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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.
Automate Admin Tasks
Repetitive tasks that require no thought are boring, laborious, and prone to error. Automating these types of tasks is a key to successful administration and can improve job satisfaction. Aside from using dreary batch files and custom VBScripts to automate your tasks, there are a number of macro-like utilities for Windows® and a few utilities that even force you to learn some sort of custom scripting language. But there is another option. Automise 2, from VSoft Technologies, lets you generate automation routines through a drag, drop, and customize style GUI.
The application's interface is much like a simple programming IDE, offering familiar options. You get a toolbox from which you drag items onto your designer surface, debugging controls that allow you to step through your code, a view of your different projects, output run logs, history, and property windows. But with Automise, your "code" is really a visual representation of your automated task's workflow.
Automise's toolbox consists of actions, each of which performs a single step in the automation process. There are 380 actions included with the application, covering the gamut of possible operations from creating .zip files to restarting IIS.
When you design your task, you can hierarchically structure these actions to cover many of the administrative processes you perform regularly. In addition, you can connect your actions by flow control actions, such as try/catch blocks, exception raising, if-then-else statements, loops, switches, delays, and asynchronous action groups.
Each of your automation projects can also include other projects so you can separate your master flow of control from its subtasks. There are also actions for manipulating strings and XML data, setting variables, waiting on processes and commands, and much more. With all these flow of control options, even complex operations are in reach of being automated.
Automise lets you create, run, edit, and delete Scheduled Tasks. This means you can use Automise to manage your existing processes as well. I don't have enough space to list all the actions, but some other notables are: actions to register a DLL in the Global Assembly Cache (GAC), rebuild SQL Server® indexes, run chkdsk, edit the registry, back up the event log, edit Active Directory® users, mount volumes, create restore points, and create a virtual directory. And, if the built-in actions can't do what you want, Automise also has custom script, command, and ad hoc SQL execution actions.
All in all, this is a handy tool to have at your disposal. And if you are really just looking to automate your own Windows workstation, as opposed to automating the network infrastructure, take a look at Automise Lite, which trims out a number of features but will handle most of your power-user needs.
Price: Single-user license starts at $195 (direct).
Automate tasks visually with Automise 2 (Click the image for a larger view)
Monitor Logs in Real time
Log files, log files, everywhere! But using them, that's the real bear. It's great that you have your application spewing out a log of transactions. But in addition to using your log-aggregation tools, how can you really watch what is transpiring in real time? One solution is Bare Metal Software's tried and true BareTailPro. Though not updated since 2006, this simple utility still remains an enhanced Windows analog to the old console *nix command 'tail -f'.
With its straightforward GUI, you can watch multiple log files of any size simultaneously, transparently watching what is written to them in real time. To switch among files, you just click on the tab. And, a very nice feature, each tab displays an icon to signal of the state of each log file, indicating whether the file is being written to, or the "tail" has been stopped.
Though most applications log, how they log is usually quite different. Fortunately, BareTailPro can read Unicode, UTF-8, ANSI, and ASCII files, and can handle when their lines end in CR/LF pairs, single LFs, and nulls. You can easily configure both line wrapping and tab expansion to give yourself the best view for the particular type of log file. In addition, you can enhance the readability of the log file by configuring the font size, type, spacing, and line height.
Another great feature is the application's configurable highlighting that you can apply to a log view. You can set any number of foreground/background coloring coding rules based on a string of text. For example, you can highlight any error in red and warning in yellow, or you can choose to highlight all lines that have a specific IP address or host reference. You can spec the lines as bold or italic and you can choose to ignore the casing of your string of text.
Even with text highlighting, an aggressive log file can overwhelm your tail view, making it difficult to spot the events you are looking for. BareTailPro offers another feature that can help. Regular expression and text search functionality let you quickly trim down your log view, isolating the row instances of concern into a manageable subset. The regular expression syntax used by BareTailPro is made up of a subset of the standard notation used by Java, Perl, and PHP. In case you're not familiar with that usage, the product Web site provides a quick reference.
The utility shows your filtered results in a tabular format, adding a few useful columns such as a timestamp, the line number, and the results of any capturing groups you may have defined along with the original line source. In the filtered view, these columns are also sortable.
I can never remember the syntax of the "magic" regular expression that got me the results I needed. That's why I really appreciate the tool's pattern save feature. This lets you name, edit, and save patterns for reuse. Once you do have your important rows in your filtered view, BareTailPro also lets you export those results to a file or to the clipboard with a tailored format, allowing you to set things like the width, alignment, prefix, and suffix to each of the results columns.
Impressively, this tiny utility is contained within a single small executable, making it portable and being low-impact on your environment. Note that if you just need to watch your log files and don't require the regular expression filtering, saving of search patterns, and exporting of search and filter results, you may get by with the free version, named BareTail.
Price: Starts at $35 for an individual license.
Monitor your network with BareTailPro (Click the image for a larger view)
Inventory your systems
Total Network Inventory
Having quick access to detailed information about the machines throughout your environment is a key part of successful systems management. Spreadsheets and vendor listings of this information are easy to lose track of, hard to keep complete, and quickly fall out of date.
It can be very helpful to use a dynamic tool that presents the info "as-you-need-it," gathering information about who has what installed and what kind of hardware they are running. A tool like this also offers a great way to keep tabs on what extras users may have put on their machines. (This, of course, is if your group policy doesn't already limit installation rights or provide quick tallies on how many licenses you should have based on the installation base for a particular software package.) One tool that fits this bill is Total Network Inventory from Softinventive Lab.
