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Toolbox New Products for IT Pros
Greg Steen is a technology professional, entrepreneur, and enthusiast. He is always on the hunt for new tools to help make operations, QA, and development easier for the IT professional.
© 2008 Microsoft Corporation and CMP Media, LLC. All rights reserved; reproduction in part or in whole without permission is prohibited.
Manage Multiple Monitors
With the price of LCD panels dropping, it seems most system administrators have at least two, if not more, monitors at their workstation to help them keep an eye on different administrative dashboards. (If you don't, I would highly recommend it—it makes life so much easier!) But with the addition of another monitor or two, you also start using your mouse more extensively, which can really slow you down. A good, easy-to-use display management utility with keyboard shortcuts can be a great help. One such tool worth considering is UltraMon from Realtime Soft, a utility that supports Windows® 98 up to Windows Vista®, including both 32-bit and 64-bit editions.
When you first start up UltraMon, you'll probably notice the two little icons in the corner of each of your application windows. The first icon quickly expands the application window across the monitors, and the second icon transports the application to the opposing monitor. You'll also notice that the taskbar is extended across each of your monitors and contains the applications active for that particular monitor. This means you don't have to go back to your primary monitor to expand an application, and you immediately know where that application will appear when it is maximized and minimized.
On each of your application shortcuts, a new UltraMon tab allows you to define on which monitor that application should start and at what position, so you can, for example, always have Microsoft® Outlook® show up on your left window and Internet Explorer® open up on the right. As an IT professional, you are most likely connecting to your workstation remotely from different locations such as a laptop or your home desktop; just know that each of these remote connections probably requires a slight change to the desktop and resolution of your display.
Fortunately, UltraMon also supports display profiles, which allow you to quickly change between customized views across your monitors. This is a great help if you are sharing your machine with others who need or want their own customized view or if you want to change your view based on your activities.
If you are running Windows 2000 or Windows XP, you can also enable a "mirroring" feature that is perfect for presentations, as it allows you to have your primary monitor run at a higher resolution than your presentation monitor but still mirror the application activities on both screens. And, if you haven't upgraded to Windows Vista yet, you can also have the application stretch your screen across multiple monitors (which Windows Vista does by default).
Additional display features—such as a shortcut to the Display Settings screen, the ability to quickly set and switch the primary monitor on your system, and switching to a different display profile—are a few of the quickly accessible repeated activities available with the UltraMon system tray icon. Here you can also launch the UltraMon Options window, which will let you customize your "Smart Taskbar," set up hotkeys to move and change windows, and bring your mouse to a specified focus point, among other things.
Price: Starts at $39.95 for a single license.
The options window in UltraMon lets you set up hotkeys and manage your Smart Taskbar (Click the image for a larger view)
Microsoft SQL Server 2005 Analysis Services
Having extensive data about your customer base is one thing, but understanding and manipulating that data to derive useful and insightful statistics about those customers is quite another. To get to those calculated views and projections, you need a dynamic and powerful business intelligence solution. Part of the Microsoft answer to the business intelligence and online analytical processing (OLAP) arena is SQL Server® 2005 Analysis Services. And to help guide you through fully utilizing this solution is the book Microsoft SQL Server 2005 Analysis Services.
Whether you are considering a new data-mining deployment, upgrading to Analysis Services 2005 from Analysis Services 2000, or you are a database administrator interested in what these tools can do for you and your organization, this book by Py Bateman, Alexander Berger, Irina Gorbach, and Edward Melomed is for you. Instead of dwelling in the realm of the theoretical approaches to business intelligence, the book offers an in-depth, nuts-and-bolts view into using, developing for, deploying, and managing Analysis Services in the real world. Many of the examples it provides rely on Food Mart 2005, a sample database that comes with the software, so you can quickly start experimenting in your own test environment.
The introductory section of the book shows you what's new in version 2005 including the client-server architecture with Web service XML for Analysis (XMLA) communication, the Unified Dimensional Model, and improvements to scalability in the new version. You'll also get an introduction to the Food Mart sample database and the basics of multidimensional databases. Next you will jump into creating data models by learning about Data Definition Language (DDL) XML, dimension attributes and hierarchies, and cubes and multidimensional analysis. You will also get an introduction into the design and development workplace of the 2005 Analysis Services business intelligence professional with the Business Intelligence Development Studio.
Once you get those design concepts down, you move into data manipulation via multidimensional expressions (MDX). In addition to seeing how to query for data with MDX, you'll also learn how to use MDX functions and member and cell properties; deal with empty sets and nulls, Subselects, and Subcubes; and learn how to create and use cube-based MDX calculations and extend your queries with stored procedures. The book then delves into Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), drill-through, and scorecards, all of which can show insight into the various aspects of business growth, metrics, and targets.
The next chunk of the book will bring you through the extract, transform, and load (ETL) process of your data, showing you not only how to bring data into your system but also how to optimize your aggregation design and use proactive caching to increase performance. Here, too, you will work through the physical data model of your cubes and dimensions, and you'll see how the processing of each works with 2005 Analysis Services. In addition, you will learn how to scale your deployment out and up to meet your business needs, touching on network load balancing, OLAP farms, linked measure and dimension groups, and remote partition processing.
