Product Review: SolarWinds Server & Application Monitor
Product: SolarWinds Server & Application Monitor
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Monitoring tools for your Exchange environment should be easy-to-install, somewhat intuitive to use for administrators with a modicum of visual bling to give you that warm and fuzzy feeling when you look at the dashboard and see everything is green (which is good) while immediately alerting you to an issue should you see red anywhere in your dash.
The Server & Application Monitor (SAM) tool from SolarWinds has all of those elements to varying degrees. I liked it for a variety of reasons one of which is that although I did my own installation to work with it, they know you really need a broad setup to see the full spectrum of what their product does and so they provide an awesome “test drive” site that rounded out my opinion.
Let’s take a look at a subset of the feature list:
Monitors: Although our primary focus here is Exchange monitoring, with a tool like this it is essential we look at all the capabilities it has even if we don’t drill down on all of them. For example, Server & Application Monitor can monitor SharePoint and Lync as well, along with HyperV and VMWare. When you have Exchange deployed in your environment you might also have Blackberry or Lotus Domino (both of which can be monitored through the Server & Application Monitor). And, logically, it can also monitor Exchange (2007 and 2010), doing so through an agentless monitor of performance. When looking through the list of out-of-the-box templates there are many that relate back to services, which is essential but hardly impressive. The more impressive aspects relate more to built-in counter monitoring based off performance objects and counters that are tapped into. There are even templates that cover Unified Messaging and Edge Transport roles, which are often missing in monitoring tools.
Round-trip Email Testing: Whether your server uses MAPI, POP3 or IMAP4, SolarWinds SAM can view performance from the perspective of the end-user by mimicking an end-to-end round trip email test from the server to the account, measuring the speed and determining latency.
Preconfigured Dashboards: Without having to go through the trouble of initially choosing what you want to monitor and see through a dashboard, there are out-of-the-box dashboards already configured (as you can see through Figure 1). Obviously the information you see may not be exactly what you want or it might be overkill but you can configure these to suit your needs.
Reporting: While dashboards and in-the-moment live data is great for monitoring, the reporting side to a monitoring tool is just as important when presenting statistics and analytics back to management and decision makers. SAM offers out-of-the-box reporting but also allows you to use Microsoft SQL Reporting Services or Crystal Reports to create custom reporting. You can automate report generation and establish scheduled reporting and email delivery.
Figure 1: The Preconfigured SAM Exchange Dashboard.
There really is so much more to talk about with regard to SAM but being that our focus is on Exchange we will keep that to the fore. One thing I will mention is that your personal taste is going to come into play when lining up the various monitoring tools against the wall and trying to make a decision. Cost is a factor, no doubt. Feature-set tends to be similar to a degree with the “extras” (like additional monitoring capability) varying wildly. But it’s visual bling and the extent of it (or lack thereof) and your desire for it as an administrator that will help your decision. Some prefer as many flashing lights and buttons as possible, in which case SAM does not disappoint (as you can see in Figure 2).
Figure 2: A Details View of the Hub Transport Role Service and Counters .
The install process couldn’t be easier. Basic Next-Next-Finish install options. During the process you can choose an Express Install (Recommended) shown in Figure 3. This will install SolarWinds Server & Application Monitor along with all the prerequisites. It will perform the SQL Server Express install for you if you don’t have SQL already installed, along with installing a few other prereqs.
Figure 3: Express and Advanced Installation Options
You’ll want to abide by the hardware prerequisites of a 3.0 GHz CPU, with 1 GB of RAM and 2 GB of hard drive space. From a software side you have to have some form of SQL installed (from 2005 up) or it will install it for you during the Express installation. You can install SAM on Windows 2003/R2 or 2008/R2 32 or 64 bit with IIS installed running in 32 bit mode. And you will need the .Net Framework 4.0 or later.
Working with SolarWinds Server & Application Monitor
There are different ways to work with SAM. On the live monitoring side you can bring up the dashboards that provide immediate visual information on what is happening in your Exchange environment. If you see an error (indicated by red) you can double click items to drill down a bit more as you can see in Figure 4.
Figure 4: Application Component Details
Based upon the information you are shown as you drill down you may be given basic service information (if they are up or down, where if they are down you know to go turn them on as an Exchange admin) or you may see more detailed performance counter information (as you can see in Figure 5).
Figure 5: Performance Counters Details View
Scrolling down a bit on the Performance Counters Details View offers us a variety of different chart data, shown in Figure 6.
Figure 6: Transport Queue Data
Beyond the live monitoring and the flashing lights you’ll find the reporting side to SAM to be quite helpful with preconfigured reporting that you can manipulate if you need.
Pricing and Support
Server & Application Monitor isn’t the only product sold by SolarWinds. For a list of products and pricing you can click here. You’ll note that the SAM product pricing is based on the number of monitors starting at $2995 for up to 150 monitors. Pricing grows from that point based on the number of monitors you require.
With regard to support, I was impressed with the training and support already provided online. For example, through the demo portal you can click the Training link and see a ton of great training (both short task-based and longer 1 hour plus courses) as you can see in Figure 7.
Figure 7: Training Lessons
In addition, there are demos, webcasts, case studies, product guides and much more. On the negative side the Server & Application Monitor Administration Guide is nearly 1300 pages. Seriously? I’m not saying the product doesn’t warrant so much detail, it’s quite a bit more extensive than I’m going into here because I’m focusing in on the Exchange side but 1300 pages is Biblical proportions and may scare off potential admin customers.
I was pleased overall with SolarWinds Server & Application Monitor. I felt it did what an Exchange Monitoring tool should do, which is look at services being up and watching key performance counters. Ultimately those two aspects of monitoring are done through PowerShell commands that just pull data into the web console and spit it out back to you in cool looking charts and blinking lights that can help you as an admin to make fast moves to get your Exchange environment back up and running.
As an Exchange admin who needs to focus more on my Exchange environment running smoothly than my monitoring tool I found some of the gauges and such (while very cool… who doesn’t like gadgets?) to be a bit excessive eye-candy. And the 1300 page guide was a bit hard to swallow. But what I really liked about the product was that it had such a broad spectrum of monitoring options (a potential competitor to SCOM) while being easier to deploy than SCOM.
MSExchange.org Rating 4.2/5