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Test Drive -
Appmanager (September 1999)
A product review from Eric Doyle
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explorermag.com star rating

Anyone who has had to recover a downed Exchange server will appreciate the benefits of using a proactive management system to settle the small problems before they coalesce into a major failure. Any Exchange system manager who hasn’t had any bad experiences, without the safety net of a management system, should realise that their luck will run out one day if no action is taken. Because of this, several companies are offering Exchange server management systems and NetIQ is just one of them – but its AppManager product does have the distinction of being the one that Microsoft uses.

AppManager is not just an Exchange management console, it also has modules for handling several other application environments including Windows NT but, as NetIQ admits, the majority of its new customers buy the product to handle Exchange. This is despite the fact that Exchange comes with its own performance monitoring tools but, as Siemens Business Services systems engineer Dan Turner explains, "AppManager gives you a lot more functionality with queries. You can get some of the information using the Exchange tools but it means a lot of manual work. If you use the Knowledge Scripts that ship with AppManager v3.0, it's literally just drag and drop with a tiny amount of configuration. You just run the reports off and you're sorted!"

Monitoring system performance


The software monitors system performance across the distributed messaging environment and reports these metrics back to a configurable console. When user-defined thresholds are crossed, the console will sound the alarm on screen, or by sending any combination of email, fax or pager messages to support personnel. The system keeps track of the statistics for each server and these can be used to generate reports to show system weaknesses or to support quality of service contracts. Some of the main tasks that AppManager can perform include monitoring email connectivity; user statistics; tracking the size and health of mail queues; and notifying the administrator of mailboxes that have been dormant for a specific time. Where quality of service (QoS) contracts are concerned, the email connectivity function is extremely useful for working out the initial terms and keeping track of the ensuing performance. Oliver Richardson, a consultant with OS Integration, says: "There's a script called Connectivity which is like LinkMon in Exchange but, where LinkMon only sends a process message and calculates the transmission time, Connectivity sends and actual email from server to server. When AppManager says it takes two seconds to send, it means that's the user experience and not some theoretical calculated figure."

Architecture


The software's architecture is firmly based on the Microsoft NT platform and uses the SQL Server database as its repository. From the console, which can be loaded onto any desktop or server in the network, the system links to the Management Server which usually holds the repository. Moving outwards into the network, the Management Server is in contact with AppManager Intelligent Agents which act as the information gatherers on all of the servers and workstations. The agents continually gather information from their host and this is sent when a Knowledge Script housed on the server polls for an update. Other Knowledge Scripts then peruse the database and update the console which can be an application on the administrator's desktop or, if the Web Management Internet Information Server (IIS) option is loaded, could be a browser anywhere on the Internet.

The console window


The console window is split into panes and may look forbidding at first glance but its structure is logical once you understand the hierarchy. The key pane is the Treeview which displays all of the systems and their applications in much the same way as the Windows Explorer hierarchically lists folders and files. From here it is possible to see all of the elements (managed objects) that are being monitored on each of the systems in the Exchange network. Next is the Knowledge Script (KS) pane which shows all of the available Visual Basic scripts. Each module for AppManager has its own set of scripts and its own pane which can be selected from a row of tabs. To apply a script to a resource, the script is lifted from the list and dragged into the Treeview pane. As the dragged icon passes over each resource, the name of the resource is highlighted if the script is applicable to it. Dropping the script on a highlighted resource, opens an administration window that allows input of parameters for when the script should be run, what thresholds should be set and which corrective messages or alarms should follow an alert.

The third window is the List pane and this is linked with the Graph pane. These panes show what is happening in Exchange. Each implemented KS, known here as a job, can be interrogated to check its parameters, set it running or stop it. By dragging and dropping a job icon onto the Graph pane, a visual representation of the ongoing status can be displayed.

Apart from Turner and Richardson, I also sought the views of Brendan Kelly, manager of the EMEA messaging group at Dell. Although Dell has installed NetIQ globally, each region manages its own Exchange domain which for Kelly comprises 70 servers. "As we are such a high-volume messaging environment, any queues that build up have the potential of building up rapidly. We needed something that was able to give us as close to 100% availability as possible - from restarting failed services, recognising failing services and basic disk management to network availability: the real core issues. I can't say we've achieved that yet but we're close to the five nines [99.999% availability]."

Opinions


Turner comments, "It takes a while to get your head round AppManager. You need to sit down and plan out exactly what you're going to need it for - and come up with a decent business case because it's not the cheapest thing in the world. After this, installation for a domain of 65 servers can be completed in a weekend."

"Although planning takes time, it's only a matter of a couple of weeks - not as long as for SMS, for example," adds Richardson. "We get a lot of NT implementation contracts and a problem in the past was that everything would be working brilliantly, but six months later we'd get a phone call to say everything's going wrong. Now, we put in AppManager so it can be easily supported and we can give the client processes that are fully documented. We have also produced a product called Scimmitar which allows us to define daily, weekly and monthly checks. When we leave, Scimmitar pulls out the AppManager information and as long as the client does these checks everything will be working fine, and when something starts to go wrong we know about it before the whole system chokes up."

All three agreed that for most implementations there is little need for writing scripts from scratch because the library is comprehensive enough to provide a near-enough equivalent that can be modified or cut and pasted into another script to provide the relevant functionality. As far as training and support is concerned, NetIQ appears to be a listening company, provides help "usually within 24 hours" and has a regular diary of courses.

Summary

NetIQ's AppManager for Microsoft Exchange Server is simple to install, but like most management systems implementation means a few weeks of planning to ensure a good fit for the business. After this, a 100 server implementation can be set up in two or three days to gain immediate benefits and then be modified over time to tune it more closely to the specific environment. The Knowledge Scripts required for the process can be taken, or modified, from the installed library, downloaded from NetIQ's library of user-developed scripts or be written from scratch in VBA. It has proven scalability attested to by customers such as Microsoft, Boeing, Compaq and Dell. It also links into network management systems such as Tivoli Enterprise, Hewlett-Packard Network Node Manager, and CA Unicenter TNG, as well as taking information from server management systems from Dell and Compaq. According to the customers we contacted, the cost of the system is an initial hurdle but the improved reliability that results often paves the way for buying in further modules in the suite. The mandatory SQL Server repository could be better documented and may not be to everyone's taste.
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Wish List

"A simple, complete report generation package designed around NetIQ would be nice. I know they say they already have one but it comes as a separate extension. We don't use it because it's easier to use our skilled report writers." – Brendan Kelly, manager of Dell's EMEA messaging group. "I'd like to see event correlation such as is found in IBM's NetView. This facility tells you if one fault is the result of another fault elsewhere. Network management tools are more evolved than AppManager and it would be good if NetIQ adopted some of their features and methodologies." – Oliver Richardson, consultant for OS Integration.

"I'd like to see it running on SQL Server 7.0 because it's such a dream to install and administer. You can monitor version 7.0 but the repository doesn't run on it." – Dan Turner, systems engineer for Siemens Business Services*

*A forthcoming update for a SQL Server 7.0 repository is in the works.
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AppManager pricing
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$600 (375) - NT Component (one per server)
$1,200 (750) - Exchange Component (one per server)
$2,500 (1,560) - AppManager Console (which includes the Distributed Event Console for running several module panes in one window)
$2,500 (1,560) - Optional Web-based AppManager Console (price is for five user licences)
AppManager for Exchange supports Exchange Server 4.0 and above, including the Enterprise Edition, running on Windows NT (3.51 upwards with Windows 2000 support expected when Microsoft ships) www.netiq.com