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Monitor Network Systems

ActiveXperts Network Monitor

When you're a systems administrator, it's best to know when something goes wrong before your users start popping up out of their cubicles like a group of startled prairie dogs. Service monitoring is a key tool for proactively managing your infrastructure. ActiveXperts Network Monitor is a robust solution that includes a number of different checks that can span both your LAN/WAN and your Windows®, Novell, and *NIX servers to ensure you know about problems before your users notify you.

ActiveXperts Network Monitor is a Windows-based application that runs as a service on the machine you have designated as your monitoring station—the base operating system on this machine can be Windows 2000, Windows Server® 2003, Windows XP, or Windows Vista®. After installation, a quick configuration wizard guides you through setting up e-mail notifications, SMS notifications, and the default scan frequency or failure threshold. You can also add a set of sample checks that you can use as examples in your configuration. This is very helpful in getting you off the block running and shows you the basics of how you can configure the different features of the application to suit your environment's needs.

The application is split into three separate components: The Network Monitor Engine is the Windows service that continually runs your monitoring tasks; The Network Monitor Manager is a Windows application that allows you to see current monitor activity, view task results, and make changes to your configuration. A Web interface gives you read-only access to the tasks and task results.

In addition to running the monitoring checks, the Network Monitor Engine also handles notifications, result-triggered actions, and logging for the application. The monitoring engine is multithreaded, allowing it to scale to your environment. The service does not require an endpoint agent to run its monitoring checks, but this does mean you will have to supply administrative credentials to monitor remote Windows servers or workstations. Fortunately, you can specify multiple sets of credentials so monitoring across different domains and security contexts won't require a single, all-powerful account for your monitoring solution to run.

You'll probably spend most of your time in the Network Monitor Manager, which gives you granular control over all the features, configuration settings, and functionality. Here, you can organize your monitoring tasks into a tree folder structure, helping you locate and identify items faster in large environments as well as filter the current UI view to get a quick look at a set of monitoring tasks.

Adding a new monitoring check is simple. Network Monitor includes almost 40 built-in checks, including IP and protocol checks (such as ICMP, LDAP, SMTP, and HTTP), Windows checks (such as CPU, process, memory, and terminal server checks), ODBC connectivity, Oracle TnsPing, OLEDB query-based database checks, Novell membership checks, and *NIX RSH checks. In addition, you can monitor environmental details (such as temperature, humidity, and wetness) using a SensaTronics environmental monitor on your network.

The application supports custom VBScript and Remote Shell scripts, enabling you to tailor monitoring tasks. Included with the app is a set of VBScript templates for monitoring various services, such as antivirus, Microsoft® ISA Server, and XML query, so you don't have to start from scratch when creating custom monitoring tasks.

You can set the check frequency and failure threshold for each task, and you can schedule checks to run at a specified day and time for those cases when you need, for example, to verify the results of some other running process like a log archival task or IIS application pool reset. You can also specify executable, script, and batch jobs to run when a check fails or recovers, as well as cause a reboot or restart a specified service. Finally, the Web interface gives you an XSL-translated view of XML result data. The stylesheets can be easily tailored to create a custom view for your Network Operations Center (NOC) or mobile device, and since the data is in XML, you can easily retrieve it for use in another application or aggregate system.

Price: Starts at $395 direct for a five-server license.
ActiveXperts Network Monitor includes sample checks to get you started (Click the image for a smaller view)

ActiveXperts Network Monitor includes sample checks to get you started (Click the image for a larger view)

Windows Vista Resource Kit

As more and more organizations are starting to integrate Windows Vista clients into their infrastructure, IT pros need to be up to speed on the tools available in the new operating system. The newly published Windows Vista Resource Kit (Microsoft Press®, 2007) covers much of the information and tools you will need to successfully implement Windows Vista clients in the enterprise—everything from automating installation and volume activation, to desktop management and maintenance, to using IPv6 networking and remote assistance. In addition to its 1,568 pages, this book also includes a support DVD that contains more than 100 scripts for administration and deployment, a set of debugging tools, the Solution Accelerator for Business Desktop Deployment (BDD), and other useful items.

Beginning with an overview of the new features found in Windows Vista, the book gives special attention to security enhancements, such as User Account Control (UAC), BitLocker drive encryption, and Data Execution Prevention (DEP). It also discusses the concept of service hardening and kernel patch protection. From there, it moves on to deploying Windows, exploring the numerous tools you have at your disposal to help automate the process. For example, the book looks at configuring a Windows PE 2.0 pre-installation and recovery environment, and it delves into the BDD 2007, which gives guidance on planning and deploying Windows Vista in the enterprise. In addition, there are best practices for creating and configuring disk images, and an informative discussion about how to migrate user data using Windows Easy Transfer and the User State Migration Tool.

