A hardware and Web application solution for documenting your servers in minutes

Most network administrators I know push to the back burner the chore of documenting our Windows 2000 or Windows NT and Microsoft Exchange Server networks. We understand the importance of consolidating network information, but procurement, organization, and layout of the information takes time—something network administrators don’t have as a luxury. In fact, most of my documentation endeavors happen after hours or on weekends.

Ecora Application Server offers a solution to the problem of making time to document your networks. Application Server hosts Ecora’s Documentor Web application on a Cobalt Networks server appliance. Application Server uses the Documentor to gather information about your network, such as hardware configuration, TCP/IP settings, and file shares. In addition, Application Server sorts, stores, and delivers the information in HTML, Microsoft Word, or Portable Document File (PDF) formats, perfect for hard-copy reports to place next to a server rack.

Ecora touts Application Server’s ability to plug in to your network upon arrival. I tested a Cobalt RaQ 3 unit that Ecora technicians configured, prior to shipping, by using information I gave them about my network settings (e.g., IP address, administrative email account, number of servers I would be documenting). After I received and turned on the appliance, the only setup hurdle I encountered was adding the appliance’s host name to my DNS server; the Application Server system needs a Fully Qualified Domain Name (FQDN) address (e.g., http://my-ecora.yourdomain.com/ecora) in the client Web browser to work properly. According to the Ecora FAQ, a HOSTS file works just as well as an FQDN address.

Application Server has an internal Apache Web server that runs on a Linux kernel. Therefore, getting started was as easy as connecting to the Documentor service through my Web browser. Because Application Server uses an ActiveX control to generate reports, clients that access Ecora’s Web-based services need Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) 4.0. At the Ecora home page, I initially logged on as root to set up a user account for generating reports (you can’t generate reports if logged on as root). After setting up the account, I logged on as the new user. The Documentor gave me the option to document either Win2K Server or NT Server systems or document Exchange Server systems. I chose the Documentor for Microsoft Windows NT/2000 option for the initial test.

This selection prompted me to download and install the ActiveX control on my workstation, and a dialog box for selecting my domain appeared. I chose my logon domain and the types of systems I wanted to document from the following choices: all servers, domain controllers (DCs), member servers, non-servers (e.g., NT Workstations), or non-Windows servers. I selected the option to document my DCs. My two DCs, a Win2K DC and an NT 4.0 BDC, appeared in the resulting list of choices. I selected my Win2K DC and let Documentor run.

The service ran in less than 10 seconds. I was surprised at this speed until I realized the reason for it. When Documentor displayed the Web report, I looked at the Hardware Information category and saw that the majority of the gathered information was Unknown. I immediately realized the problem, logged off, and logged on again as a domain administrator. Sure enough, the next run-through produced more useful data. In the next 15 minutes, I successfully documented five Win2K Server systems and one Exchange Server machine.

Next, I perused the fruits of the Application Server’s labor. Documentor displays the reports in two formats, short and long. The short format is useful to administrators who are looking for summary information—such as IP addresses and number of networked CPUs—about their servers. Ecora gears the long format toward the neophyte network administrator who might not be aware of the consequences of server settings. The long format displays detailed explanations with information about the server configuration. For example, under the category Domain Information, the report states whether the server will display the last logged-on user. An informative note accompanies the setting information, explaining how this setting could be a breach in security because the display provides half of the logon credential. Application Server’s process for documenting, downloading, and displaying the reports is intuitive and flawless.

I have a few notes of contention with the Web interface and report data, however. The Documentor displays the reports by date only in the first selection screen. You must open the first selection screen of individual reports to determine which servers the Documentor scanned on a particular date. Because I didn’t scan all of my servers at once, I found myself backtracking through individual reports to find a scan of the server I was looking for. I was also underwhelmed by the content of the reports. Figure 1 shows a report about DHCP. For every server I scanned, the Documentor reported the same message: DHCP is not configured on this computer. An input criteria form for specifying the information you want the Documentor to gather would be a helpful addition for reducing irrelevant and redundant information. I also wanted the Documentor to increase the amount of relevant information. For example, knowing that 40 user accounts can log on to the network isn’t very useful to me. However, if the reports provided the names of user groups and accounts that can log on to the network, the Documentor would be valuable if you had to rebuild a server from scratch. The Documentor didn’t gather RAS information for my Win2K Servers, although the program worked perfectly for the NT 4.0 RAS server I tested.

The same deficiency in detail exists in the Exchange Sever reports. The documentation reports on connectors, such as the Internet Mail connector, but the Exchange Server report failed to mention my GFI FAXmaker connector.

The question administrators need to ask about documentation is, How much time and money must I spend to produce reports that successfully convey crucial information? At $450 per network server for as many as nine servers, Application Server quickly adds up to a pricey answer. For professional-quality, instructive reports, Application Server shines. But for thorough, customizable, and highly detailed reports that are also cost effective, I have to take the scenic route and perform my documentation chores on the weekends.

Ecora Application Server
Contact: Ecora * 603-436-1616 or 877-923-2672
Web: http://www.ecora.com
Price: $450 per network server for 1 to 9 servers; $400 per network server for 10 to 19 servers; $375 per network server for 20 to 39 servers
Decision Summary
Pros: Fast, browser-based, and self-contained; multiple report formats are Web-publishable and printable
Cons: High cost per server; no method for selecting report information criteria; detail-deficient reports