Monitor SQL Server and other critical applications

If you've worked at all with SQL Server, you probably know the thankless and tedious job of making sure the database is up and running at all times. Despite Microsoft's successful efforts to make SQL Server more reliable and easier to use, you can find yourself logging hours of overtime to keep the database running effectively. Still, you can't monitor the database 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. But Ripple Technologies' RippleTech LogCaster can.

LogCaster, which works with SQL Server 6.5 and later, monitors network services, devices, and applications. Screen 1, page 52, shows LogCaster's Live Performance Watcher monitoring processor utilization. The product supplies basic preconfigured templates, including one for SQL Server, that let you immediately start monitoring your systems. You can also tailor the templates to monitor custom applications.

Because Ripple Technologies used Windows 2000 (Win2K) to develop LogCaster 2.51, the product provides full support for Microsoft's latest OS as well as for Windows NT. You can set LogCaster to monitor your Active Directory (AD) replication logs, for example, and all LogCaster functions are available from Win2K.

The product arrives on a CD-ROM, accompanied by a well-written 200-page manual that covers the initial installation and offers a comprehensive tutorial that quickly gets you up to speed with the program. In practice, you can probably skim through the manual's installation section because setting up LogCaster is a simple task. LogCaster uses a client/server architecture to monitor your systems. On the system you want as your LogCaster server, you install the Event Dispatcher Server (EDS) service, which coordinates information collected from the client systems. To collect this client information, you install on each client system LogCaster's agent service, called the LogCaster Agent. LogCaster also supports remote installation, letting you distribute the client agents to other offices from a central location.

After you've installed LogCaster, you use the LogCaster Management Console to configure the program. Screen 2, page 52, shows LogCaster's intuitive tabbed-base interface, which masks the program's true complexity and lets you easily set up tasks. First, you use the LogCaster Setup utility to select the names of the machines you want to monitor and sort the list of machines into user-definable groups. You then select the services, devices, and applications you want LogCaster to monitor on the servers. After you've defined these filters, LogCaster consolidates event logs from each machine and stores them on the computer you've designated as the EDS.

I deployed LogCaster 2.51 on a network consisting of a SQL Server 6.5 server and several Win2K, NT 4.0, and Windows 98 clients. To start monitoring the SQL Server system, I imported the SQL Server template from the console menu, then selected the variables for LogCaster to monitor. Performance is key for my network, so I set LogCaster to monitor how many page reads per second my SQL Server was performing. Monitoring an average workload, LogCaster showed the SQL Server machine hitting the pagefile once a minute and sent a notification message that recommended adding RAM to the server to improve performance.

I also set LogCaster to notify me when the transaction log was almost full, whether any errors occurred during replication, and whether any deadlocks occurred. In an average week, I encountered all three scenarios and fixed the problems before they became serious.

You can use LogCaster to monitor SQL Server services to ensure they stay running. The program offers several notification options in case the SQLExecutive or MSSQLServer service fails. Besides standard email and SNMP trap alerts, LogCaster can send pager messages and can log the failure to a standard ODBC database. You can also set the program to take corrective measures, such as restarting the failed service or application. You can even set LogCaster to delay the restart by up to 10 minutes to give you a chance to troubleshoot the problem first. If a critical service such as a DNS server or a remote-access service fails, LogCaster automatically shuts down, then restarts the computer.

If you want to monitor specific SQL Server aspects that LogCaster doesn't automatically cover, you can easily modify the product's supplied template by using a text editor to include additional functionality. For example, LogCaster's SQL Server template doesn't monitor object ownership modifications, but you can edit the template to monitor specific transaction commitments and notify you when anyone transfers an object's ownership.

As a bonus, you can use LogCaster to monitor any application or service that creates an event log in ASCII format. You just define the appropriate functions for LogCaster to monitor, and the program collects the specified data from the log and forwards it to the EDS. You can also use Ripple Technologies' C++-based software development kit (SDK) to create plugins to monitor your custom-built software.

Disk and network overhead is always a concern with management utilities, but LogCaster uses little disk space or bandwidth to monitor and manage networked servers. The client agents use a scant 8MB of disk space and consume less than 2MB of memory. And the product, with an architecture that keeps packet sizes small, keeps network traffic to a minimum. My testing shows that you can run LogCaster efficiently on a 10Base-T network without experiencing bottlenecks.

LogCaster includes a Telnet daemon that gives you remote access to NT's command line. For security purposes, you can disable this feature during the setup process, but you might find the daemon a handy UNIX-esque feature to let administrators remotely shut down a process that is causing the OS to hiccup. LogCaster doesn't support the Secure Shell (SSH) protocol prevalent in the Linux community, but Ripple Technologies says it will add SSH support when it receives enough customer demand for the protocol.

LogCaster's downside is that it doesn't include an HTML-based interface for remote configuration and control. Because LogCaster runs only on Win2K and NT boxes (lacking support for other network OSs such as Novell NetWare), you have to use the LogCaster Management Console on a Win2K or NT machine to control the program remotely. If you work with Linux systems, for example, you won't be able to control LogCaster from those systems unless you use an application server such as Citrix MetaFrame. Ripple Technologies, however, has an HTML interface under development, which brings LogCaster a step closer to cross-platform support.

If you rely solely on Microsoft's supplied utilities to maintain your SQL Server, check out LogCaster. The only time I looked at my SQL Server's Performance Monitor was when LogCaster alerted me to a potential problem. With LogCaster, you'll find yourself spending more time solving business problems and less time fiddling with SQL Server. And LogCaster's extensibility means the product can grow with your network and protect your investment—which, at $795 per server and $95 per client, is pricey but comparable to other high-end networking and application-monitoring packages.

Contact Information
Product: RippleTech LogCaster 2.51 Contact: Ripple Technologies, 215-321-9600
Price: $795 per server, $95 per client, $6950 for 10 server licenses, and volume licensing available
Decision Summary:
Pros: LogCaster's thorough monitoring engine ensures your SQL Server's reliability;
customization features let you tailor the program to fit your needs
Cons: Lack of an HTML-based interface means you have to use LogCaster's Management Console
on a Windows-based PC to remotely control the program; included Telnet daemon is a potential security risk