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Microsoft System Center Advisor: A Trusted Advisor

Microsoft System Center Advisor can help you troubleshoot system issues before they become serious problems.

Paul Schnackenburg

Incorporating “knowledge” about a product or a process within software isn’t a new concept. However, Microsoft System Center Advisor (SCA) presents an interesting take on the idea.

Using SCA is like having your own Microsoft senior field engineer. It can help you troubleshoot an Active Directory, Exchange or SQL Server problem. SCA is actually a cloud service that assesses server configuration to help you proactively avoid issues. It gives you an overview of current and historical configuration and also helps you reduce downtime with update notifications and suggestions for improvements.

Since the Release Candidate stage, there has been new functionality added on a monthly basis. It’s free for anyone to try. Head to the Web site to set up an account and download the agent and gateway software. It’s currently only available in an English language version.

Consult the Advisor

Compared to setting up System Center Operations Manager (SCOM) to keep an eye on databases, servers, consoles and agents, getting SCA up and running is refreshingly simple. Install an agent on every server you need to monitor and configure one server (or more if you have a large environment) as a gateway to the cloud. SCA isn’t a real-time monitoring system like SCOM. It’s designed to proactively help you avoid downtime, not alert you when a service is already down (see Figure 1).

The Alerts view informs you of severity, time and server name to expedite troubleshooting

Figure 1 The Alerts view informs you of severity, time and server name to expedite troubleshooting.

SCA will be part of Software Assurance (SA), which essentially makes it free if you already have SA licensing. It also means each product you want to monitor on each server must be covered by SA. Currently, SCA analyzes SQL Server 2008 R2, 32- and 64-bit, in all flavors from Express to Enterprise. It can also report on Windows Server 2008 and 2008 R2, mainly Active Directory and Hyper-V hosts. The team added Exchange support last November, and SharePoint is on the roadmap.

When you’ve signed up for the service, the first step is to download the agent and gateway installer (a 27MB file). At the same time, download your certificate. This is how the gateway server identifies itself to the service. It also uses this certificate to encrypt all traffic going over the Internet between your gateway server and the cloud.

The gateway server needs Internet connectivity (outbound port 80 and 443) and all the servers you want to manage need internal network access to the gateway server. Install the gateway first. During this simple step-by-step affair, you point to the .pfx certificate file. Unless you have a huge environment, data volume shouldn’t be an issue. It can handle about 100KB per day per server.

You can configure the gateway upload frequency (every 12 or 24 hours or once per week) as well as select the days and times during which synchronization occurs. You can also configure agents to deliver data to the gateway every 12 or 24 hours or once a week. Earlier iterations of SCA only let you configure these intervals through registry key changes, but now there’s a configuration wizard that simplifies this task.

The SCA agent is actually the SCOM 2007 R2 agent. If you don’t use SCOM today, it adds very little overhead to your managed servers because it isn’t gathering as much data as is required by SCOM real-time monitoring.

If you’re already using SCOM 2007 R2, your agents will go into multihoming mode and one channel will gather normal SCOM data while another will collect the SCA data. The SCA agent runs on Windows Server 2008 32- and 64-bit, as well as 2008 R2. It requires the Microsoft .NET Framework 3.5 SP1. It can also run on Server Core, as well as Hyper-V Server 2008 R2. 

You can view the console in Internet Explorer 7 or later, as well as Firefox 3.5 or later with Silverlight 4 installed. Windows PowerShell support was a welcome addition in October 2011. There’s a whole host of cmdlets to manage SCA.

As the gateway syncs data to the cloud, it also checks for updates to Management Packs. It even searches for additional solutions added to problems discovered and solved by Microsoft support teams.

SCA in Action

Consider your typical troubleshooting activities before SCA. A problem arises with a service. You might find it through a monitoring solution or from user complaints. This generates a help desk ticket.

Having gathered the symptoms and current system-configuration status, you use the event log and any other error messages to search for possible root causes or workarounds. During the course of this investigation, you might try several different solutions until you realize the right one. If you call Microsoft support, they’ll give you a list of steps or configuration options.

The idea of SCA is to aid you in this process. You avoid having to scour forums and Knowledge Base articles and working through checklists. Instead, it offers a solution based on your particular situation and configuration.

Each solution SCA provides has a thorough explanation of the context and reason for the issue. It also gives you the detailed steps taken toward resolution. This is the real value of SCA. These solutions aren’t just links to Knowledge Base articles—they’re made up of thoroughly researched technical information about a particular known issue or problem.

You can clearly see the power of SCA by looking at the console itself. The Alert pane has a list of current warnings and critical alerts. You can sort this based on severity, as well as server names. The Configuration: Current Snapshot pane presents a list of all important settings at present. The Configuration: Change History does what is says it will. This pane might very well be the most critical part of SCA. After all, the majority of problems appear after you’ve changed something else in the system. Having a list of recent configuration alterations can be critical to resolving the issue (see Figure 2).

Figure 2 Consolidating the view of every historical configuration change in one place is invaluable for troubleshooting.

SCA suggestions do change over time. There are always new issues discovered in the wild. Hotfixes and updates are rolled into Service Packs and Update Rollups. Certain suggestions will disappear from SCA when they no longer apply to your updated servers.

The Servers pane presents a list of all SCA-monitored servers. The Account pane lets you work with user and company accounts. Recently, the team also added support for a customizable dashboard to visualize status and let you drill down to more detailed information.

Consultants who work with several clients can create multiple companies. You can easily switch between them in a dropdown list. SCA security is simple, with user and administrator roles. The latter lets you create additional users and close accounts. They’re identical otherwise. You can also configure SCA to send an e-mail with alerts, as well as a regular e-mail with a current issue summary (see Figure 3).

Figure 3 Setting up user accounts and configuring SCA e-mail alerts is easy.

Data Collection

To get a comprehensive picture of your environment, SCA looks in the registry, SQL error logs and the Event log. It also uses Windows Management Instrumentation calls and SQL OleDB queries. For a full list of all collected data points, see the Excel spreadsheet Microsoft provides with the service.

Information about each server and its configuration is stored in XML files and then packed into CAB files for transport to the gateway. The gateway servers upload the data to your account in the cloud.

Naturally, there will be concerns about what Microsoft is doing with the data. Reading the comprehensive privacy policy statement should assuage any such fears. Most important, there’s no licensing information included. You can verify yourself by simply opening an XML file generated on a monitored server.

SCA is due to be released toward the end of the year. A crucial concern is the separate console and setup. Integrating SCA into SCOM seems like a natural step. The only link between SCOM and SCA today is that it’s easy to monitor the health of the SCA services using SCOM.

SCA is Microsoft’s second foray into cloud-based system monitoring. Its cousin, Windows Intune, is a more comprehensive offering, but with a more limited scope of operations. Both services, however, are promises of what’s to come as more infrastructure services are provided through the cloud.

There’s definitely value in the troubleshooting assistance SCA offers above the normal operational monitoring that products such as SCOM offer. It discovered several issues in the test lab I wouldn’t have easily spotted.

Paul Schnackenburg

Paul Schnackenburg has been working in IT since the days of 286 computers. He works part time as an IT teacher as well as running his own business, Expert IT Solutions, on the Sunshine Coast of Australia. He has MCSE, MCT, MCTS and MCITP certifications and specializes in Windows Server, Hyper-V and Exchange solutions for businesses. Reach him at paul@expertitsolutions.com.au and follow his blog at TellITasITis.com.au.

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