Automate Systems Management

Network-management software is generally complex and very expensive. When you need to automate only a few tasks, the overhead of traditional management software can discourage you. Opalis Software’s OpalisRobot 3.6 lets you automate the drudgery of everyday server administration at a fraction of the cost of network-management software. OpalisRobot isn’t a full network-management package, but it does let you monitor system events and automate tasks. Server administrators who have Windows 2000 or Windows NT administration knowledge but no extensive programming skills can use the software to automate many common tasks.

Installing OpalisRobot is easy. However, the software runs as a service, and some of the tasks it performs (e.g., interfacing with databases through ODBC) are beyond the capabilities of the Local System account, which services uses by default. I created a new account that had sufficient privileges, and I directed OpalisRobot to use that account.

OpalisRobot doesn’t perform management functions directly out of the box. You need to create events and tasks and use links to connect the two and enable the software to trigger jobs based on system conditions. You can create events to perform tasks at specific times or on a recurring schedule, or you can set the software to monitor changes in file-system events (e.g., change in a specific file, the drop of free disk space below a set threshold).

Tasks are operations that the software performs in response to events. For example, you can set a task to back up a system, send an email message, stop a service, and restart a server. You can write tasks to execute any arbitrary program, batch file, or Windows Script Host (WSH) script. I wrote tasks using VBScript, as many administrators do, but I also used OpalisRobot to execute batch files and binary programs, including Microsoft Office applications.

After I created an event and a task, I used a link to connect them. When an event occurs, OpalisRobot performs the task that you linked to that event. If you use multiple links to connect multiple events to one task, the software performs the task when any one of the events occurs. For example, the background pane of Figure 1 shows that either test event 1 or test event 2 can trigger the run test script task. If you use one link to connect multiple events to one task, all the events must occur before OpalisRobot will perform the task.

OpalisRobot considers the completion of an executed task as an event. Thus, the completion of one task can trigger another task, letting you chain tasks together. I invoked a standard cleanup task—a script that deletes temporary files—and chained it to many other tasks. The product includes a number of wizards that make it easy to build complex jobs, such as using ZIP to compress some files and email them.

You can use some events to help you identify specific problems within your system. I set an event to monitor the System log for event ID 4097 (i.e., Dr. Watson recording an error) and notify me whenever that system event occurs. I also created an event tied to the Win2K performance monitor counter, and OpalisRobot sent me a message when available memory went below a set limit. I could even trigger events on remote servers by using the Trigger Object Wizard. OpalisRobot doesn’t make it easy to make an event on one system trigger a task on another.

One valuable feature is the software’s ability to support and integrate with databases. For example, you can have OpalisRobot start a database backup when the number of records in a table exceeds a certain minimum. You can use Microsoft SQL Server triggers to do similar jobs, but OpalisRobot doesn’t require programming.

Another helpful OpalisRobot feature is its ability to send email messages, network messages, or pager messages in response to events. I set the software to send me an email message when files appeared in my FTP directory. In many administrators’ eyes, this service alone might justify buying OpalisRobot.

OpalisRobot doesn’t fit neatly into a standard software category because it combines some functions of management systems and system utilities. Opalis sells add-on products that extend OpalisRobot to do things such as trigger SNMP traps and make the product’s software events interoperable in a larger management framework. Another add-on lets you control OpalisRobot through a telephone connection.

OpalisRobot has some holes. For example, the software currently doesn’t integrate with Active Directory (AD). And unlike management systems, OpalisRobot doesn’t assist in distributing software to clients. However, the product’s task automation can give almost any overworked network administrator more time to focus on other areas.

OpalisRobot 3.6
Contact: Opalis Software * 416-253-9383 or 888-672-5471
Web: http://www.opalis.com
Price: Starts at $999 per server license; volume discounts available
Decision Summary:
Pros: Highly customizable; lets you automate common tasks and monitor system events without extensive training or programming skill; makes controlling operations based on multiple conditions easy; supports databases
Cons: You must build everything you want; you can’t easily control tasks on one system from another; no Active Directory integration; isn’t suited for software deployment