Four Flavors of Systems Management Software

TEST TRACK: ENT and Client/Server Labs look at four Systems Management Software packages

Managing the varying software platforms and hardware systems in a corporate network is a daunting task. If you have servers by the dozen and an hour of downtime means large competitive losses, it is impractical to browse the collected machinery manually and react to problems after they have cropped up. But several vendors offer relief in the form of systems management software packages.

While there are varying types of packages on the market intended to manage systems in different ways, we chose to focus on packages that truly manage systems, rather than those designed to manage users.

We obtained four offerings in the increasingly active systems management area to get a feel for the current state of this difficult art. We looked at Heroix Corp.’s Robomon, a late beta of AppManager 3.0 from NetIQ, the Patrol Knowledge modules for NT from BMC Software, and Intel’s LANDesk Server Manager software.

All of our test products are software solutions for the systems management crucible, but in the case of Intel’s LANDesk Server Manager Pro, a hardware device is included as well.

Our other three products, however, all offer a capability that Intel intentionally left out of its software: the ability to take remedial action of some sort based on one or more alarms. Intel says user feedback has been so emphatically distrustful of vendor-supplied actions that it decided to omit them altogether. This seems a bit odd in light of the fact that none of our tested products takes any action by default, and must have the nature and parameters of any alarm response set by the user. Perhaps this omission contributes to the relative simplicity and lower cost of Intel’s software.

It is thought provoking to consider how complex and contradictory the demands are for systems management software. It should be able to provide information about system hardware, operating systems, middleware and applications. It must maintain constant contact with a large number of processes and applications, but not use excessive system resources itself. The software needs to allow quick access to needed information without oversimplification, and permit administrators to configure their preferred graphs, alarms and actions as simply as possible while maintaining flexibility. To that end, each of these products is the result of a different philosophy and set of choices in the design process. Each has its strong points and compromises.

AppManager Suite 3.0
NetIQ Corp.
Santa Clara, Calif.
(408) 330-7000
Price: AppManager Operator Console $2,500 per seat
AppManager Web Access Console $2,500 for five web clients
Application Modules: for Windows NT $600, for SQL Server $1,200, for IIS $600

In a group of venerable companies, by IT standards anyway, NetIQ is the newcomer. Typical of that position, this company has taken a unique direction in how it approaches systems management.

The most obvious difference is that NetIQ produces software for only Windows NT, perhaps limiting its market somewhat to the all-Microsoft shop. But that seems to be of little concern to NetIQ, which views the Windows NT world as the only real growth area for this type of product.

NetIQ, however, includes an impressive list of supported products in the AppManager suite, encompassing all of Microsoft’s BackOffice suite as well as products from Citrix Systems Inc., Oracle Corp., and the proprietary management tools from Hewlett-Packard Co., NEC Computer Systems and Dell Computer Corp.

Another welcome innovation is the Web management server, which allows an administrator to do a considerable amount of investigative work from any available browser. This could be a godsend to the IT caretaker who is roused in the wee hours of the morning by a panicked phone call. The IT manager would then be able to determine from home what the nature of the problem is, and possibly fix it.

The installation has one slightly unusual requirement: SQL Server must be installed on the machine that will act as the management server, because AppManager uses SQL Server as its information repository. This allows easier reporting than some of the competition, and even more help is provided by the 150 supplied reports that come with AppManager. Installation of the full product includes the management server and Web management server, agent, console and repository. Only the agent portion is needed on the machines to be monitored, and it can be installed remotely from the management server.

After going through the multiple-choice screens in our management installation, we ran into a snag that aborted the process when we kept getting a SQL login error. This problem evaded the preinstall check that AppManager offers and was traced to a mismatch in ODBC drivers caused by an IIS install. The conflict was cured by the most current driver set from Microsoft’s Web site.

Once installed and running, AppManager allowed a slightly clearer view of the operating environments and management choices than that provided by BMC or Heroix. The Explorer-type window is labeled better, with machines, groups and domains on the left and the range of Knowledge Scripts (KS) on the lower right. A KS can be dragged onto the appropriate system or subsystem to initiate a job, and the properties of a KS can be edited without resorting to scripting. As many instances of KSs as desired can be started on a given machine or subsystem. A decided plus are the additional information sources that AppManager provides, such as MAPI, NT Event log and the Exchange Tracking log.

Despite the relative ease of use provided by AppManager’s GUI, we ran into a bit of difficulty when we tried to create some performance graphs. Unlike the other products tested, graphs are not available by default but must be individually set up. This wouldn’t be so bad except that the supplied documentation was vague to the point of uselessness on the subject. When we tried the help menu as a last resort, we were pleasantly surprised to find clear instructions. The running jobs and graphs are available through the Web interface, and may be created and modified there as well.

