Beta Man

Spotlight Lights Up AD

Quest Software's Spotlight on Active Directory 6.0 is worth a close look for anyone tasked with AD performance tuning and troubleshooting.

Although Active Directory is more than five years old, effectively managing it—especially in large organizations—is an elusive goal for most administrators. Quest Software is aiming to make monitoring and troubleshooting AD easier with a new version (6.0) of Spotlight on Active Directory, which presents AD's most important statistics in a graphical, single-screen view.

Spotlight provides a deep level of insight into any problems with your AD domain. The main screen (see Figure 1) is a space-age looking console indicating critical AD performance areas, such as the network, the Local Security Authority Subsystem Service (LSASS), NT File Replication System (NTFRS) and the AD store itself. This gives you a quick, intuitive look at the overall health of your domain. Indicators in the upper-right corner of the screen tell you whether the targeted domain controller (DC) is the Intersite Topology Generator (ITSG), a global catalog, or if it's handling any of the five Flexible Single-Master Operations (FSMO) roles like Primary Domain Controller (PDC) emulator.

Rather than just rolling out an ongoing display of statistics, Spotlight incorporates intelligence to warn you when things aren't looking good. For example, because I've pointed Spotlight at the only DC in a domain, it notices the DC has no replication partners. In a normal domain, this would be a bad situation, so the "Replication Links" indicator reads zero and blinks red. Clicking on this alarm indicator (see Figure 2) gives you details about the problem, links to Microsoft Knowledge Base articles on the subject and suggestions for fixing it.

Figure 1. Spotlight's main console gives you an at-a-glance view of your domain's health.
Figure 1. Spotlight’s main console gives you an at-a-glance view of your domain’s health. (Click image to view larger version.)

Figure 2. The alarm indicators give you a quick look at potential problem areas.
Figure 2. The alarm indicators give you a quick look at potential problem areas. (Click image to view larger version.)

All of the graphical indicators are animated. Arrows indicating traffic flow move faster as traffic picks up. Circular indicators spin faster as CPU utilization increases. It's a very visual and effective way of communicating the overall status of your domain at a glance without actually having to stop and read any of the values. If everything is spinning madly, though, you'd do well to look at those values to see what's wrong.

Quest Software Spotlight on AD
Version Reviewed: Final Beta
Current Status: Final Beta
Expected Release: 4Q2005

A slideshow mode toggles you between the different consoles. I recommend running Spotlight on a workstation that's connected to a large plasma screen, and mounting the screen right outside your data center door. That will definitely scare off any techno-peasants who happen to wander by, because the console looks like it could be monitoring a nuclear reactor.

Variety of Views
You can drill down to see greater detail on various aspects of your domain. For example, Figure 3 shows the DNS registration status for the domain, listing all records and whether or not they're registered. Actually, you can click on most elements in the console for further explanation of what you're seeing. A drill-down button displays additional details. Some drill-downs are displayed as lists, like the DNS records. Others, like memory utilization, are presented as graphs and histograms. They're similar to System Monitor, only they're preconfigured so you don't have to set them up yourself.

Figure 3. You can drill down for details like DNS registration status.
Figure 3. You can drill down for details like DNS registration status. (Click image to view larger version.)

Spotlight has an option to reduce a graph's vertical scale over time. This moderates the display of momentary spikes as Spotlight becomes accustomed to normal operating levels in your environment. It only registers prolonged changes as graphical deviations. This is another helpful option, because you don't typically worry about one-second spikes. Instead, you want to look at a larger, longer-term picture of performance and resource utilization.

There's also a graphical topology viewer (see Figure 4) that helps you visually navigate your domain. This viewer makes it easier to spot replication breaks and problems (as do similar tools from Microsoft). It also provides a number of built-in tools with which you can select a server or link and view its events, verify DNS health, verify server health and so on. All these features are designed to make Spotlight a one-stop destination for AD troubleshooting.

Figure 4. You can get a better feel for your network topology with this graphical view.
Figure 4. You can get a better feel for your network topology with this graphical view. (Click image to view larger version.)

