GFI tools for management
Keep track of customer servers and workstations with this remote monitoring and management software.
If you manage networks for your customers, you'll probably be all too familiar with the situation where the network is fine so long as you are on site, but falls over as soon as you're a long way away and working on a different project. Even when customers aren't reporting any problems, are you sure there's nothing nasty happening that will leap out and bite you next time you go on-site and run some checks? Short of cloning yourself, you either have to live with the uncertainty or install some software on-site that will let you keep a remote eye on the situation.
GFI MAX is one such product. It used to be known as Hounddog until the company was acquired by GFI, and was well regarded in the previous incarnation. GFI MAX is designed especially for people who need to monitor and manage networks remotely. The product is priced so your customers will find the running costs acceptable while still providing you with a margin to make your work worthwhile.
The system is designed to let you provide a service whereby you monitor servers (and any important workstations) on your customers' networks. You can offer a round-the-clock monitoring service along with daily health checks to prevent problems before they happen, and you can monitor the hardware, software and software licenses on the systems, all from a dashboard you access from your browser. While MAX is mainly aimed at servers, you can use it to monitor normal workstations if the customer has important machines that require monitoring. In addition to monitoring, you can offer asset tracking and patch management.
This is a service aimed very much at support providers, with features designed to help you make the software match your company look and feel, and collateral material to show to your customers.
One neat aspect of GFI MAX is the fact that you can brand the software with your own company logo and details. If you give your customers access to a branded customer portal, they'll recognise that they're working with 'your' system, which increases customer loyalty. You can add your logo and strapline to the dashboard, the client portal that your customers use, and client reports. You can also add it to GFI MAX's WallChart (a large format view of your Dashboard suitable for displaying on a large screen), and to the mini-dashboard you can have on your mobile phone. Even the Web address customers use to login can be customised so that the whole system reinforces the fact that this is your company's system. You can see how a sample branded version of MAX at gfi.com/ddt/content/total-systems- branding.pdf.
The marketing collateral you get with GFI MAX should also help you convince your customers the service is worth having. GFI supplies samples of brochures, mailers, phone scripts and letters with faxback forms to help you put together your marketing campaign. You also get sample Web site text, PowerPoint slides you can use when discussing the service, and a sample legal agreement you can use with your customers. These, along with a pricing calculator, implementation guide, and a ‘Try Before You Buy ‘program that lets you install it at new customers for one-month risk free, give you a complete package to show the product to potential customers in a professional way.
According to GFI, companies who provide support on a break-fix basis or pre-paid block hours usually create one or two small entry-level services around MAX and sell those to their customers. One suggestion is a 'Daily Safety Check service' where you offer customers security on what (for many small companies) are the systems that are both vital and prone to failure: anti-virus and backup. The Daily Safety Check is a small service that checks the customer’s servers’ backup and AV status every morning, and that then delivers a small report to the customer showing that the service has run, and what the outcome of the checks was. If there is a problem, the customer can then either fix the problem themselves, or give you a call.
Setting up MAX is straightforward. You have a central Dashboard that is hosted on GFI's secure servers, and the machines you are monitoring have a local agent installed. The agent is sent as a ZIP file to any machine you want to add to the monitoring list. You specify whether the machine being monitored is a server or a workstation, and choose from a set of checks that will be run once a day or every five or fifteen minutes on a server or every half hour or hour on a workstation.
The Web-based Dashboard shows all the machines you're monitoring, across multiple sites, with any problem machines separately listed from the normal machines. In addition to the high-level view, you can drill down to see more detailed analysis. There are pre-configured reports or you can create your own customised views. You can display information grouped by sites or in customised groups. This means you can split the view by customer or by particular locations. You can define your own groupings, so you might split by which support team is responsible, for example. The systems being monitored can also be identified by IP addresses and subnets.
Checks and Monitors
MAX has a good set of options you can monitor on that should be sufficient for the majority of customers. For example, you can monitor the amount of free space on disk drives, check for network connectivity, and ensure Windows Services are running correctly. There's a TCP Service Check that tells you if your TCP/IP services and apps are running correctly and securely. One nice touch is a Web site checker that looks for specified text on a specific site every five or 15 minutes. This is an easy way to monitor whether a particular site is up and running and is serving the pages your customer is expecting it to serve.
The SNMP monitoring in MAX queries any SNMP management software you have installed for particular devices, and raises an alert if the result reported by the management software isn't in the expected range. The software comes with predefined SNMP checks for common hardware from vendors such as Dell, Hewlett Packard, Fujitsu Siemens and APC.
Bandwidth monitoring is another option you can offer. MAX can be used to monitor any both physical and virtual network interfaces. You can monitor Ethernet, Fast Ethernet or Gigabit Ethernet interfaces on SNMP managed devices such as switches and routers, identifying any traffic bottlenecks, and highlighting any devices that are taking too much network bandwidth. This lets you ensure optimal network response times and make full use of available resources. It can also give you the hard facts to show customers what's slowing down their systems so you can sell them the appropriate hardware to put things right.
Servers are key to smooth network operation, and MAX has a specific server check to ensure machines are running correctly. Server Performance Monitoring checks on five aspects of server health; processor utilisation, processor queue length, memory usage, network interface, and physical disks.