The book then gets into the details of managing the desktop environment via group policy, diving into the new XML-based administrative template files (ADMX). It also covers managing disks and file systems, and looks at the new ReadyBoost and BitLocker enhancements in Windows Vista. It explains how Previous Versions, Shadow Copies, and disk quotas work, and then the book even goes on to explore how you can deploy and manage Windows Meeting Space in Workgroups, Domains, and adhoc wireless environments.

The Desktop Maintenance section of the book covers tasks, Windows Error Reporting, performance monitoring, and Windows Eventing. It also looks at how you can utilize Remote Assistance at your help desk. The discussion then progresses to cover software updates, the Background Intelligent Transfer Service (BITS), and Windows Update, as well as auditing tools.

The Networking section details how Windows Firewall works and explains the new enhancements to the networking stack. It also investigates using Remote Desktop and VPN connections to configure remote users and networks.

Finally, the book gives you good coverage on troubleshooting problems ranging from booting to the network, to driver errors, to device issues. At times, there is a slight undercurrent of marketing lingo, but it is by no means 1,500+ pages of fluff. This is an in-depth, comprehensive look at Windows Vista, its tools, and management of the OS.

Price: $59.99 direct.
Analyze HTTP Traffic

Charles Web Debugging Proxy

Considering the abundance of HTTP-based communication among applications and among your workstations, servers, and the Internet, a good HTTP traffic analyzer is an incredibly useful tool for system administrators. It can help you identify proxy issues, security concerns, connectivity errors, configuration problems, and troubles with inter-application communication. One tool I quite like is Karl von Randow's Java-based application, the Charles Web Debugging Proxy.

As with other debugging proxies, the application sets itself as the "man-in-the-middle" of sorts—it sits between endpoint applications, intercepting and interpreting the traffic it sees. Thanks to this configuration, the application also allows you to view encrypted HTTPS traffic in its plain text decrypted form. The UI has a well-organized view of the recorded session, giving you a wealth of information from the basic requests for pages, images, scripts, and stylesheets to the nitty-gritty details of size, latency, and timing. You can also see what cookies are being sent and received on each request and what they contain; you can even choose to block cookies all together.

You can troubleshoot request caching issues with the Charles Web Debugging Proxy by verifying last modified dates on 304 Not Modified responses or by choosing to disable caching by removing cache-related headers from the pertinent requests and responses as they travel through the application. In fact, using the application's rewrite settings, you can define a set of rules that rewrite a number of HTTP headers or body content as the requests and responses pass through the application. Or you could even use the application's DNS spoofing settings to override the IP address of a host, allowing you to test requests to items that may not be registered in DNS. This is great for testing, for instance, a new Web server to ensure it is listening and responding correctly to the host header before it goes live.

You can also use the tool to debug AJAX requests and responses and look at the raw XML data within the response. Within the UI, you can even see the raw request and response data in the text to help spot any strange headers.

The tool provides two very nice data layouts that really give you insight into the data transaction: the Summary table and the Chart table. The Summary table lets you quickly scan the request/response data, showing the header size, body size, response time, response code, MIME type, and resource. The Chart table, on the other hand, provides a graphical lifecycle timeline that shows where the request/response data occurred in the sequence and how long the transaction took.

You can save your recording sessions for later replay and analysis. This can be useful for capturing that tricky request/response flow that causes sporadic communication errors; once you have it, you can reproduce it. You can even import HTTP trace files into a new session as well as export the current session to CSV or HTTP trace format.

For request simulations at lower bandwidths—for example, trying to figure out why a request fails on a 56k modem line but not on your corporate network—the application provides a throttling feature that lets you choose from a set of common presets or define a new preset based on four throttle points: bandwidth, percent utilization, round-trip latency, and Maximum Transition Unit. You can also configure the debugging proxy to act as a reverse proxy or port-forwarder, in effect binding a local port to a remote endpoint (and port) so all traffic sent to that port is redirected to the remote address.

Price: Starts at $50 direct for a single-user license.
Charles Web Debugging Proxy analyzes HTTP traffic (Click the image for a smaller view)

Charles Web Debugging Proxy analyzes HTTP traffic (Click the image for a larger view)

Clean Up Unnecessary Files

Wise Disk Cleaner 2

A hard disk is sort of like a home—things accumulate there over time, things that you don't really need to keep. Every now and again, it is a good idea to take a little time to do some serious weeding out of the clutter. There are a few standard methods for cleaning up a hard disk with built-in Windows tools, such as the system tool, Disk Cleanup, and the search functionality. But sometimes, a quick and easy-to-use utility is the way to go—especially when you can get it for free. One such tool is Wise Disk Cleaner 2, which searches your hard disks for the pesky files gathering dust that can be safely removed from your system.