If you have a homogeneous Windows NT and Microsoft BackOffice environment, AppManager is probably the best-suited of our test group to handle your monitoring needs. The variety of built-in reports, the slightly easier learning curve and the Web interface make this an attractive choice. Add in the broader information sources and actions that AppManager makes possible, and it becomes even more attractive.

The version of AppManager we tested was a late beta. The final version will shipping by print date.

Robomon 7.0
Heroix Corp.
Newton, Mass.
(800) 229-6500
Price: $1,000 per unit; volume pricing available

Heroix Corp. has worked with systems management software since the company opened in 1975, primarily focusing on OpenVMS and Unix systems. Its newest offering for Windows NT, Robomon 7.0, concentrates on simplicity of initial setup and operation. These goals are achieved, but Robomon carries its share of quirks as well.

The installation starts with a series of HTML pages that give preinstallation information and system requirements, then offers a choice of Agent Only, Event Monitor, or Full Install. The first two would be chosen for machines intended to be monitored or to serve as a monitoring console, respectively. Our choice of Full Install on our test server brought up the account selection screen to establish the Robomon control account, followed by the mail action select screen. Here the user chooses between SMTP, Exchange, CC: Mail or None as the e-mail type to use for alerts.

With these choices complete, the installation finishes and requests the usual reboot to implement the program. When the system comes up again there are six new services running, along with eight Windows NT processes. This takes its toll on resources, with between 45 and 55 MB of virtual memory being consumed to run all the new activity. While this may not be a significant load on many machines, it could definitely cause problems on marginally configured servers. The Agent Only install is not any less demanding of system resources, and that will be the most widely deployed version.

The Robomon program group includes Enterprise Manager, Event Monitor and Graph. The Enterprise Manager presents all of the configuration tools for Robomon in an Explorer-like window, with the available rules in the right pane and the available machines in the left pane. Robomon includes monitoring capability for SQL Server and Exchange, but lists these services under all machines, whether or not they are actually installed. This is unnecessary, confusing, and consumes space on a screen that is already overburdened with detailed information.

A few operational glitches caused annoyance. In the Graph program it took two attempts in most cases to change the graph style, with the first attempt seemingly ignored. When looking at the graphs for disk information, the lack of clear labeling of the axes sometimes made it difficult to tell what was being shown.

More important, only the C drive was viewable by the default settings, and this could be determined only by viewing the SQL statement for the particular rule to see the drive letter. A puzzle arose when Robomon was installed on a stand-alone server with only dial-up networking: A message box kept popping up announcing that was unavailable, and offering to initiate dial-up networking. If the "No" button was selected, the box kept reappearing until an Internet connection was established. It does not take much paranoia to wonder why this link is needed, and why the user is not informed of this anywhere.

Where BMC and NetIQ require scripting to create new items to be monitored -- what Robomon terms "rules" -- or alarm conditions, Heroix included a Rule Designer, which is in effect a Rule Wizard. It is still a fairly demanding process to craft a set of parameters this way, but for those unfamiliar with scripting it offers a powerful alternative. Rules can be combined into processes by drag and drop within the Enterprise Manager window, making it easy to set up operations on different machines or domains. There are many dozen rules available at the outset, and a like number of reports. The main difficulty in using Robomon is shared by the BMC and NetIQ products, and that is the large learning curve faced by an administrator before he or she will feel comfortable and competent with this immense array of possibilities.

Patrol Knowledge Modules for NT
BMC Software Inc.
Houston, Texas
(800) 841-2031
Price: Patrol Knowledge Modules for NT: $510
Patrol KM for Microsoft SQL Server: $1,440
Patrol KM for Internet Servers (includes IIS, Proxy, etc.): $1,440
Patrol KM for Microsoft Exchange: $525

BMC Software enjoys almost as long a corporate history as Heroix, with more than 160 software products. This product count stems from the modular approach that BMC has taken with its product lines; with no less than 65 items in the Patrol line alone.

This approach carries with it both great strength and great frustration. A company wishing to deploy Patrol in a Windows NT environment can choose among the modules it needs for SQL Server, Exchange Server, various Internet components and so on, arguably making for a more tailored approach and better fit. The other side of this coin is that it is not clear which components are needed to achieve certain functions in a basic installation.

For example, our test install consisted of the Patrol Agent for NT, which is part of what BMC calls the Core Components modules that include the Patrol NT Console and the Patrol Knowledge Module (KM) for NT. The Patrol Agent is the core monitoring software, but has almost no functionality by itself. The Console is the actual viewing portion of the setup, with Operator and Developer modes for either view-only or configuration tasks, while the Knowledge Module is what gives the Patrol Agent the intelligence to monitor Windows NT operations. If you want to be able to send alarm notifications by pager or e-mail, you will also need Patrol Alarm Manager. And if you want to monitor SQL Server and Exchange Server, that will necessitate another two modules.