You run a variety of tests to ensure that a particular server is working. There are tests for replication, DNS, FRS, overall performance, time sync and more. Additional tools help you configure and resolve problems within those same areas. You can schedule tests to run on a regular basis and store the results on a central "Analysis Test Results" tab within the product.

Spotlight also includes a number of Web-based reports, but you need to be running IIS to use them. Kudos to Quest for making these reports optional—you don't have to install those reporting tools and IIS unless you're comfortable doing so (because having IIS around does add some ongoing maintenance to your plate in terms of patch management and those types of issues).

Spotlight is easy to install, although you will need an instance of MSDE or SQL Server in order to use it (the product ships with MSDE and can install it for you). I really like the "Getting Started" tabs. You'll find these in both the Topology Viewer and the main console. They list simple step-by-step instructions for configuring a domain connection, discovering domains and so on. These help you get up and running without reading the manual, which I never do anyway.

Beta Man's
Routine Disclaimer:
The software described here is incomplete and still under development; expect it to change before its final release—and hope it changes for the better.

So Far, So Good
I didn't run across many snags with the beta product, and the ones I did were minor. For example, in the Topology Viewer, tasks such as tests and resolution actions are shown in a pane on the right-hand side. Expanding an area near the bottom—like the Resolve Time Synchronization area—jumps back to the top of the pane, forcing you to scroll back down to see the area you just expanded. This isn't a functional problem, but is a minor annoyance.

Spotlight is playing in the same space as products like NetPro Directory Troubleshooter, which also seeks to be an all-in-one information and troubleshooting repository. I'd say Spotlight compares favorably, providing roughly the same functionality with a sexy user interface.

Speaking of the interface, you can configure it to a somewhat simpler "classic" scheme. It would be even cooler if it came with a few different-looking themes. Not every organization, for example, will find the largely-black color scheme attractive. In a tool like this, visual presentation is definitely a selling point.

I found Spotlight easy to use and intuitive. If you've spent any time monitoring and troubleshooting AD, you'll know that being able to glance at one or two screens and quickly spot problem areas based on color-coding, flashing alerts and animation speed is valuable since it helps direct your attention to problem areas quickly. While some might question the value of a tool that is basically an extensive system monitor, that is an undeniably essential function.

Spotlight doesn't include as much in the way of remedial tools as do some other products in this category. For example, Directory Troubleshooter can run a much broader array of jobs and tasks to help further diagnose or even repair AD problems. While the alerts you see within Spotlight are very detailed and much appreciated, NetPro is known for its extensive in-house knowledge base of AD troubleshooting and repair. Quest may want to consider adding a more interactive knowledge base to help users get additional expert information when problems occur.

Wanted: Betas for Review
Beta Man is always on the lookout for quality products to review. If you know of a software product that is currently or soon to be in beta, contact Beta Man at don@scriptinganswers.com. Vendors are welcome, but please act early—the meticulous Beta Man needs plenty of lead time.

Spotlight also comes in flavors for Exchange, Oracle, Siebel, SQL Server, Sybase, Linux/Unix and Windows itself, providing you with a suite of tools with similar functionality and visual appearance. This broad range of coverage helps Spotlight stand apart from its competition. You can use a version of Spotlight with every major server system you support and have intelligent monitoring that uses the same visual appearance, indicators and so on. That greatly reduces the learning curve.

How does Spotlight compare to more robust and general monitoring solutions like Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM)? Microsoft provides Management Packs for almost every server product (Exchange, SQL Server, BizTalk and so on) the company makes, so MOM certainly offers broader support. Although MOM has a small degree of at-a-glance reporting, it doesn't provide anywhere near the amount of immediately useful, visual information as does Spotlight. The animations that indicate overall workload for various components, for example, are tremendously useful for diagnosing your entire environment at a glance.

Spotlight is worth a close look for anyone tasked with AD performance tuning and troubleshooting. With a quick glance at the Spotlight console, you can instantly see if your environment is in good shape or if you're having problems that will soon result in a flood of help desk calls. After all, being on top of the situation is half the battle.

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