Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Saturday, December 3, 2022

Dell Grabs Puppet to Master Competitor Systems 

Ahead of next week's Dell World event in its hometown of Austin, Texas, the recently privatized IT giant is revving a new release of its Active System Manager. The big news is that Dell is going to be merging Active System Manager with the popular open source Puppet system configuration system, thereby broadening the reach of Active System Manager beyond its own systems.

Puppet is one of a number of new-style system management and monitoring tools that scale further and cost a lot less than the old-style management frameworks from BMC, CA, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM that are still widely used in the datacenters of the world. Chef from Opscode is another such tool.

Tens of thousands of IT shops worldwide use the free version of Puppet, and Puppet Labs, the commercial entity behind the tool, has received a total of $45.5 million in four rounds of venture capital funding to commercialize it. (Among a number of venture capitalists, Google, VMware, and Cisco Systems are all investors, with VMware contributing the most so far.) When Puppet Enterprise 3.0 shipped in June of this year, it had over 1,200 configuration modules to reach out and control servers, applications, and databases as well as virtual servers out on public clouds, and thanks to the Puppet community, the number of modules is just growing and growing.

This is one of the reasons why Dell wants to hook its Active System Manager tool to Puppet. Several years ago, Dell has created a cluster configuration tool called Crowbar that was based on the open source Chef tool from Opscode, and it could have married the new Active System Manager 7.5 release to Chef instead of Puppet. But the enterprise market seems to be leaning towards Puppet, and that is where Dell is leaning, too.

"We have been following Chef and Puppet in the industry for a long time," Ganesh Padmanabhan, director of products for Dell's converged infrastructure solutions, tells EnterpriseTech. "With Crowbar, the exercise at that time was to make a bet and see how far it goes. We are going to keep that activity alive, Crowbar is still massively important for our larger scale and Web 2.0 customers. But we are seeing more traction on the Puppet side, so this becomes a more strategic bet for us."

That said, Padmanabhan adds quickly that Dell is talking to a number of CTOs who are asking if Dell can somehow craft Active System Manager so it can be a bridge between Chef and Puppet. He added that Chef and Puppet both have their own sweet spots and that Dell will continue to evaluate both use with its customers.But more than anything else, enterprise customers just want to manage more infrastructure with the same number of people. 

"One of the interesting things that we are seeing in the enterprise space is that the CIOs and CFOs, who are at companies that do not have the kind of IT development horsepower like big banks or Web 2.0 companies do, are pointing to Google and Microsoft as benchmarks," says Padmanabhan. "If Microsoft can run 40,000 servers per admin, they are asking why they can't do this, too. Puppet is popping up in these conversations. There is a lot of interest among customers in the midrange and the higher-end enterprise to find out how Google and Microsoft and others do computing, to get some learning from that and take it into the mainstream."

Active System Manager is largely based on a sophisticated set of infrastructure management tools that Dell took over and rebranded after it acquired Gale Technologies in November 2012 for an undisclosed sum. Dell had a mix of systems and cloud management tools, including those it got when it acquired Scalent and licensed from DynamicOps (which VMware bought in July 2012), for its infrastructure management. But Active System Manager is mostly the GaleForce tool with some extensions. With the Active System Manager 7.0 release that came out in January this year, Dell put the tool inside of a virtual machine and let it run on a VMware ESXi or Microsoft Hyper-V hypervisor. This tool is at the heart of Dell's Active System converged infrastructure, which includes servers, storage, and networking all pre-bundled and pre-integrated and ready to roll onto the datacenter floor. With the 7.1 release in June, Dell started reaching out beyond its own hardware, supporting Cisco Nexus 5000 and Brocade Communications 6510 switches.

Going forward, new configuration and control templates for Dell machinery will be created in Puppet, and the vast trove of templates for third party gear will be available to customers using Active System Manager. The Dell tool will provide a familiar interface and will be able to reach out over the network to discover hardware, to use its rules engine to determine how gear gets set up and its scheduling engine to say when it gets set up, and to do version control on the templates themselves.

Dell will be bundling the open source version of Puppet into Active System Manager and is not providing any funds to Puppet Labs as part of this integration. It is not licensing Puppet Enterprise as part of the deal, although it is joining the Razor community created by Puppet and EMC to create a bare metal and virtual server discovery and provisioning tool. Exactly how this functionality will be rectified with similar functionality already in Active System Manager is not clear.

The new Active System Manager also includes a new user interface called Clarity, which was created to span all of Dell's products.

Dell has not set prices for the combined tool yet, which will ship at the end of January 2014. Active System Manager was always bundled into an Active System configuration, so customers never saw it as a standalone item, but it cost $1,099 per device under management. Puppet Enterprise from Puppet Labs costs $99 per device. The price could be something on the order of the combination of the two, or lower. Dell is not saying yet.

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