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Top 5 Reasons Why Sysadmins Should Find SolarWinds® Server & Application Monitor a Refreshing Alternative to Microsoft® SCOM


There’s been a lot of buzz around System Center 2012 lately.  Microsoft has made significant improvements to System Center Operations Manager (SCOM), including new capabilities for dashboarding, selective network monitoring and application monitoring for J2E and .NET applications. These improvements are great for very large enterprises that have already invested heavily to get SCOM deployed and keep it running.


SolarWinds offers an alternative for companies that aren’t necessarily in Microsoft’s “sweet spot.”  Here are five differences between Microsoft and us:


Visibility into ALL your supporting resources.

System Center Operations Manager does a good job of providing coverage for Microsoft applications and operating systems and now provides some coverage for Unix, Linux, .NET and J2E.  For other applications and operating systems, you may need to purchase a third-party management pack or create one yourself.  Enter complexity – from importing, compatibility issues and the need to add multiple vendor packs.  Suddenly, the amount of time needed to manage the management tool begins to impact its value. 


SolarWinds provides a different approach.  SolarWinds Server & Application Monitor (SAM) provides out-of-the-box performance and user experience monitors for virtually any application – Microsoft and non-Microsoft environments – even monitoring of J2E applications.  

Users can also extend monitoring in the same web console to a wide range of network devices and storage arrays, as well as network traffic through native integration of SolarWinds' other products, including Network Performance Monitor and its modules and Storage Manager. 


SolarWinds SAM makes it easy to extend out-of-the-box monitors with WMI performance monitors, SNMP monitors, event log monitors, SQL query monitors, process monitors, Windows Service monitors, DNS query monitors, and all-purpose and script monitors – often through just the click of an icon. With the Nagios Script Monitor, you can even use SAM to alert on scripts you have written in Nagios.

And then, there is thwack, and its 100k+ users.   SAM’s interactive web console enables you to browse, download, and share monitor templates and scripts from directly within the product, giving you access to the expertise offered by super-smart sysadmins without worrying about compatibility.  Microsoft has a vibrant community, technet, which provides a lot of advice for using Microsoft SCCM, but it doesn’t provide free, community-created management packs.

Agentless monitoring.

My agent is down! Is my server down too?   Monitoring with agents adds another layer of complexity – another piece of software to install, upgrade and watch.  There are pre-requisites and compatibility issues.  You can get a glance into all the problems with agent-based monitoring by looking at this Beanspy readme… you get deeper monitoring, but it’s not easy.


SolarWinds’ customers don’t need to devote as much time to deploying and updating monitoring, because of our agentless monitoring and an automated application and server discovery engine for quick assignment of monitors.  Typically, based on reports in customer surveys, SolarWinds’ customers devote less than 10% of one person’s time to administering the SolarWinds product. One customer said they were able to achieve 100% monitoring coverage of their server environment in 2 days with SolarWinds; something they had been trying to achieve with SCOM for approximately 4 years.



Functional dashboards and common sense navigation are standard.

While Microsoft has worked to integrate functionality into the System Center product family (see the integration of Virtual Machine Manager to SCOM via Orchestrator), they haven’t reached the level of usability that our customers expect. Two examples:  dashboards and reporting. 


Cameron Fuller, Operations Manager MVP, covered dashboards here.  “You build Operations Manager 2012 dashboards directly into the Monitoring pane of the Operations Manager console, by creating a new dashboard view.” IT admins want to solve IT problems, not administer management software.  So, we created out of the box dashboards for all of the platforms monitored.  With feedback from thousands of users, we created navigable views to get the user to the root of the problem in very few clicks.


To create custom reports with SCOM, users need a mastery of the SQL Reporting Services. SolarWinds provides the ability to create custom reports with the easy to use Report Writer tool.



Frequent, functional updates under maintenance.

Why pay maintenance if you don’t get frequent function updates?  For the last 4 years, SolarWinds has provided one major version release and at least one minor release each year.  


System Center Operations Manager 2012 released in April 2012; the previous version was System Center 2007, before that MOM 2005, and before that MOM 2000.  Shouldn’t you expect a little more from your vendor when you pay an annual maintenance fee?



SolarWinds SAM is affordable. 

