As promised, the long awaited and highly anticipated Server & Application Monitor (SAM) 6.2 Beta is now available for download. The premiere feature of this SAM beta is the new optional agent, which is intended to address key environmental scenarios where conventional agentless monitoring techniques are either impractical or impossible to leverage. Some of these scenarios include, but are not limited to, monitoring Windows hosts within the DMZ over a single fixed port; monitoring servers in remote branch offices over high latency, low bandwidth connections; or monitor the servers you have hosted in cloud based services, such as Amazon EC2, Azure, or Rackspace. For even more examples you can check out Part 1 and 2 of this blog series at the links below.

 

 

If you can believe it, I still have plenty more examples of where this agent might prove beneficial in your environment. I'll be covering more of those in another follow-up later on. For this post though, I want to cover a few of the different agent deployment methods available in the beta.

 

As discussed earlier, most agent based solutions rightfully deserve the negative reputations they have received over the years. Many of the negative connotations associated with those solutions surround abysmal management of the agent software on which they are dependant. With SolarWinds heritage of simplicity and strong emphasis on ease of use in all things we do, we firmly believe we are uniquely qualified to address many of the problems that have long plagued agent based solutions of the past. The first way in which we address this is by making the agent optional.  Striving to be the absolute best agentless management and monitoring solution is in our DNA and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

 

Everyone knows that the biggest headaches suffered at the hands of typical agent-based solutions has been the initial deployment and continual upkeep of the agents themselves. Agentless solutions allow you to install software on a centralized server and you're up and monitoring in no time. As new versions are released, you simply upgrade the server where the monitoring solution is installed and you're back up and running. The only thing left to do at this point is hit the big red button you got from your local office supply chain and call it a day.

 

With this in mind, as we set out to build this agent we were determined to ensure that it was not only incredibly powerful and flexible, but that is was also simple to deploy and easy to maintain. Not just easy in comparison to previous generations of agent based solutions, but "easy" by even agentless standards. If you would like to try out this new agent included in the SAM 6.2 beta and follow along, click the button below to sign-up.

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Agent Deployment - Add Node Wizard

 

For servers within your environment, Agent deployment is as simple as adding a new node to Orion. From within the Add Node Wizard you will notice a new "Agent" option listed alongside the familiar ICMP, SNMP, WMI, and External polling methods. After entering the IP address, hostname or fully qualified domain name of the server you wish to monitor, choose Agent as the method for polling the node. Selecting this new Agent option then prompts you to provide administrative credentials. These credentials are used solely for the purpose of installing the agent on the remote host. Once the agent is fully deployed to the remote host, the Local System account will be used for all node polling functions. After the credentials have been entered click "Next". Orion will then validate the credentials entered and check to see if the Agent software is already installed on the host. If it is not, you will be prompted to install the Agent software. Clicking "Start Install" will then begin the process of remotely deploying the Agent to the host, and a progress indicator will appear denoting the progress of the installation. Remote agent deployment typically takes a minute or two to complete, but across WAN links installation may take longer. If you don't feel like waiting around for the installation to complete you can click on the "Go to Manage Agents while install continues" link in the progress window. Deployment and installation will continue in the background allowing you to work on other things while you wait. If you choose to leave the Add Node Wizard during agent deployment you will be notified via the Notification Banner at the top of the screen once the agent is installed. Clicking on the notification within the banner takes you to the Manage Agents view where you are given the opportunity to choose the resources you wish to monitor on the node.


If you opt to continue through the Add Node Wizard process throughout the installation of the agent, you will be walked through the rest of the existing Add Node Wizard process flow that you are likely already familiar with. You will be prompted to select which resources on the host you wish to monitor (Volumes, Interfaces, Hardware Health, Asset Inventory, AppInsight applications, etc.) as well as select which application templates you'd like to assign to the node. The final step of the Add Node Wizard allows you to review the node properties, update any Custom Properties, or revise any node thresholds and polling intervals. When you're done reviewing the node properties, simply click the "Ok, Add Node" button to complete the process of adding the agent managed node to Orion.