Exchange server checks
The Exchange Check is one of the simpler checks carried out by MAX, but it could be the one that saves you most grief. If an Exchange Information Store gets too large - or just too large to be administered on a partition - the next time you come to work on it you will find yourself unable to carry out the maintenance. If you need to run an Exchange utility such as ESEUTIL or ISINTEG, you have to have roughly 30% of the disk space free on the partition for the utilities to work correctly. The Exchange check in MAX looks at the overall total space used by Exchange's EDB and STM files, less the amount of white space in the Mail Store as reported in Exchange Event ID 1221. If the Exchange store gets larger than your threshold, you'll be sent an alert to warn you. If your customers are running Exchange 2007, the size is calculated on just the EDB file as Exchange 2007 no longer has the STM file.
In addition to the standard monitoring, MAX can be used for as application performance monitoring or database server monitoring. Both options essentially put together a set of checks that are likely to show you if a particular application is working correctly and whether specified Windows Services are running correctly, or are stopped or otherwise inaccessible. MAX has preset lists of which services are required for the better known applications, but you can also add your own services to the list. If a service is stopped, the agent has an option to restart it. You can also add checks on the Event Logs to monitor particular services. You can have the Event Log Check query a specific Event Log, checking for particular Event IDs and types, either checking once a day or a more frequent check of every five minutes upwards.
The monitoring toolsets also look at particular ports on the customer's ISP, internal server or external network, and include a Web page check similar to the main Web site check. Filesizes and backup can also be included, helping to ascertain whether an application is running healthily or not.
While the overall aim of GFI MAX is to monitor for problems, you can also use the software to carry out some simple maintenance tasks on remote workstations. The Automated Tasks for Workstations option lets you carry out 'preventative maintenance' tasks such as defragmenting disks, clearing event logs and deleting temporary files. You can set these tasks to be performed on a regular schedule. While the tasks are running, they can be monitored from the Dashboard, and the overall results are available for viewing and analysis so you can spot any problems.
Remote Desktop Connections
While the Daily Health Checks will hopefully identify potential problems before they get out of hand, sometimes things do go wrong. MAX offers two ways to deal with this. You can log on to the remote server to get a better idea of what's going on, and to facilitate this MAX has a Remote Desktop Connection that gives you the means to access the remote machine using Terminal Services, VNC or Netsupport Manager. If you want to check on a workstation, though, this may not be an option because there may be a user already currently logged. In this case, MAX lets you use Remote Support tools. These let the remote user share the desktop without having to log off, so both you and the user can use the machine.
The remote support uses a mediation-proxy repeater that avoids the need for VPN, port forwarding or special firewall configuration as all the connections are outbound. When mediation proxy is used, both machines can sit behind their own NAT router. A Remote Support Viewer is installed onto the machine of the person providing the assistance, while a Remote Support Agent is installed on the machine that needs help. The Agent and Viewer connect over HTTPS using 128-bit encryption to ensure the connection is secure. A connection is established, and the remote desktop can be viewed in the Remote Support Viewer. You can transfer files and chat to the remote user using a chat window. MAX is attractive software. GFI seem to understand just what support companies need in order to provide a good service to their customers. The monitoring works well and unobtrusively, and the Dashboard is easy to use and clear in the information it provides. You could spend a lot of time assembling tools to do even part of what GFI MAX offers, and it all comes in a well-designed package you can make your own.
Step By Step: Monitoring workstations
When monitoring workstations using GFI MAX, you first choose the frequency at which the 24x7 check should be run. Here, I'm setting the checks to run every 60 minutes.
The 24x7 checks cover areas including disk space, file size and SNMP settings. Here, I'm choosing which Windows Services to monitor on the workstation.
Other checks are run daily at a specified time. There's a good choice of checks covering most potential problem areas. Here, I'm activating the hacker check.
Step By Step: Finding and Fixing problems with MAX
The Dashboard is used to view and manage data generated on the machines being monitored. You can choose to automatically send an email to a client if problems are found on their network.
You get sample emails that you can customise to suit your company style. Here, I'm customising the email that will be sent if a problem has occurred.
You also get reports that can be used to get a wider picture of what's happening on the machines you manage. This report shows problems grouped by customer.
In addition to MAX, GFI also offers another network management package called GFI LANguard. This is a network and security scanner that you can use to scan the networks and ports of your customers to find any problems due to security vulnerabilities or patch management. The software also has network auditing features. While the full version is reasonably priced at £25.60 per IP address for between 10 and 24 IPS, there is a freeware version that can be a useful tool for small companies with fewer than six IPs. The freeware version can be used to scan up to five IPs, so you can use it for your smallest customers, or to demonstrate to potential customers on a subset of their own network how the software works and how useful it is.
GFILanguard checks 15,000 potential vulnerabilities on the network, including any virtual environment, and if you have other settings that you would like to check, you can set up your own custom vulnerability checks by following a wizard. When a vulnerability is found, the software recommends how to put it right, and in most cases includes a URL that shows how to put the problem right using sources such as the Microsoft Knowledge Base or BugTraq.
GFI MAX videos
These support videos walk you through getting MAX up and running and setting up workstation monitoring:
GFI's blog for IT professionals covers getting the best from MAX, along with general IT tips and hints):
Use network troubleshooter event logs to solve network problems
This Windows 7 tool is generally useful for quick access to detailed logs of problem network behaviour – handy with other tools as well as MAX:
From £3.95 per server per month for the Daily Safety Check service, to the monthly capped price of £9.95 which enables every server and network monitoring check.
Volume 1, Edition 1 Remote support feature finder code 111a.