The System Center 2012 license includes a lot of components, but a lot of companies will only need an easy to use monitoring product. System Center 2012 may be too much function and too expensive. 


Also, Microsoft customers may need training and professional services, which may increase the bottom-line.  In recent Linkedin post on the SCCM group, Rohitash Kathuria, a SCCM admin, said installing and configuring SCCM 2012 on one primary site will take a week. SolarWinds doesn't require professional services or training staff because our products can be installed and deployed by IT admins in a DIY fashion.



Large Vendor SRM Tools Claim ROI

Many of the vendor Storage Resource Management tools make claims of substantial return on investment (ROI) for users of their tools resulting in millions of dollars of savings in storage costs.  Given the herd of lawyers many of these firms employ, I will assume that there are some facts behind the claims and that it is conceivably possible to achieve the type of savings they describe.  How likely is it that a normal end user will achieve similar savings? Not very likely without an extremely high level of expertise these vendors assume the customer will acquire. Often those huge savings were achieved by bringing in the vendor’s professional services team with deep expertise to install, configure and optimize the system to get any kind of positive results.  Alternatively, the customer could dedicate one of their IT administrators to learning and managing the tool full time with a 6 month learning curve.  The obvious problem here is who can afford to invest that much time and effort into learning a vendor tool that in effect results in vendor lock in.  Even worse, if you are the IT admin assigned to that task, why would you want to do that? It is like quitting a profitable job to get a degree in Latin – a lot of hard work to learn it then not a lot to do with it when you are done.


The Impacts of Doing More with Less

For years IT shops have been forced to do more with less.  In many cases an IT administrator’s job today was probably two or three people’s jobs five years ago.  VMware monitoring one minute, storage performance troubleshooting the next and storage capacity planner before lunch - an IT administrator has to wear a lot of hats. It makes no sense either for the company or the employee to lock themselves into big, complex SRM tools that require huge investment in time and skill just to acquire basic usability.  For most software I use, within the first two to four hours, I will have learned probably 80% of the functionality that I will ultimately use in the software.  That doesn’t mean that I won’t learn a new trick or explore a new function someday, but if I can’t get most of what I need in that timeframe the odds of me ever getting there goes way down.  If a normal user can’t get 80% of what they need from an SRM tool in the first two to four hours, the software is on its way to becoming shelf-ware as there are just too many fires to fight to get dedicated time to just learn one niche product.


Easy to Use Doesn’t Mean Limited Capabilities

Somehow the large vendors have worked to propagate the myth that harder to use and impossible to install must mean that it is more powerful or scalable.  That just isn’t true anymore, while SolarWinds was a pioneer in the easy-to-install, easy-to-use, try-before-you-buy approach to software many others have followed our lead to prove that “powerful” and “easy” can go together.  Unless you are an IT equivalent to a “one-percenter” (i.e., you can’t live without the left hand, inverted widget support), how many storage admins can spend all their time on one siloed, complex tool?  Probably about the same number as those of us that speak Latin.

The amount of noise in the virtualization and private cloud marketplace right now is absolutely deafening – even when you look at small segments of the market. There are now at least four hypervisors in relatively broad use. There are at least four different companies offering backup solutions for virtualization. Every storage vendor on the planet is developing one (if not all) of their products specifically to support a virtual infrastructure. Let’s not even talk about the number of companies, both large and small, that are developing products for the “Cloud.”


One of the most confusing areas in the market right now is virtualization management. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least six companies that advertise a virtualization management tool. There are several different layers of this solution worth considering.


We all know about the hypervisor – the tool that makes true abstraction from the physical layer possible. VMware says they give you the hypervisor (ESX) for “free.” Microsoft includes Hyper-V with the Windows Server OS, and KVM & Xen are both open source (free) hypervisors.


Next, there’s the orchestration layer. This layer manifests itself differently depending on which hypervisor you’re managing. VMware used to be the only game in town, but there are several folks pushing into this market now. The open source OpenStack project founded by Rackspace and NASA a couple of years ago shows the most promise as an orchestration layer competitor to VMware, but there are several smaller players in the market that could get some traction.

