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Geek of All Trades: Monitoring Servers with System Center Essentials 2010

Where PerfMon falls short, Essentials comes in with a powerful, flexible, configurable option for monitoring just about any aspect your servers exhibit.

By Greg Shields

I have a pet peeve with certain attitudes of my fellow Jacks of all trades. I see it all the time presenting at conferences or delivering custom training. The conversation often goes like this:

Greg: “OK, who in this room turns on PerfMon counters for all their servers?”

Nothing but blank stares and awkward silence.

Greg: “So, if someone calls in saying, ‘The e-mail server is slow today,’ how do you know it’s true? Without any kind of performance monitoring, how can you tell the difference between today’s performance and yesterday’s—or last week’s or last month’s, for that matter?”

Usually at this point at least one hand goes up.

Audience Member: “Well, we don’t do server monitoring because PerfMon counters suck.”

Ah, yes, that’s the great paradox in Windows administration: Ensuring your servers (and desktops) operate with good performance is a fundamental task. However, using the built-in Windows PerfMon to do so, well…sucks.

Far from Perf-ect

Here’s the conundrum: PerfMon counters are fantastically useful. You can use them to peer into processor utilization, disk and memory consumption. You can even do deep application analytics for SQL, Exchange, SharePoint and many other common workloads. The problem is that actually using PerfMon isn’t all that easy. 

Historically, counter logs would restart with every reboot—sometimes even between reboots. Gathering meaningful data from all of the built-in charts and graphs is painful. And hardest of all, there’s no elegant way to glean meaningful and actionable information out of all those raw metrics crawling across your screen.

For smaller networks, System Center Essentials 2010 (Essentials 2010) is a better choice. Installing Essentials 2010 lays down a monitoring framework for the Jack-of-all-trades IT professional who just wants to know when bad behaviors occur. Essentials 2010 is based on a combination of technologies, taking the best pieces from Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) and System Center Operations Manager (SCOM). With that combination, you get much-improved update management, the ability to install any software package from any vendor and centralized monitoring all in one package.

Essentials 2010 improves on previous versions with several new and expanded capabilities. Two of those capabilities are useful for IT shops needing to keep tabs on their servers. First, the monitoring reach of Essentials 2010 has expanded to 50 servers, up from only 30 in the previous version. This greatly increases the scope of shops where you can effectively use Essentials 2010 without getting close to its hard limits.

Next is the dynamic importation of management packs (MPs). This new feature means you’re always monitoring your servers with the most up-to-date knowledge. This is great for the IT guy who doesn’t have time to keep looking for new MPs.

Seeing Your Servers

What is an MP, and why are they useful for the monitoring conundrum? Truly understanding why the monitoring in Essentials 2010 is superior to that in PerfMon requires an experiment. Think about why you don’t like using PerfMon for this task:

  1. It’s an administrative challenge to use. It requires you to plug in the counters you want, and connect them to the correct files that include the monitoring data you need to see.
  2. Most of us don’t know which counters are important. Different performance problems can be sourced from very different locations. With literally hundreds of counters available, figuring out which ones are important sometimes requires a degree in metrology.
  3. A useful solution is one that’s always running. A monitoring solution isn’t useful if it isn’t monitoring. PerfMon sometimes requires extra manual effort to accomplish this, which doesn’t scale well past one or two servers. You need a solution that scales to dozens of servers and that accomplishes most of its tasks in the background.
  4. If it isn’t easy, we won’t do it. The ever-changing job of an IT manager is painful enough. If a task isn’t something we can set and forget, we’ll usually contrive some other reason for the problem. “Oh, let me reboot the server,” is a Band-Aid that unfortunately works well enough for many daily issues, even if it doesn’t solve the long-term problem.

While it still requires a bit of up-front work, Essentials 2010 goes further to simplify the process than previous versions. To open up its full monitoring functionality, the most valuable aspects of Essentials 2010 are the MPs. MPs are files with the collected knowledge about certain IT behaviors, categorized by smart people with deep experience with Microsoft products. Behaviors are classified by attributes and monitors that identify and watch for certain conditions to occur. They’re collected through rules that gather only the most useful data from Event Logs, Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) and application logs.

To fully understand these behaviors, you need to be able to see them. To that end, the MPs also have preconfigured Views to help you target specific server characteristics needing attention.

There are Essentials 2010 MPs for Windows Server, SQL Server, SharePoint Server and so on. They’re also available for important Windows services like Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol, DNS and Group Policy. Check out this list, making sure to filter by Essentials under “Filter by Product” and, of course, by Microsoft System Center under “Filter by Company.”