One thing I really like about this tool is that it presents all the files that it finds right in front of you in the UI, making it easy to spot any potential problems. Another nice feature, it lets you easily add additional file patterns to check for and remove. Wise Disk Cleaner will also wipe your temporary Internet files if you want, and you can choose to retain cookies so you won't lose site preferences that may be stored within it. You can also remove Windows Update uninstall files, as well as clear the Windows Update source, recent file list, and the Windows and user temp folders. You can even auto-run the application, setting your preference to either delete the items permanently or just move them to your Recycle Bin. The application logs its activities for later review as well—not bad for a free tool.

Price: Free.
Wise Disk Cleaner 2 finds files that you can safely delete (Click the image for a smaller view)

Wise Disk Cleaner 2 finds files that you can safely delete (Click the image for a larger view)

Manage Network Devices

iReasoning Networks MIB Browser Personal Edition

If you have any Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP)-enabled network devices, applications, or systems in your infrastructure, iReasoning Networks MIB Browser allows you to load a set of Management Information Base (MIB) files and browse through the hierarchical structure through a view much like that in Windows Explorer. Here, you can see the details of the selected object, including the object identifier (OID), syntax, read/write access, and description.

You can easily issue an SNMP request to retrieve data from a network device via the UI. Simply type in the IP address of the device, select the MIB object, and click Go. If needed, you can also set the port, SNMP request version, and read and write community strings. Making changes to an agent is just as simple (assuming your device allows for this). Just select the OID, the data type, and the value, and then click OK. In addition, there is a built-in Trap Sender and Trap Receiver utility that lets you issue traps and watch trap activity (to which you can apply filters to make the device in question easier to see).

iReasoning Networks MIB Browser Personal Edition is free, but it doesn't support SNMPv3 and is limited to loading five MIBs simultaneously. You might want to consider the Professional Edition (at $269 direct per license), which includes additional features and supports SNMPv3, network discovery, and device comparison.

Price: Free.
iReasoning Networks MIB Browser (Click the image for a smaller view)

iReasoning Networks MIB Browser (Click the image for a larger view)

Take Control of Windows PowerShell


If you haven't started using Windows PowerShellTM yet, you most likely will be using it soon. Windows PowerShell is becoming a core administrative tool in the world of Windows Server®. For starters, it has become the basis for script-based management of Exchange Server 2007.

To get the most out of Windows PowerShell in its native format, you need to memorize a fair amount of syntax, cmdlets, and general structure. Of course, you may not have the time (or mental energy) to dedicate to this. But what if you had a centralized graphical administrative console for managing your scripts? A user interface that would give you customizable templates, IntelliSense®-like editing features, and a script-sharing community base? With this sort of environment, you would be able to quickly script the tasks you need and always know where they are located for future reuse and reference.

Don't worry—I'm not just teasing you here. This GUI-based environment for Windows PowerShell is what you get with PowerGUI, a freeware product sponsored by Quest Software. Though still in beta at the time of writing this column, this application offers an easy-to-use, extensible administrative GUI that has the feel of a Microsoft® Management Console (MMC) snap-in on steroids.

Within the GUI, you can double-click on any of the supplied scripts or one of your own customized scripts to have it run and provide a tabular view of the returned dataset. You can apply column and value filters to this data to drill into the information you need. In addition, you can add your own custom columns to supply computed values or custom results that suit your specific needs.

From within the GUI, you can launch a Windows PowerShell prompt or the application's built-in script editor. The script editor is where you get a basic IntelliSense-like environment that shows you the syntax of the available cmdlets as well as the standard file and editing features, such as search and replace, printing, and cut/copy/paste. You can also bookmark steps.

Furthermore, PowerGUI gives you a number of customizable and extensible actions that you can apply to your dataset. For example, the local system services script lets you start, stop, suspend, and set properties on the designated service. Another nice feature is the ability to add links between scripts, in effect allowing you to chain scripts by common elements to get the information you need. For instance, you can get a list of users from a certain Group and then link that to a script that shows you the amount of data in their home directory. In addition to those capabilities, PowerGUI has a few built-in common action scripts for reporting and reviewing that let you dump your data to XML, CSV, HTML, and the clipboard.