After installing Total Network Inventory, you can start the inventory process using the Scan wizard, which guides you through node discovery in your network. You can choose to scan immediately, via a specified IP address range or Network Places computer browsing, or you can use a logon script scan, which lets you collect information as a machine logs onto the domain.
Total Network Inventory relies on Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI)—either IPC$\ADMIN$ or RPC/DCOM—and classic sharing for local accounts to perform its scanning. So you need to run it under the context of an Administrator account.
Once your scan is complete, you can then browse through the machines or search for specific computers to inventory their assets. Total Network Inventory groups the collected inventory information into three areas: hardware, software, and other information. The hardware portion includes details about the processor, motherboard and chipset, memory, video subsystem, storage (including physical and logical devices), network adapter types and configurations, peripherals, and any other devices installed in the system.
The software section provides OS information, including product keys, serial numbers, system directories, and installed services packs. There are details about hotfixes (with their respective Knowledge Base article numbers) and any antivirus and database apps that may be installed. And you get a list of programs that are installed (along with a view into the Program Files directory, so you can see applications that may have been hidden from the standard Add/Remove Programs listing), as well as a listing of any autorun applications.
Finally, the "other information" section wraps up details on the system environment, such as user and system variables, shared resources, running processes, services installed, and local user accounts.
Total Network Inventory really gives you the information you need for performing asset audits, licensing checks, upgrade calculations, and performance evaluations. One of the best parts of this tool is the Report Builder component. This feature gives you multiple, well-organized, detailed reports for everything from a quick reference to an audit paper trail. And the reports can be aggregate or for a single machine. A feature I find particularly useful is the Software and Licenses Accounting tab view. It displays the aggregate count of each type of software installed across your environment to ensure you are in compliance with your vendor agreements.
Price: Starts at $95 for a 25-node license.
The Scan wizard guides users through network node discovery (Click the image for a larger view)
Mastering Microsoft Exchange Server 2007
Whether you like it or not, e-mail is a core component of a smoothly operating organization. (Although, I'll admit that I do sometimes wish users would be required to take a class on effective written communication before they are allowed to use e-mail.) And over the years, the desire to integrate voice communications, calendaring, resource scheduling, uniform client access, and mail-filtering (for spam, viruses, and the like) has become all too apparent. This is where Microsoft® Exchange Server 2007 enters the picture.
The latest version of Exchange smoothly integrates all these components in a scalable, robust solution. But with all the features and functionality, the administrator, architect, and support staff need a few good reference books to help them plan for, deploy, manage, and maintain such a dynamic electronic messaging solution.
In the last installment of the Toolbox column, I discussed Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 Administrator's Companion. Another good resource that is worth considering is Mastering Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 by Barry Gerber and Jim McBee (Sybex, 2007). This is a clearly written guide that leads you through the Exchange Server lifecycle.
The first three chapters of the book, a section called "Understanding and Planning," go over the basic components and implementation requirements of Exchange Server 2007. Those of you familiar with previous versions of Exchange will appreciate the section on functions that are no longer emphasized or implemented. And everyone will appreciate the delineation of the different server roles and the components that comprise an Exchange Server 2007 deployment. A deployment of such a complex server definitely requires some forethought, and you will want to pay close attention to the sections on planning for growth, disk space requirements, and Active Directory integration.
The next section goes into the actual installation, covering both a clean install and an upgrade from either Exchange Server 2000 or Exchange Server 2003 (you can't directly upgrade from Exchange Server 5.5). Here you also get more detail on the different roles each Exchange server can play, including Edge Transport, Client Access, Hub Transport, Mailbox, Unified Messaging, and Management Tools.
The book then moves onto scalability, showing you how to monitor performance, add more mailbox storage, and so on. Here, you explore the very cool new Local Continuous Replication feature, which allows you to keep an up-to-date local backup of your mail store. If something happens to the main database, you can quickly switch to the backup without having to restore from some other less available and less up-to-date sort of backup.
The next section of the book provides detailed overviews of the different management tasks and tools you get with an Exchange Server 2007 deployment. This includes such tools as the Exchange Management Shell (based on Windows PowerShell™) and the Exchange Management Console GUI (which also relies on the Windows PowerShell engine). Throughout this section, you learn how to manage mailboxes, address lists, and user accounts. You also cover messaging records management, as well as managing message classification, journaling, and transport rules.
The fourth section gives more in-depth information on availability and reliability. Now that businesses have become dependent on electronic messaging, this section is a great place to pay close attention.
Here you'll learn the basics of load-balancing, server redundancy, storage redundancy, network redundancy, and clustering. You'll learn briefly about best practices for scheduled maintenance, running backups, and disaster recovery scenarios–basically, the things you need to know to keep your company's electronic messaging systems functioning efficiently even when problems arise.
The next two sections of the book cover client access including Microsoft Office Outlook® 2007, Outlook Web Access, IMAP, and POP3. And finally, the book ends with a section, all too important to the Exchange administrator, regarding security and auditing, showing you basic security practices and precautions along with the different auditing tools at your disposal. All in all, this in-depth reference will get you up to speed and get your Exchange deployment on the right track.
Price: $49.99 (direct).
© 2008 Microsoft Corporation and CMP Media, LLC. All rights reserved; reproduction in part or in whole without permission is prohibited.