Agent Deployment Wizard

 

If deploying agents individually isn't your speed, you can opt instead to deploy agents to multiple endpoints simultaneously from within the Orion web interface using the Agent Deployment Wizard. Located under [Settings -> Manage Agents] appears the "Add Agent" option. Clicking this button will walk you through the process of deploying the agent to any existing managed Windows node within Orion. You can also specify the IP addresses of Windows hosts within your environment that are not yet Orion managed nodes. To deploy an agent to an existing managed node in Orion, select it from the grid displaying the full list of WIndows nodes managed in your Orion environment. To deploy the agent to Windows hosts not yet managed by Orion, simply enter the IP address or hostname and click "Add to list". Once you've compiled the full list of hosts you wish to deploy the agent to, click "Next" to proceed on to the next step within the Wizard.

 

The next step is to provide credentials for deploying the agent to the selected hosts. You can select each host individually or multiple hosts in bulk and assign credentials to use for agent deployment. Credentials are validated as they are assigned to hosts, which helps eliminate potential agent deployment failures. When all hosts have valid credentials assgined you can click the "Deploy Agent" button to begin the agent deployment process.


While agents are being deployed you can continue working within the Orion web interface and will be notified via the Notification Banner at the top of the screen once the agents have been deployed. Clicking on the notification within the banner takes you to the Manage Agents view where you are given the opportunity to choose the resources you wish to monitor for each node. At any time you can check the progress of the Agent deployment process by going to "Manage Agents" under "Settings". This is also where you will find any potential errors related to agent deployment processes or edit agent settings.


Regardless of which push deployment method used, be it the Add Node Wizard or the Agent Deployment Wizard, you will need to ensure that TCP Port 445 is open from the Orion server to the hosts you wish to deploy the agent. The agent must also be able to communicate back to the Orion server over TCP Port 17778. For more information on agent deployment requirements you can reference the NPM v11.0 QoE Agent Deployment Guide.

Mass Agent Deployment Option

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Agent deployment from within the Orion server itself may be the easiest way to manage one, or even dozens of hosts within your environment, but what if you need to manage hundreds or even thousands of hosts using the agent? What if the hosts you're trying to manage are outside your environment and aren't directly accessible from the Orion server via RPC, such as host in the cloud or at a branch office behind NAT?


In cases such as these, it may be beneficial to utilize a software distribution solution to deploy the agent to the hosts you wish to manage. These can be software distribution tools built natively into Windows such as Group Policy, or commercial products like System Center Configuration Manager or SolarWinds Patch Manager to name a few. If you have servers running in the cloud, such as Amazon EC2 you may want to bundle the Agent as part of the server so that any dynamic elastic instances created are also managed in Orion. If you happen to be hosting servers on Azure, you can leverage Web Deploy to distribute the Agent to those servers as well. Really any solution that allows you to distribute MSI packages can be utilized to deploy the agent software.


You will find everything you need for mass agent deployment within the Orion web interface under [Settings ->  Agent Settings -> Download Agent Software] as pictured on the left. All agent settings that will be used during deployment can be preconfigured here, such as agent communication method ("Agent Initiated" or "Server Initiated"), as well as which polling engine the agents should communicate with. In the case of Agent Initiated Communication, you can specify an alternate IP address, hostname, or Fully Qualified Domain Name the agent should communicate with in the event the Orion server itself is hidden behind a firewall using address translation.


All preferences selected within this web interface are contained inside the Microsoft Transform (MST) file, which serves as the configuration setting for the Windows Installer (MSI) Package. Both the MST and MSI files are used together in conjunction with your software distribution mechanism of choice to deploy the agent software with the preferences selected here.