VMware charges you for layered functionality on top of ESX by requiring vCenter to unlock the real benefits of virtualization – VMotion, DRS, Storage DRS, HA, etc. Many people view vCenter as a virtualization management solution, and don’t even know that there is an entire world of tools out there that complement vCenter to give you some really valuable features that vCenter does not provide. Even worse, I think there are still a lot of folks out there who think they have to stick with a 100% VMware virtualization stack in order to be “enterprise class.”


Microsoft has taken a different angle. There isn’t a vCenter equivalent for Microsoft’s Hyper-V hypervisor. Microsoft gives you much of the same functionality for free that VMware requires vCenter to utilize. It’s true that, today, Hyper-V is missing some of the great capabilities of VMware, but taking just a short leap to the end of 2012, when Hyper-V 3.0 launches, a new chapter will begin. Hyper-V 3.0 promises to be a game-changer that could make the top virtualization platforms interchangeable from the standpoint of functionality.


However, there are a bunch of new tools out there that provide metrics, functionality, and intelligence that you just can’t get from the tools most environments employ from Microsoft and VMware. These virtualization management solutions help you with the heavy lifting in managing VMware and Microsoft environments by providing you with real-time dashboards, reports, alerting, tools for capacity planning and analysis, performance monitoring, bottleneck detection, and so much more. There are several reasons all of these third-party players are developing virtualization management tools:

  1. VMware has chosen to build a VMware-only monitoring solution in vCenter Operations Manager. This equates to VMware proprietary lock-in from the only folks really capable of pulling it off. Don’t be fooled!
  2. vCenter alone is just orchestration, and many virtualization administrators want better metrics, analytics, reporting, and other functionality than it can offer.
  3. Microsoft Systems Center Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM) is mainly focused on provisioning. Again, there are lots of other functions necessary for better virtualization management.
  4. BOTH of the solutions above are very expensive…especially when you want the full functionality that many of the smaller players offer. This opens the door to a ton of value solutions like SolarWinds Virtualization Manager that are priced at a fraction of competitive tools.


SolarWinds will even let you test drive Virtualization Manager for free with a trial for an unlimited number of virtual machines for 30 days. Then, when you’ve decided Virtualization Manager is the best platform for your environment, you’ll be surprised to find out that it costs substantially less than most competitive tools. Substantially! This is one of the few situations where you can have your cake and eat it, too!

In a recently published article, “Forget Improvements, Systems Management Needs a New Approach,” Denny LeCompte and I argued that the challenge around adopting application performance management is largely organizational.  Software companies can help remove these organizational barriers with easy to purchase, deploy and use software.  One of our competitors, NetIQ. agrees with our assessment that usability issues hold back success in IT management.  In a recent NetIQ blog, written by Travis Green, he indicated usability was the focus of their latest release of AppManager v8, although to back up his claim, he describes a somewhat obscure, “big enterprise” use case.


Perhaps NetIQ uses the term differently, but when we refer to usability, we mean that the product can be learned quickly and easily, that the daily use of the product is efficient, and the experience of the product is satisfying and pleasing.  Inextricable from usability is whether the product provides the proper features to solve the problems for which it is intended.   SolarWinds is maniacal about our focus on getting the features right.  We don’t care about winning irrelevant battles between software feature checklists.   We simply won’t add a new feature because one big customer wants it; we only add features that hundreds of our customers need.  In the end, SolarWinds uses the acid test of usability:  If our products were not easy to use, SolarWinds would not make any money because every prospective customer downloads, installs, and deploys the software all on their own.  The truth is that we don’t have any professional services staff to do it for them.


Getting a product to be usable requires focused effort and an user-centric approach to development.  What this means is providing frequent and varied means of customer feedback and interaction such as:


·         Usability Tests

·         Iterative, user-centered design

·         Customer experience interviews

·         Beta programs with high participation

·         An open forum (like thwack) for customers to criticize, praise, or explain their needs

·         and frequent product releases.


Over the last four years, SolarWinds Server & Application monitor (SAM) has iterated on usability improvements using all of these methods, providing one major release and one minor release each year.   In fact, I spoke with one customer this morning and he told me that the latest version of SAM (which shipped in March, 2012) is now one of the best products on the SolarWinds Orion base.  What an accomplishment for a product with such a short life span!