The MPs have the answers to problem No. 2 in our list. They help point out which counters are important by automatically watching for the behaviors a reasonable administrator would want to know about.

Figure 1 Monitors for the Windows Server 2008 Core Operating System

Figure 1 Monitors for the Windows Server 2008 Core Operating System

Take a look at Figure 1. Here, you can see a portion of the MP contents called Windows Server 2008 Operating System (Discovery). This figure shows a set of nine monitors attached to the Windows Server 2008 Core Operating System. Importing this MP automatically instructs Essentials 2010 to watch every monitored server for these nine health behaviors (as well as many more)

Figure 2 Alerts notify when known bad problems occur

Figure 2 Alerts notify when known bad problems occur

Alerts in Essentials 2010 are presented in a similar fashion to many other monitoring solutions. Figure 2 shows how an error on the server \\sce2010 is highlighted.

The only truly challenging activity with Essentials 2010 is tuning alerts you don’t want to see. For example, another counter in our MP exampleis Available Megabytes of Memory. This counter will present an alert when its value goes below 2.5. You may have a server (or servers) that regularly go below 2.5MB. Or you may want to know when available RAM goes below 10MB.

You don’t want to be alerted to conditions you don’t care about; thus, you’ll need to tune the monitor. Do this in Authoring mode by clicking on Monitors underneath Management Pack Objects. You can tune a monitor in two different ways: You can disable it or override it if you want to set a new threshold value.

Figure 3 Tuning a monitor using Authoring mode in Microsoft System Center Essentials 2010

Figure 3 Tuning a monitor using Authoring mode in Microsoft System Center Essentials 2010

Right-click the monitor and choose Overrides | Disable the Monitor to disable it. Or choose Overrides | Override the Monitor to override it. You can override monitors for all objects, a group of objects or a specific object. Figure 3 shows the screen that appears when you attempt to tune this monitor for all objects. By checking the override box and entering in a new override value—10, in this case—you can tune your monitors to whatever value makes sense for your environment.

Automate Your MPs

This example shows the real power behind using a monitoring solution equipped with its own knowledge. The result is a far easier and more valuable experience. Microsoft MPs let you lean on the expertise of others to more smoothly run your IT environment.

Figure 4  Use the Global Management Settings window to configure how management packs are discovered

Figure 4 Use the Global Management Settings window to configure how management packs are discovered

Because Essentials 2010 knows what servers and applications are running on your network, it can also tell which MPs you need to monitor them. Essentials 2010 can recommend the MPs you may need for your environment, as well as notify you when it sees that new MPs have been written or updated, which happens all the time. Figure 4 shows the Global Management Settings screen, where you can configure this capability. Any new recommended applications will appear in the white box on the bottom of the screen.

Comparing SCE with PerfMon is almost unfair. The OpsMgr roots of SCE 2010 make it perhaps too powerful for smaller environments. That’s a far cry from the limitations of PerfMon. Still, most small environments will greatly benefit from the MPs, most of which won’t need that much tuning. 

Combine this powerful monitoring capability with the other Essentials 2010 update management, software deployment and remote management capabilities, and your investment in Essentials 2010 will pay for itself very quickly in saving you time. And that certainly doesn’t suck.

Greg Shields
Greg Shields, MVP, is a partner at Concentrated Technology. Get more of Shields’ Jack-of-all-Trades tips and tricks at ConcentratedTech.com.

 

Get Recognized for Your Best Tips

Are you a Jack-Of-All-Trades (JOAT) Windows administrator? Are you responsible for networks, servers, printers, and everything in-between? If so, you’ve surely developed some useful tips and tricks for keeping those servers running. Interested in sharing? TechNet Magazine’s Geek-of-all-Trades columnist Greg Shields is looking for a few good tips for an upcoming column, and he’s seeking your help. 

 Got a smart tip for managing your Windows servers? Figured out a nifty tactic for keeping desktops running? Care to share a secret trick for managing your IT environment?  Greg’s “Top 20 IT Tips” will appear in an upcoming TechNet Magazine issue. There, he’ll be recognizing the top 20 smartest IT JOATs in the industry alongside their game-changing tip or trick.  Submit yours today!  Get your name in print, extol your virtues, and remind everyone why you’re the ones that get the real work done.  Send your tips to gshields@concentratedtech.com.  Every submitted tip will get a response.

—G.S.

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