The book then moves into the real nitty-gritty of query execution to give you a better understanding of the underlying operations to help you fine-tune your application's performance. It explores accessing your data from a client perspective and the numerous options available for doing so such as XMLA, ADOMD.net, and the Analysis Management Objects (AMO). You have to break out the "coder-within" for this section to see how to utilize Visual Studio and the Business Intelligence IDEs to create your own custom data warehouse applications.
The last section delves into management of your Analysis Services installation including using the trace tool, flight recorder, and the SQL Server Profiler to monitor the performance and health of the system. In addition, you are shown various options for backup and restoration of your deployment with sections on using a DDL command to back up your database, automation through SQL Server Agent or SQL Server Integration Services (SSIS), and techniques to recover lost or damaged data. Overall, this guide to SQL Server 2005 Analysis Services is a thorough, broad-spectrum book.
(Click the image for a larger view)
Diagnose Database Issues
You probably know that the first step in troubleshooting an issue or tracking a potential breech is to gather the pertinent information surrounding the event that caused the problem. And if you are involved in end-user support, you're probably familiar with complaints along the lines of "the system lost the data." One tool that could help you quickly zero-in on issues with SQL Server databases is ApexSQL Audit from ApexSQL, which fully supports SQL Server 7.0 through SQL Server 2005.
As I'm guessing you've surmised from the name, this application tracks activity on the databases you specify and then allows you to create custom reports on the audit trail for analysis. Audit entries are added via SQL triggers and stored in an automatically generated schema. You can choose to either store the audit information in the same database as the data you are watching or in its own database for isolation.
Installation (and removal) of the audit schema (or architecture, as they call it) is a painless operation via the graphical UI. Setting up an audit plan for a database is relatively simple: you pick the database, select the tables and fields to watch, and then click the button to generate the triggers.
The application lets you modify the trigger templates for your project, and I really like that the template editor provides IntelliSense®-like capabilities for the audit object model, making it easy to customize both when the trigger will fire and what information will be stored. Another nice feature lets you easily reference look-up tables so the audit information will be understandable, as opposed to being just a bunch of opaque IDs. You can also map watched field names to audit field names if you want to map columns.
Once you are up and running, the UI can give you a quick view of the current audit triggers applied, and, with a click, you can enable and disable specific triggers if need be. You can also examine what audit coverage you have with the interface's handy table view.
As you know, audit information tends to be verbose, and some kind of information management plan needs to be put in place for archiving and trimming audit databases. ApexSQL Audit gives you a data management tool that lets you either delete all information with a click, specify a set of criteria and then delete, or schedule a criteria-based deletion.
Scheduled jobs are automatically created as Data Transformation Services (DTS) packages and scheduled through the SQL agent. Of course, having all of that audit information is one thing, but being able to use it is quite another. Fortunately, ApexSQL Audit has a strong reporting component that allows you to generate customized filtered views of both atomic audit data and aggregate views of that audit data. Once you generate your report, you can easily print it or export the output to HTML, Microsoft Excel, or a text file.
Price: Starts at $599.
The look-up tables in ApexSQL Audit provide extensive audit information (Click the image for a larger view)
Automate Password Expiration Reminders
Password Reminder PRO v1.4
Have you noticed an influx of helpdesk calls when your password expiration policy rolls through a group in your organization? If so, you might want to check out Password Reminder PRO from SysOp Tools. This simple tool integrates with Active Directory® and notifies your end users that their accounts or passwords are expiring soon.
You can set up three different reminders, each with a distinct text-based or formatted HTML e-mail template. You can also configure a maximum password age to the same number of days as your Active Directory configuration and the hour at which reminders should be sent so you won't conflict with peak hours. The test mode lets you preview the effects without actually affecting your end users to ensure you have everything configured properly.
The utility also has a report console, which shows you a data-grid view of different user classes: accounts that are expiring, inactive users, new accounts, disabled accounts, and more. From this report console, you can export all the information to an XLS file for later review. For additional auditing of the e-mails that have been sent, Password Reminder PRO sends a daily report of which reminders were sent to which users.
Price: Starts at $249 for a 100-user license.
Password Reminder PRO previews configurations before deployment (Click the image for a larger view)
Remote Troubleshooting Simplified
The easiest way to troubleshoot an issue or walk a user through a process is usually to be physically at the machine. But that's often not possible in today's geographically dispersed companies. The Windows built-in Remote Desktop Connection and Remote Assistance tools can help you connect to some of the machines in your environment. But to cover all the bases, you might want to check out the free UltraVNC SC, from the producers of the mainline project UltraVNC.
Like its older sibling, UltraVNC SC allows you to view and control a remote machine; however, this version is a tiny 166K UltraVNC server that you configure and send to your end user. It requires no registry entries, it doesn't run as a service, and it doesn't need an installer, so there is no setup or configuration for the end user. The user just double-clicks the executable to get the mini-VNC server running, and you can connect to the machine to support and administer, as needed.
Whereas the standard UltraVNC server supports file and directory transfers, currently UltraVNC SC only supports file transfer. In terms of security, communication is encrypted up to the level of your Microsoft Crypto API (either 40 or 128 bits). Also, the mini server doesn't allow incoming connections, it is only instantiated by the end user, and it can only connect to the machine specified in your configuration before sending it to your end user.
To create the custom viewer, tailor a few text configuration files and graphics and then run a batch file from the install of another project add-on called PCHelpware to generate the executable. The documentation isn't great, but it shows you how to go through the relatively simple process. Finally, the app is automatically uninstalled when the connection is closed after use, so it leaves no trace or security hole.