You can extend both the individual script actions and the common actions by adding your own scripts or customizing one of the provided templates. Bringing up the properties window on a script allows you to edit the script in place or simply see how it works.

Another valuable feature is the PowerGUI Web site community library, which offers a place for users to share and download scripts to aid in your system administration tasks. Here you'll find scripts and actions for Active Directory® management, Exchange server management, Microsoft Operations Manager tasks, general Windows Server tasks, and more. PowerGUI is a solid start to providing a GUI-based, extensible administrative tool for working with Windows PowerShell.

Price: Free
Simplify Windows PowerShell with a graphical UI (Click the image for a smaller view)

Simplify Windows PowerShell with a graphical UI (Click the image for a larger view)

Think Green When Acquiring Products

Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool

When you think green, you need to consider the overall cost of a computer throughout its entire lifecycle. This means the collective energy consumed when manufacturing, using, and disposing of computers (not to mention other factors, such as the materials used and waste generated). The overall cost, in these terms, is quite astounding. (For an overview of the environmental and financial costs involved, see the article Dave Ohara wrote for the October 2007 issue of TechNet Magazine, available at

Fortunately, more and more individuals and corporations are recognizing the impact, both financially and environmentally, of their infrastructure. And, as a result, they are beginning to look for products that reduce energy consumption. One tool for the IT professional that is trying to help companies address this concern is brought to us by the Green Electronics Council ( ).

The organization's tool, dubbed EPEAT (short for Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool), evaluates electronics products according to 51 different environmental criteria—23 of these criteria are required and 28 are optional. The ratings are as follows: Bronze (which implies the product meets the baseline required criteria), Silver (which is the required plus 50 percent of the optional criteria), and Gold (which meets the required criteria plus 75 percent or more of the optional elements).

The criteria cover the gamut of a product's lifecycle, from the materials selected for manufacture to the power consumption during use and end of life management. The standard's required criteria predominately cover declarations of a product's impact, such as declaring how much of a product is made from recycled plastic, identifying materials contained in the product that require special handling, and declaring how much of a product's packaging is recycled material. (All EPEAT-registered products currently meet ENERGYSTAR 3.0 standards; and by the end of January 2008, all will be compliant with the new ENERGYSTAR 4.0 standard.)

Furthermore, certified products must have a "take-back" service in place for both the product and its rechargeable batteries (if applicable). Another interesting requirement is the availability of a three-year warranty or service agreement, which should, in theory, help prolong the life of a device, thus reducing the overall impact of a high turnover rate.

Some of the optional standards cover the elimination of certain heavy metals (such as cadmium), modular design, third-party certification of the company's environmental practices and policies, and various percentage levels of recyclability.

Currently, there are four categories of products available: desktops, integrated systems, monitors, and notebooks. The product categories will continue to expand, with server standards slated for sometime in 2009.

And most major manufacturers are participating. This was helped along by Executive Order 13423 of January 2007, which stipulates that any federal agency acquiring electronic products to meet its requirements should meet at least 95 percent of those requirements with an Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT)-registered electronic product (

So, if you aren't already addressing the environmental impact of your purchases, you should take the time to check out the EPEAT assessment tool in order to start considering the environmental (and financial) gains that can be made with your next product acquisition.

Price: Free
Use EPEAT to assess the environmental impact of your hardware puchases (Click the image for a smaller view)

Use EPEAT to assess the environmental impact of your hardware puchases (Click the image for a larger view)

Book Review

Windows Vista Administrator's Pocket Consultant

If you are getting ready to roll out Windows Vista® in your organization, the Windows Vista Administrator's Pocket Consultant (Microsoft Press, 2006) by William Stanek can help get you up to speed quickly on the new features and functionality. Those of you who have read other books from the Administrator's Pocket Consultant series will find the format of this book familiar and its depth of content similar to the others in this series. It doesn't give you every intricacy, but it does give a good, broad overview of features and functionality, specific administrative task execution, and refreshers of how things work. And the content is definitely geared toward system administrators, as opposed to general end users.

The book starts out with an introduction to the Windows Preinstallation Environment 2.0, along with a brief overview of the utilities that you'll have at your disposal during automated or interactive installation. Then the book moves into managing Windows Vista systems, showing you how to use tools like msconfig to troubleshoot or tailor your installation, as well as showing you new features like Previous Versions, which allows you to restore a folder or file to a previous state. In addition, you get an introduction to the tools that help you manage the hardware and devices on target systems.

