Product Review: SolarWinds Alert Central
Product: SolarWinds Alert Central
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As someone who spent many years working in a corporate helpdesk, I know all too well how stressful the job can be. The IT staff must quickly detect issues before they become a problem and then make sure that the issues are quickly addressed.
SolarWinds is attempting to make this process a little bit easier by offering a free application called Alert Central. Alert Central is a virtual appliance that is designed to centralize alerts from servers and applications, and then automatically distribute the alert notifications to the appropriate staff member.
SolarWinds Alert Central is available as a virtual appliance for either VMware (ESX / ESXi 4.0 or higher) or Hyper-V (Windows Server 2008 R2 or later). The virtual appliance requires 2 GB of RAM and 120 GB of hard disk space.
The Installation Process
For the purpose of this review, I downloaded Alert Central and copied the executable to a lab server running Windows Server 2012 and Hyper-V. Whenever I write a software review, I always initially attempt to deploy, configure, and use the software without any documentation so that I can get an idea of how intuitive the software is or is not. In this case, the download consisted of a single executable file. I assumed that double clicking on the executable would probably cause the virtual appliance to be extracted. What I wasn’t expecting however, is that double clicking on the executable not only extracted the virtual appliance files and the documentation, but also caused Windows to display a very nice screen containing detailed instructions for importing the virtual machine. The process of importing the virtual machine and bringing it online proved to be very fast, easy, and intuitive.
When you log into Alert Central for the first time, you are presented with the Getting Started screen, which you can see in Figure A. This screen and the subsequent screens function similarly to a setup wizard in that they walk you through the initial configuration process.
Figure A: The virtual appliance walks you through the configuration process.
The initial configuration process starts out by prompting you to enter information about your E-mail server. The reason why this is required is because Alert Central uses SMTP messaging as the primary mechanism for receiving alerts. The software can receive Orion alerts, but is not equipped to programmatically receive other types of alerts. As such, the alert source must be able to transmit the alert to Alert Central by sending an E-mail message to a designated account.
The process of configuring Alert Central to work with my mail server went relatively smoothly. The software instructed me to set up a dedicated E-mail account, which I did. When I attempted to configure Alert Central to use the account, I received a message stating that the software could not find my mail server. I quickly realized that the problem was that the virtual appliance had acquired an IP address from the DHCP server on my production network, and was therefore not configured to use my lab network’s DNS server. This issue was related solely to the way that my network is configured, and was not Alert Central’s fault. I was easily able to correct the problem by configuring Alert Central to use a static IP address.
The next thing that Alert Central asked me to do was to set up user accounts for the people who will be responding to alerts. I thought that it was a nice touch that the software gave me the option of importing the accounts from the Active Directory.
Since I was testing Alert Central in a lab environment, I opted to manually set up some accounts rather than importing them from the Active Directory. The account setup process proved to be simple and intuitive. The software asked me for information such as the user’s name, cell phone number, location, and time zone. You can see the Add New User screen in Figure B.
Figure B: This is what the Add New User screen looks like.
The next step in the configuration process is to create some groups. Groups consist of those responsible for responding to an alert. Alert Central allows you to create multiple, color coded groups. A single person can also belong to more than one group. An organization would typically create groups that align with support responsibilities. For example, if the organization has a dedicated team that is responsible for managing the organization’s Exchange Servers, then you might create an Exchange Support group.
The process of creating groups involves more than just entering a group name and picking the group’s members. The software lets you assign an escalation policy to the group. You can also configure the group so that if an alert that is sent to the group is not acknowledged within a specified period of time, the software moves on to the next escalation step (such as alerting someone else).
Once a series of groups have been defined, the software allows you to specify alert sources. As previously mentioned, the software can work with Orion alerts, but the bulk of the alerts received are likely to be E-mail alerts. When you add an alert source, what you are really doing is matching an alert to one of the groups that you created.
Suppose for example, that you wanted your Exchange mailbox server to send alerts to Alert Central. You would probably create a dedicated mailbox on the Exchange Server that could be used for the purpose of sending alerts. You can then configure Alert Central to forward any messages coming from that E-mail account to the appropriate group.
The interesting thing about setting up alert sources is that you are doing more than just matching E-mail addresses to alert groups. You can create filtering rules that are able to parse alert E-mail messages. This is helpful if you use a common E-mail address for multiple alert types because it gives Alert Central a way to figure out who the alert should be sent to.
Who’s on Call?
SolarWinds Alert Central would be a useful tool even if all it did was to collect alerts and send them to the proper people. However, there is another feature built in that makes the software even more useful.
Most IT departments have staff members who are designated to be on call at particular times. That way, if a serious problem occurs in the middle of the night, there is someone who is on call that can come in to fix the problem.
SolarWinds Alert Central contains a calendar that you can use to manage the on call schedule. Clicking on a calendar date brings up a dialog box that allows you to pick a group and then specify which group member is on call, and when. You can see what this screen looks like in Figure C.
Figure C: Alert Central provides a calendar for keeping track of who is on call.
Keeping track of who is on call is one thing, but what happens if you actually need to call someone? The software features a dedicated tab called On Call Now. Clicking this tab brings up a screen similar to the one shown in Figure D.
Figure D: The On Call Now tab shows you who is currently on call.
As you can see in the figure, the On Call Now tab shows you who from each group is currently on call, and for how long. The tab even provides the contact information for the person who is on call, and tells you the person’s location and local time. Staff members who don’t necessarily need to call someone, but who are curious about the on call schedule can click the View Today’s On Call Calendar link to see a breakdown of who is on call for the day.
All in all I think that SolarWinds Alert Central is a great piece of software that should prove to be very useful for tracking and responding to issues. The interface is intuitive and well thought out, and the software seems to work well. I do wish that the software was able to programmatically receive alerts from specific applications, but this minor annoyance can be easily forgiven when you consider that SolarWinds provides the software for free.
Whenever I write a product review for this Web site, it has become customary for me to assign the product a rating between 1 and 5 (with 5 being the best). After a lot of thought, I decided to give SolarWinds Alert Central a score of 4.7, which is a gold star rating.
WindowsNetworking.com Rating 4.7/5