Right on schedule

Trying to get a grip on the hundreds of mundane tasks involved in running a large NT network in today's fast-paced, 24-7 pressure-cooker environment can be overwhelming. When the boss is screaming for a last-minute report on Napster network utilization it can be almost impossible to remember the dirty details of daily life. Backups, disk maintenance and log-file analysis can slip through the cracks. It's enough to make you wish you had a personal assistant. Don't give up -- relief is right on schedule. OpalisRobot can provide you with the extra set of hands you've been dreaming about.

The key to OpalisRobot's success lies in its event-driven scheduling abilities. Traditional schedulers are limited to kicking off applications based on date/time settings. OpalisRobot adds triggers that fire events when files or folders change, when data queries return the proper answer or when a task has completed. The ability to define the completion of a task as an event is particularly useful, as it allows you to chain tasks together. OpalisRobot also allows for the manual triggering of an event, a feature we found quite handy while we were testing the product. It's not always clear if an event will perform as planned, so being able to immediately test your design is important. Once you're sure that the event is configured correctly it's a simple matter to link it to a date/time-based trigger.

The heart of OpalisRobot is a powerful scheduling engine, similar to cron, a Unix utility that's been around for years. But while cron is a command-line, complicated application, OpalisRobot is an easy-to-use graphical tool that beats cron and Microsoft's scheduler hands-down.

OpalisRobot provides an extensive library of more than 50 predefined tasks that cover file and directory modifications, backups, process alerts and Internet applications. Custom task definition is provided for but it's unlikely that the average user will do it. We were particularly impressed with the Internet application monitoring abilities of OpalisRobot despite a slightly confusing setup process.

Object oriented

OpalisRobot gives users two Internet objects to choose from: Test Internet Application and Monitor Internet Application. There are only slight differences between the two objects. The documentation states: "The only difference is that the Monitor object has an additional frequency field that allows you to select how frequently the test will be done. The other difference is that the Test object features a Custom application type that lets you test any Internet application, even if it's not included in the predefined tests." We found these slight differences to be confusing -- the frequency field and Custom application selections could have been made from the same configuration screen.

Despite our initial confusion with selecting the proper object, we found that monitoring Internet applications was easy, and that it gave us useful results. We elected to monitor three Web servers, our enterprise network Domain Name System (DNS) server and our mail host.

Using the graphical interface of OpalisRobot, we quickly defined an event that launched every 15 minutes. Once the event was defined we built five Monitor Internet Application objects and configured them to monitor our Web, DNS and mail servers. OpalisRobot lets users actually log on to servers that provide FTP or e-mail access and attempt to transfer data or send mail. We found this to be a very useful feature. It's possible for a server to respond to generic port tests -- is the POP3 port active? -- but not allow users to log on or transfer data.

Once the objects were built we linked them with the event trigger by clicking and dragging a link to each object. OpalisRobot allows a single trigger to fire multiple events -- a handy feature if you need to run several tests at the same time. This is a great example of where OpalisRobot's flexibility puts Microsoft's bundled scheduler to shame. After linking the objects with the trigger we applied the changes to our configuration. That's all there was to it. We allowed OpalisRobot to monitor the servers for several days and it never missed a beat. All failures were immediately written to the log file. We also could have configured OpalisRobot to send a message to a pop-up window or the OpalisRobot client, or do nothing.

Installation and documentation

We installed OpalisRobot Version 3.6 on two Windows 2000 workstations and a Windows NT server. The installation process was straightforward and we didn't experience any problems. OpalisRobot can be installed three ways: as a client and service, as a client only, or as a remote installation on another Windows NT computer.While the installation options may seem confusing at first glance, they're actually quite straightforward. If you install OpalisRobot on a Windows NT or 2000 workstation, you have the option to install both the service -- the portion of the program that performs the monitoring -- and the client, the graphical front end to OpalisRobot. Workstations running Windows 95 or 98 support only the client. Remote installation gives administrators the ability to install OpalisRobot on multiple servers by copying files across the network. Don't forget that you'll need administrative rights on the remote servers. A note of caution: while the OpalisRobot client supports Windows 95 and 98, the OpalisRobot server requires Windows NT or 2000.

The documentation supplied with OpalisRobot was outstanding. The online help files were all we needed to get started and work our way through any minor issues we encountered. We didn't need to turn to the 106-page user's manual, supplied on the distribution CD in Adobe's Portable Document Format, but if we had to it's extremely likely we would have found the answer to our question. The user's manual is well-written, and contains numerous examples and excellent illustrations.

So if you're strapped for time and find yourself forgetting to take care of day-to-day maintenance tasks, OpalisRobot can give you some relief. While some of OpalisRobot's event timer settings were confusing, we were very pleased with the overall performance and usability of the product. OpalisRobot isn't inexpensive, but it costs a lot less than the salaries you'll pay your staff to hang around and make certain that time-sensitive tasks are completed. If you manage a large NT network, we recommend adding OpalisRobot 3.6 to your tool kit.

This story, "Right on schedule" was originally published by Network World.

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