The book then covers how to tailor the Windows® experience for your end users by customizing the interface and desktop. For example, it shows you how to reduce screen-saver resource usage, tailor the startup and start menu programs, and configure the Windows sidebar. And the book also shows you how to create personal toolbars to give your end users quick access to shared folders and files from the taskbar.

The section on installation and maintenance of Windows Vista programs and features discusses tools like the Software Explorer, which allows you to speedily see a system's startup programs, currently running programs, Winsock service providers, and network-connected programs. It then moves on to managing users, profiles, mobility concerns, and computer and user policy, and also disk management, file security, and resource sharing. More specifically, it explains how to create users, manage Windows logon through group policy, and create key ring entries that will make it easier for users to access password-protected resources.

The section on mobility discusses how the new alternate network configuration lets you specify both an "at the office" configuration and an "on the road" configuration. Users are able to easily switch between the two modes.

In the chapter "Managing File Security and Resource Sharing," you get the basics on how to configure permissions on NTFS files and folders as well as how Windows Vista Special Permissions work (and how to control them). Here too, you learn how to create, connect to, and persist connections to shared resources.

In terms of disk management, the book contains an introduction to configuring disk quota, which teaches you not only how to create, view, update, and delete disk quotas but also how to import and export these settings for reuse.

There is a pretty detailed look at how the dual IPv4/IPv6 networking stack in Windows Vista works. Here, you also see how to configure your network adapters for your environment.

The book finishes up with a section on how to optimize Windows Vista to ensure the best experience for your users, followed by a short chapter on general troubleshooting techniques. Here, you can find out how to set up remote assistance, maintain a healthy system through scheduled disk checks and defragmentation, and how to create backups. Overall, this is an easy-to-follow, quick-reference for Windows Vista administration.
Price: $29.99 direct.

(Click the image for a smaller view)

Monitor Your Web Site

I've said this before, and I simply can't stress it enough: a proactive approach to systems administration will result in less stress and will help you avoid embarrassing moments, such as when the boss sends you an e-mail saying, "Did you know the site is down?"

A good network monitoring tool is essential to this approach. Most, if not all, of you probably already employ some kind of internal network monitoring server. But what about those of you who are concerned with a global presence in which you need to ensure availability of your Internet-facing services?, an application service provider (ASP), provides a simple-yet-effective automated monitoring service. The ASP's servers are distributed across multiple global locations, giving you a much better sense of what your users are really experiencing—as opposed to relying on a single-source external service monitor.

To get going, sign up for an account and set your locality, defining your time zone, country, date format, and the number format that meets your needs. Then set up your contacts by providing names, SMS phone numbers, and e-mail addresses for notification. After that, you create a monitoring check by defining a name, a check resolution, the type of monitoring check to be performed at the resolution, and the type, contacts, and periodic intervals of notifications for the check.

The default account package gives you check resolutions that range from 1 minute to 60 minutes, letting you tailor the requests to the service you are monitoring. Notification can be sent to your contacts via e-mail or SMS. And you can define the number of times the service ping should fail before notification is sent, along with how many failure cycles must pass before you are notified again (up to a maximum of four reminders). In addition, you can also have the pingdom notify you when your service comes back up—this is great for Web site or service maintenance window checks. Speaking of maintenance, you can also pause or stop the checks to avoid false positives during scheduled tasks.

The service offers users four basic types of checks: an HTTP sensor, a TCP port sensor, a ping sensor, and a UDP sensor. The HTTP sensor lets you set the URL/IP, whether the request is over SSL, the port, a basic authentication user name and password combination, or a basic inclusive/exclusive content check string. The TCP port sensor lets you define the service port and IP/domain to be checked. The ping sensor lets you set the IP or domain to check via ICMP. And the UDP sensor is determined by the IP/domain, a port, the string to send to that combination, and the expected response string. In effect, you could check the availability of your Web site, FTP server, SMTP server, and more from multiple locations around the globe.

The service also provides several reports to help you visualize historical data. With these reports, you can see your percentage of uptime for a specified month and the average response time for that time period. You can also get a detailed view of each check instance, displaying the timestamp, status, response time, and the server from which the check was performed. In addition, you get a view of notifications, showing you when, how many, to whom, and by what means they were sent for a specified time period. You can make these reports publicly available, so other members of your organization can see the service statistics. If you have your own tailored NOC, also provides a Web service API that you can query for this information, allowing you to integrate the service into your current dashboard views.
Price: $9.95 per month. monitors your Web services with a global perspective (Click the image for a smaller view) monitors your Web services with a global perspective (Click the image for a larger view)

Contributed by Editorial Team, Executive Management Team
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