In the last year, many of the higher end server motherboards have started to feature built in back door management via Ethernet. This feature allows a user to power up/down, observe the video output and attach their local laptop or desktop keyboard and so on, ALL without running the operating system. As this new remote management capability is integrated with the server BIOS and is effectively a standalone management system all unto itself, users can even configure expansion BIOS features on add-in cards and the main system BIOS itself – all remotely.
Here we review one approach using off the shelf systems based on a generally available motherboard from SuperMicro.
SuperMicro X8DT6-F Remote Management
The X8DT6-F motherboard model comes with an integrated Baseboard Management Controller (BMC) device made by Nuvoton/Winbond (model WPCM450). Once the power is connected to the server chassis, even if the server itself is still turned off, this device is always on. It provides VGA graphics, keyboard/mouse and other media 9CD-ROM, floppy) redirection from a remote Ethernet connected laptop of desktop allowing you to do pretty much everything remotely (other than plugging in physical devices or add-in cards of course). This BMC device is closely tied in with the AMI BIOS installed in the server motherboard allowing users to pretty much get into the guts of the machine right down to BIOS level – all remotely.
What I liked about the SuperMicro BMC feature was, once up and running, it was easy and intuitive to use and didn’t require any access to a manual other than at initial setup.
So with the server power plugged in (but not turned on), I returned to my laptop to start the bring up process. I chose deliberately not to connect a monitor or keyboard to the server to see just how easy the configuration would be.
By default, the BMC controller uses DHCP to acquire its address from the available gateway. In my case, 192.168.1.1 is the standard device. My first task was to log into my router to establish which IP address had been assigned which was probably the most cumbersome step involved. The alternative if you have a monitor attached to the server for the bringup is to use the system BIOS option to set up the IP address under the BMC/IPMI settings. Once I had the address, I simply typed in the http://192.168.1.xxx address into my system and arrived at the login screen of the BMC on the motherboard. Simple as that – no agents to install on my system – nice.
Next task was to find out what the default user password was. Turned out the motherboard user’s manual provided (v1.0) did not have any real information on the software user interface. After a relatively quick search on SuperMicro’s website I eventually found the “Onboard BMC/IPMI User Manual” v1.0 guide which provided the default ADMIN/ADMIN user-password combination to get me started. First thing, as always, was to change the default DHCP network address to a static one, 192.168.1.220 in this case.
This was easy to find under the Configuration tab along the top, and the Network option down the left hand side of the menu. (Note: as mentioned earlier, this is also possible to do via the standard BIOS configuration screen with a monitor/keyboard directly attached to the server if available).
Turning the Server On
Next step was to power up the server. Power control, along with a JAVA based console application, was found under the Remote Control tab along the top. A simple set of options are presented which range from power on, off – immediate (i.e. kill switch), off-orderly (i.e. O/S sent the correct signals to shut down gracefully), reset (same as the front panel reset) and power cycle (turn off then back on). Before I turned on the machine, I wanted to be able to observe the screen virtually from my laptop to make sure all was well and also gain access to the BIOS, etc to ensure several settings were correct. To do this, I had to go to the Remote Console option on the Remote Control tab which prompted me with a Launch Console option button.
Running the Console
Firing up the console immediately kicked in the JAVA application. If you don’t have this installed, you’ll need to go to http://www.java.com to download and install to use the VGA and keyboard redirection capability. Once running, you now have VGA, keyboard, mouse and CDROM/floppy redirection capability direct from your laptop or remote PC. Using the console you are able to enter the system BIOS, and also configure any add-in cards such as RAID adapters (including the onboard LSI 2008E SAS controller included with this motherboard), SAN HBAs and so on.
Most importantly, once you have all the hardware configured, using your local CD-ROM, you are able to mount this as a bootable device via the console via the Media pull down menu and install your operating system, or as I did, the installable version of VMware ESXi.
Remote server management via Ethernet has made my life so much easier. Granted, this was an experimental server, but being able to put this noisy beast (and it is noisy – triple power supply, 3U/16 rackmount), in my garage and power the thing up and down, install different OSes including VMware all remotely was cool. About the only time I visit my poor hardware now is to add a drive or maybe put another add-in card for testing from time to time.