort as a 3rd party study found:
    http://www.principledtechnologies.com/clients/r

    But it also enables a few more key capabilities:
    -it contains a persistent “lifecycle log” of the configuration of the system & any changes over the life of the product. This can be exported for asset tracking/auditing purposes.
    -it supports a feature called “Parts Replacement” where if a RAID card or NIC is replaced, it will automatically flash the firmware up to the level of the previous card that was replaced. This feature will be enhanced pretty substantially in the next release of firmware we have coming in a couple of months. We obviously hate to have to replace components, but if you do this can solve a lot of headaches.

    LC's capability to support Out of Band updates & inventory is also a central enabler for the 1:many firmware update feature in our M1000e Chassis Manager (CMC) that InfoWorld spoke so highly of in their review of M1000e. You'll see lots more innovation in that space as we go forward building on the success & power of Lifecycle Controller.
    thanks, mike

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  • http://www.hp.com/go/bladeblog Daniel Bowers

    I like Dell's approach of embedding the OS install assistance tool and (more importantly) the OS drivers into the server. That fixes the “F6″ problem of stale OS install media that lacks functional NIC and RAID controller drivers.

    It's most usable in cases where you're not rolling your own install images and not doing network-based automated install. I haven't seen single-server manual installs being used often with production blade servers, but I do see it in dev enviornments and with stand-along servers a lot.

    The biggest challenge I see in Dell's approach is the “call home” the LC does in order to fetch the latest drivers. My understanding (Mark, correct me if I'm wrong) is that this can be done either as a manual, one-time thing just prior to an OS install, or as an automatic, periodic thing done out-of-band. Fundamentally, “call home” is the only way for LC to solve the universal need to go check for the latest drivers whenever you install an OS. So architecturally I'm OK with the call-home; call home isn't bad at all. But not all organizations allow (for security reasons) or can handle (for network config reasons) a server to make FTP connections out to the Internet.

    BTW, if you just use a stopwatch on OS install time, an alternative to imaging drives would be to put the install DVD image onto flash along with the drivers:
    http://www.communities.hp.com/online/blogs/real

  • http://twitter.com/DellServerGeek Scott Hanson

    Kevin ! – glad you like the innovation. Thanks for finding the resources on our site and giving it more legs.

    Hope my voice was ok in the demo :-) … I ten to put on my “newscaster voice” for demos, but didn't seem too bad in this one.

    FYI – about to put up some more demos on our Blade Chassis Management Controller 3.0 firmware that ships soon and has some nice integration with the Lifecycle Controller.

    Keep an eye out for the tweet when I get them up.

  • http://BladesMadeSimple.com/ Kevin Houston

    The #dell TechCenter site is a valueable resource. If people aren't using it, they are missing out. Nicely done. Thanks for the comment, and for reading!

  • http://BladesMadeSimple.com/ Kevin Houston

    Great points about the additional features of #dell Lifecycle Controller. Perhaps I'll update the posting in the near future. Thanks for reading Mike!

  • http://BladesMadeSimple.com/ Kevin Houston

    It's good to see an #hp resource respond. You made some great points, and I appreciate the comments as well as the link. Thanks for reading!

  • http://twitter.com/ersontech Andreas Erson

    You don't have to use the “call home” with http://ftp.dell.com. You can also point it to an internal “safe” ftp repository or use a repository on cd/dvd/usb. So there are multiple options to get those updates besides going straight to http://ftp.dell.com.

    Besides just updating the driver package you can also update every firmware using the update option.

  • http://www.get-sett.com Network Racks

    For large data centers, there are two primary approaches to cabling servers. The first is to have patch panels in each server rack, and the other is to have switches in each rack. ; I agree it is important to have. You make some great points, we should thank you — for making us think more critically about this issue. Great post

  • mike roberts

    Daniel,
    we take it a step beyond USB key .iso that you talk about in your link. the Dell CMC supports a feature which we introduced last summar called vMedia File Share which allows users to put an installation iso (drivers + OS DVD image) on a network share, then map them 1:many to the blades in the chassis. This gets you a 1:many deployment (and update) capability at network speed. This was another feature that InfoWorld highlighted as a major advantage for Dell in their review.
    mike

  • http://www.hp.com/go/bladeblog Daniel Bowers

    Cool, Mike — the 1-to-many is a good idea for blades. (SmartStart can also point to a Network File Share for the installation .iso image or flat files.)

    Is vMedia File Share just with the CMC, or can it work from the LC controller on individual rack or blade servers? Paul Venezia (from that InfoWorld review) was impressed that SuperMicro (but apparently not Dell/HP/IBM) included .iso files on network shares as an virtual media option in the blade's embedded management controller GUI.

    In retrospect, extending run-time virtual media beyond USB keys, DVD drives, and client-side files seems useful to me too.

    Disclaimer: I work for HP.

  • mike roberts

    Daniel,
    thanks for the nice words.
    1) paul talked about our vMedia file share (and our 1:many firmware update feature) a lot in the article. the first is my favorite:
    -“However, there are some missing pieces to the HP puzzle.For instance, where Dell easily automates ISO image and virtual drive mappings, as well as handles global BIOS and firmware updates with ease, HP can't perform these tasks through the GUI. Also missing from the GUI were other global options, such as the simple act of powering up or down one or more blades. The remote KVM console applications were also somewhat klunky, and lagged even the low-end Supermicro entry in some features and functionality.”
    -“In today's M1000e, a brand-new set of chassis management tools offer many features suited for day-to-day operations, and the chassis-wide deployment and modification tools are simply fantastic”
    -“Building out the blade with an operating system can be done in several different ways, including direct ISO mounting from a local NFS or SMB share, rather than mapped from the client system. This means that if you're 1,000 miles away from the chassis, you can mount and boot off an ISO image stored at the remote site just as easily as you would by mapping that ISO from your laptop or workstation, but you get the obvious benefit of greatly increased throughput from a local connection.”
    2) Remote File share feature is a enabled from the CMC, but you can also do it directly from an iDRAC as well on blades (you dont get the 1:many) and it is also coming on iDRAC for monolithic servers i believe in the next firmware release.
    Mike

  • Proteus

    I guess thats nice in a small business environment, where you have an IT guy onsite, updating a single blade chassis. Not sure what good it does when you have hundreds of chassis to update remotely. A gui is utterly useless in enterprise environments. Give me command line, scriptable, out-of-band update tools anyday! IBM and HP both do a good job of this.

  • http://BladesMadeSimple.com/ Kevin Houston

    If you manage hundreds of blade servers, I'd like to talk to you ;) You are right, though. When you get to a scale of racks of blade chassis, a more robust solution may be needed. Thanks for your comments!

  • Samer

    With Lifecycle Controller latest release (1.4), you can now manage the servers remotely through WS-MAN, giving very similar functionality to the local 1:to:1 console featured in this article. Check it out at http://www.delltechcenter.com/page/Lifecycle+Controller

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