As agents are deployed within the environment or new cloud instances pre-packaged with the agent software installed come online, these hosts will begin registering with the Orion server and become managed nodes within Orion automatically. Thus dramatically reducing management overhead. As agents automatically register with the Orion server and become managed nodes within Orion, admins will be apprised through the Notification Banner at the top of the Orion web interface. Automatic registration and node management can, of course, be optionally disabled under [Settings -> Agent Settings -> Define Global Agent Settings] for environments where this behavior may not be desirable. When these options are disabled, agents must be individually allowed to register using the [Add Agent -> Connect to a previously installed agent] option located under Manage Agents section of the Settings view.

Manual Agent Deployment Option

 

 

If deploying the Agent software from within the Orion web interface isn't possible, due to NAT, firewall policies, or access control lists, and group policy or other software deployment mechanisms aren't really your thing, the agent can of course be installed manually on the host you wish to monitor. The agent software can be downloaded from the Orion web interface under [Settings ->  Agent Settings -> Download Agent Software] from the host where you plan to install the Agent software. Alternatively the agent installer is a mere 16MB in size, which is small enough for most environments that it can be emailed to engineers in the field as they bring new services online.

 

During the manual installation of the the Agent you are prompted to provide information, such as the IP address of the Polling Engine the agent will communicate with and your Orion credentials so that the agent can connect and register with the Orion server. Once the installation is complete the host where the agent was installed will automatically register with the Orion server and become a managed node. You will also be notified via the Orion web interface in the Notification Banner that a new agent has registered with the Orion server and become a managed node.Clicking on the notification within the banner takes you to the Manage Agents view where you are given the opportunity to choose the resources you wish to monitor on the node. If you would rather be notified via email, syslog, SNMP Trap, etc. you can optionally configure an alert to notify you of any new agents registered with the system.


Agent Management

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One of the biggest headaches associated with traditional agents has been maintaining them as new versions are released. Commonly, once the management server itself is upgraded you are blind to what's going on within the environment until all agents are also updated to the same version as the server. This means that a coordinated effort is required to properly upgrade the management server and all associated agents simultaneously to limit the amount of time you're without visibility into the environment. The additional overhead and orchestration required to successfully accomplish such an endeavor is commonly deemed not worth it, and upgrades are avoided unless deemed absolutely essential. Even then, the process is nightmarish at best.

 

While developing the Agent it was our intent to make it as much of a hands off experience as agentless monitoring is today. This means building an agent that is completely self maintaining. As new versions of SAM, NPM, or other products that utilize the Agent are released, the agent automatically updates itself once the Orion server is upgraded. Agents update themselves over the same communication channel the agent uses for polling, allowing agents that were deployed to hosts behind firewalls, proxies, or in the cloud to be updated simply and transparently.

 

For instances where automatic agent updates may not be desired, this feature can be disabled both globally or on an individual agent by agent basis from within the Orion web interface. In the event automatic agent updates are disabled, you still have the ability to approve agent updates manually through the Orion web interface. This affords you the ability to control exactly when agent updates occur on an individual agent by agent basis without the need to manage agent updates separately through other software distribution methods.

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Another common point of contention associated with agents is cleaning up after them. Accidentally deployed an agent to a server you didn't mean to monitor, but don't want to deal with the hassle of uninstalling the agent? No problem. Whenever you attempt to delete an Agent managed node in Orion you are given the option to uninstall the agent software from that host. This works for individual nodes deleted from Orion or multiple nodes selected at the same time. Unlike agent deployment however, uninstalling the Agent from the Orion web interface does not require connectivity to the agent managed host via RPC. Instead, the uninstall command occurs over the same communication channel the agent uses for polling. This means you can remotely uninstall agents that were deployed to hosts behind firewalls, proxies, or in the cloud from the comfort of the Orion web interface.


These are just a few of the ways this new agent is designed to make management and monitoring simpler than other agent based products you may have used in the past. All these great new capabilities are available now in the latest Server & Application Monitor 6.2 beta. If you currently own Server & Application Monitor and are under active maintenance we would love you to try out the new agent and give us your feedback. Simply sign-up here to download the SAM 6.2 beta and participate.