Take the Technology Taste Test

I am curious to hear how NetIQ AppManager v8 customers like the new release.  I am also curious when NetIQ will iterate on these improvements.  For the sake of their customers, I hope the time span will not be as great as in previous releases (AppManager v7 GAed in March 2007, or nearly 5 years prior to v8).  Better yet, NetIQ customers, Enterprise Systems Journal readers or anyone else should compare SolarWinds’ usability against NetIQ.  Download both products and  I have a pretty good idea who will win the blue ribbon, but, like I said, SolarWinds is open to constructive criticism.

Those famous words from one Rowan Atkinson from the Blackadder series (if you don’t know Blackadder, please go to youtube) have been front of mind in recent days.  The reason?  Well, as we compete for your business there are inevitably requests to compare our products to those of our competition.  Whether it’s Splunk vs Log & Event Manager or InfoBlox vs IPAM, or VMware vCenter Ops vs Virtualization Manager you as IT consumers always want to know what’s the best choice for your situation.


Of course as marketers ( AKA ministers of truth J), we are always looking for the angle that communicates why we believe our product to be the best for you, but sometimes we forget that we should let the products do the talking.  One thing that I love about the way we market and sell at SolarWinds is that ultimately the products actually do “speak” for themselves.  It’s a model we’ve all gotten used to over here, but for those of you who buy IT products I forget that the model is still somewhat unique. How often do you get to take a product you’re evaluating, put it in your business – or your home for that matter – and keep it there for 30 days, to decide if it works for you?  Of course in those 30 days we will ask you to buy it because we hope you like it, but if you wanted the full 30 days to think about it, the time is yours to use.


Some folks call what we do freemium (since we have free tools), but it’s not really.  Our free tools are completely separate and disconnected products from those we sell.  There are companies that use the freemium model, like Splunk, who give you a product free up to a point and then charge you for it.  But our belief is that free is free, and if you have a paid product then we’re going to let you try it, but ask you to pay for the value you receive after you’ve tried it and like it.


So, it’s back to my competitive plotting, but there you have my cunning plan – it’s not so cunning after all – see a product, try a product, and then buy a product – that is how I like to win. 

In Matthew Jones' blog post last week, he presents a good overview of the challenges that today's organizations deal with in regards to patching 3rd party updates when Microsoft Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) is the chosen patching mechanism. The most significant challenge being the simple fact that they're not getting patched, or if they are, it is likely in a haphazard manner at the whim of an end-user sufficiently motivated by desktop popups from the auto-updaters for those products.


While the article does a great job of calling attention to the problem, and even offers some suggestions for improving the environment, it doesn’t really provide a functional solution to the reader. For example, regarding educating users, the whole idea of a centralized patch management product is that users don’t have to be ‘educated’ -- an effective patch management system is completely transparent to the end user. Avoiding the expectation that users will install updates is exactly the reason the organization has implemented WSUS in the first place.


In the last paragraph, Jones offers the recommendation to "...implement a patch management solution that will deploy third-party patches", and provides two options, only one of which can actually be used in a WSUS environment. Other options do exist, but seem to have been overlooked in the article.


For the reader who is managing a WSUS environment, one product certainly worthy of mention is SolarWinds Patch Manager.  Patch Manager sits on top of the WSUS environment, provides automatic synchronization to a catalog of ready-to-use third-party updates for all of the prevalent desktop applications: Adobe Reader, Adobe Flash, Firefox, Chrome, Java Runtime, and iTunes, to name a few. In addition, Patch Manager provides an enhanced toolset for monitoring and managing the entire WSUS environment, and a toolset to directly deploy on-demand, or explicitly scheduled, third-party updates and Microsoft updates. Patch Manager also provides tools for asset inventory and reporting on the actual state of the products and updates in the organization, and it does all of this at a price point less than a third of the other option noted.


Patching third-party content should be no different at all from patching Microsoft content. The only reason it would be is because the methodologies are different (e.g. using GPO/Software Distribution, or trusting users to click on the auto-updater). With WSUS, the policies should be identical. More so, with WSUS, you don’t have to “scan” systems to get information – it happens automatically, daily. Publish the third-party update to the WSUS server after it automatically arrives, and in the morning run a report (or schedule it and deliver it via email to your Inbox) and review the status of your third-party updates side-by-side with your Microsoft updates.

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