Product review: RF Code Sentry for data centers

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For IT pros, one of the most difficult parts of the job is to have “eyes and ears” in remote or “lights-out” locations, such as branch offices, wiring closets, or remote data centers. When you are in the same location as the equipment, it’s easy to understand the dynamics of the environment, but it’s not so easy if you aren’t. Complicating issues is that IT pros are often forced to put equipment in locations that were never designed to have it due to building limitations; those often do not have the necessary HVAC, power, or other facilities that IT infrastructure requires.

As an example, when I was in corporate IT, I was responsible for our network but because the company was in an old historic building, I was limited in where I could put our switching equipment. In this case, I was forced to convert small offices into wiring closets, each holding a pair of Cisco Catalyst 6500s, some servers, and other equipment. These rooms would get extremely hot but were too noisy for me to leave the doors open. Because of where they were located, I could not put in large AC systems. This caused equipment to shut down periodically, particularly on hot days.

Managing these types of locations has historically been very difficult, but recently, RF Code announced a new product called Sentry that makes this task much easier. To validate RF Code’s claim, I reviewed the product, and below are my findings. All scores are given on a 5-point scale, with 5 being the best. 

Hardware design

The Sentry device is a compact, lightweight device with an integrated thermal camera in the center. The device can be powered via either an AC plug or Ethernet (PoE) power. Network connectivity uses built-in Wi-Fi or Ethernet ports in the back of the unit. It is easily wall-mountable, but its octagonal shape allows it to sit on top of a desk, server, or other flat surfaces in the location.

Overall, it’s a well-built device that is easy to mount, power, and connect to the network. 

Score for hardware design: 5 

Initial configuration

The product was relatively easy to set up and was done using an online portal. Once the base account was set up, it was time to add Sentry devices. This was done using a “create location” icon on the bottom of the screen. The configuration required a unique identifier for the location, such as “San Mateo Branch” or “Boston Data Center.” I was installing the device in my home office, so I used “Acton, MA.”  The next field is “address,” and as one starts typing, the portal auto-fills the location. My home office is on a very short road in a small town in Massachusetts, so I was pleasantly surprised that its database found the address. 

Once the location was configured, the RF Code portal generated a QR code to which I pointed the camera on the Sentry device. There was an audible tone heard when the camera scanned it and the device was connected. From there, the options were straightforward, including how to connect the device (wired or wireless), and a choice of DHCP or static IP address.

I did try to remove the location and walk through the set-up process again, but there appears to be an issue with deleting the location. Although there is a “delete location” choice, it does not actually delete the location. I asked Sentry and they told me this should no longer be an issue, but I could not get it to work. This is a minor issue because I do not see many customers doing this once it’s all set up. 

Once the devices are configured, the RF Code portal has a map that displays where the locations are.

The configuration process was easy and simple although the inability to create an exact address could be an issue for some organizations.

Score for initial configuration: 4.5 

User management

As one would expect, RF Code allows for multiple administrators to work with the Sentry information. Under the administration menu, there is an option to “Manage Users.” Within that option, the administrator has the option to create another administrator or a “read-only” user. Once the user has been created, the administrator can select on which metrics the user is notified. Options are:

  • Humidity
  • Motion
  • Tamper
  • Sentry offline
  • Room temperature
  • Thermal imager

The user can choose to “select all” or “select none,” as well for faster administration. The only option for receiving notifications is e-mail, and while everyone generally has mobile e-mail, SMS notification would make a useful alternative. The company did inform me that SMS push is being developed, which is a good mobile option. Also, having the ability to send alerts within specific time or day windows would allow businesses to customize alerting engineers that are on call versus having it be “all or nothing.”  

Setting up users is very easy and provides the flexibility necessary for hierarchical support. The only addition that would improve it would be to create more options in what alerts the users see. 

Score for user management: 4

Policy Management

In the administration page of the portal, users can manage alert thresholds for many of the metrics being measured. Motion, Tamper, and Sentry offline are non-configurable, as one would expect because those have no degrees of variability. For example, the Sentry is either off or not. The other three metrics have policies that can be configured within a band. For example, humidity can be set to normal (20-80%), strict (30-70%), relaxed (15-85%), or disabled. Room temperature and thermal imaging have similar normal/strict/relaxed /disabled bands from which to select.

Ideally, the user should have the ability to create a custom threshold to alert. On initial configuration, it makes sense to choose a pre-configured band, but over time, businesses should have the ability to customize alerting at a granular level. 

Score for policy management: 4.5 

Ongoing operations

Once the device is set up, operations is straightforward and simple. There is a map that shows the locations. When a location is chosen, at the top in large font, the key metrics are shown. In my lab, it showed thermal imaging is 74.8 degrees, Room temperature is 71.7 degrees and humidity is 26%. It also presents a nice graphic with easy-to-understand icons in different colors to help understand critical issues. For example, a humidity violation is displayed as a red icon with a house and a drop of water. Beneath the icon list is a time band so administrators can visually see when the event happened.

There is also a calendar icon that allows the administrator to look back in time and see when events occurred. If there were no events, the day shows up blank, if there were informational only, the day will be colored blue with the number of alerts and if there was a critical alert, such as temperature too high, the day will be colored red, and the number of alerts shown.

There is also a Live Video icon that when clicked shows a near-real-time view of what the camera sees. In my testing, there was about a 2-to-3 second delay in the motion in front of the camera and when I saw it on screen.

The biggest issue I had with the operational dashboard was the frequency of alerts being sent to my email. When an alert is triggered, every few minutes an alert is sent. With critical alerts, I can see the need for this but with events, such as motioning detection, it would be beneficial to have the ability to suppress the event for a certain number of minutes. 

For example, if someone is working in the location, there is no need to send alerts as the on-site engineer is creating the alerts. This could be accomplished easily via SMS replies or with a basic email response. However, with infrastructure management, more information is better than less, so erroring on over-reporting is better than under. 

The dashboard was simple, intuitive, and enabled me to have eyes and ears in a remote location although custom configurability would improve the usability.

Ongoing operations score: 4

Summary

The RF Code Sentry device is an excellent remote monitoring device, particularly for a first-generation product. With a list price of $800, it provides a low-cost way for IT administrators to manage remote locations. Prior to being an analyst, I was in corporate IT, and I would have found these extremely useful in branch offices and wiring closets. I often had to rely on local administrators who were often at the low end of the technical scale, or I would need to drive to the location myself.

The product took only a few minutes to deploy and configure and started sending alerts almost immediately. Given the product was just released, RF Code has created an excellent product to build more features on and I expect the company to have a rapid, consistent sent of new features. 

Enhancements I would like to see: 

  • Granular configurability for policy management 
  • More options for alerting such as SMS or mobile messages
  • Time of day alerting for different users
  • Better accuracy in location information or the ability to manually add a location
  • The ability to zoom and pan on the camera 

Overall ZK Research Score: 4.4



Original Article

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