To summarize, the same functions that Heroix and NetIQ include in one software purchase require six or more modules from BMC. It will come as no surprise to learn that detailed software consulting is a basic part of the sales process for BMC, and that much of their business comes from companies that have heterogeneous IT environments. BMC’s product line supports OS/390, OS/2, AS/400, RS/6000 SP, OpenVMS, Intelligent I/O, Windows NT, more than a dozen varieties of Unix, plus almost all widely used database programs and business applications. This gives them a decided advantage with enterprises, which prefer to have a central source for software solutions.

When it comes to the functionality of Patrol for NT, the terminology that is used may shed some light on the way these products work. To alter configurations in any way, a Patrol user must log into the Developer console instead of the view-only Operator console. We were struck by this terminology usage, as we would have expected the choices to be Administrator and Operator. But BMC products seem to be dominated by development considerations. Any customizing of Patrol must be done in BMC’s proprietary Patrol Scripting Language, which requires a few days of familiarization even for those already versed in C and C++.

The user interface in Patrol shows its heritage to be more Unix-flavored than Windows NT, but it has an overall Windows feel. There is a reasonable number of monitoring parameters installed in the default setup, but navigating among them is not at all clear or intuitive. We did like the graphing function in Patrol, which allows easy selection of any portion of a graph to zoom in on an area of interest. This magnifying can be done repetitively to focus on a narrow area, as long as at least two data points are included.

BMC’s Patrol should be most welcome in a large enterprise that has a mix of mainframe and Unix hardware along with Windows NT boxes. Its modular nature and uniform cross-platform console for all monitoring requirements might balance the need for scripting skills and a longer learning curve.

LANDesk Server Manager Pro
Intel Corp.
Hillsboro, Ore.
(800) 538-3373
Price: LANDesk Server Manager (software only): $495
LANDesk Server Manager Pro (with EMC2 card): $995

Unlike the other tested products, LANDesk Server Manager Pro is solely concerned with the health and well-being of the guts of your server and basic operating system processes, with no attention at all paid to applications.

One immediate benefit of this approach is that LANDesk Server Manager is much simpler to install, to set up and to use than the other products. And with unintentional irony, this product is the only one that offers a comprehensive tutorial on first run, with straightforward choices of topics to choose from.

Intel’s software offers a single choice in the program group: the Server Manager Console. After opening the console and bypassing the offered tutorial, we were presented with an Explorer-type window. Here we had to add the local machine, by either IP or IPX address, and create a user account to get to it. The password window that pops up when a given machine is clicked on must be given valid Server Manager accounts: the administrator account of the machine in question will not give access. Upon trying an invalid access account, a tutorial window pops up that explains this and also gives the default administrative name and password, which must be used to add the first user selected account.

Once an account is established, the available machines in the right hand pane can be expanded to show every conceivable bit of information about the operating systems logically grouped into subsystems. If an alert should occur, a yellow or red exclamation point appears on the highest-level icon visible for the affected system, and invites immediate drilling down to the exact location of the trouble. When that location is clicked on, a graph appears in the right-hand pane showing the real-time status of that particular parameter. These graphs resize according to the instantaneous value to be displayed.

We were taken aback when we ran Server Manager for the first time on a machine with a sound card: The first time an alert occurred, a piercing siren sounded and startled everyone within earshot -- the volume had been left quite high. This was surprising after working with silent alerts in the form of SNMP traps and e-mails for several days.

Server Manager Pro includes an Emergency Management Card (EMC), which is a complete computer in itself, with its own CPU, memory, power supply, 10/100 network interface and 56K modem.

The EMC establishes some unique monitoring and control capabilities, such as monitoring temperature and voltage levels and remote rebooting of any Intel-architecture server running Windows NT or NetWare. The second generation of this hardware, based on a PCI bus instead of the earlier card’s ISA connection, was just beginning to ship as our testing began. Intel was not able to supply us with a sample in time to allow a full test.

LANDesk Server Manager is a refreshing breath of simple fresh air in this group of very demanding management software. Even without the Emergency Management Card, there is a remarkable range of information and action available here to the administrator who wants to monitor all aspects of the hardware. But with the addition of the EMC, the monitoring can extend to situations where the operating system is locked, hung or powered down.

At least one Intel customer reported that a server using Server Manager Pro and the EMC Card was saved from would-be thieves when the EMC paged the system administrator upon being turned off.