In-Depth

Job Scheduling Utilities

These three packages let you automate tasks you need to accomplish daily.

So you’ve got a pile of jobs on your plate that you’re dying to automate, right? Well, you say, there’s always the famous (and free) NT “AT” command, so why bother with custom job scheduling software? Simply put, it’s because it will allow you to customize your routine batch jobs to copy files from place to place, set up custom application environments, or do almost anything else you can imagine. Using job scheduling software, you can automate tasks you need to accomplish on a daily basis. As long as you can reference a batch, script or executable file and any associated switches, job scheduling software can automate the process of running it—and make your life a heck of a lot easier.

There are many requirements you should take into account when evaluating job scheduling software. When you’re thinking about the right job scheduling solution for your own situation, it may help to draw up a table of requirements and see how well individual products meet your needs. Here are some ideas to get you started.

First, think about the basic features of the program. What are its disk space, CPU and RAM requirements? What about compatibility with various platforms and architectures? Does it support Windows-Based Enterprise Management (WBEM) and Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI)? These last two are important because, in many cases, they control how easily you can customize jobs. You should also look at the client interface and what (if any) database you’ll need.

What about the core job scheduling and sequencing requirements? You may want support for both date and time scheduling, including the ability to schedule random days, omit non-business days and holidays, and so on. Do you need job chaining (the ability to fire off a second job after the first one has completed)? How about checking for the exit code on a job and conditionally chaining? A nice feature would be the ability to customize exit codes for each job. What sort of alerts and notification do you need? Is the software capable of job monitoring and restarting stalled jobs?

Product Information

Read comprehensive reviews of the products featured in this roundup by clicking on the links here:

ActiveBatch 3
$8,500 for 10 servers
Advanced Systems Concepts
Hoboken, New Jersey
201-798-6400
www.advsyscon.com

SmartBatch32
$595 Standard Edition or $1,195 Enterprise Edition
OnLine ToolWorks
503-297-0609
www.onlinetoolworks.com

Opalis JobEngine 4.0
$330
Opalis Software
Toronto, Ontario
416-253-9383
www.opalis.com

Finally, there are some enterprise-level requirements that don’t apply in all situations. For example, job restarting and checkpointing allow you to know when a job failed. Another important capability is the delegation of jobs, giving the administrator the ability to pass the management of jobs down to people who, while they don’t have administrative rights, can still manage jobs.

You won’t get most of these features from the venerable AT command. But all or most of them are within the reach of the three products I looked at for this roundup: ActiveBatch, SmartBatch32 and JobEngine 4.0.

Advanced Systems Concepts’ ActiveBatch
ActiveBatch uses a three-tier methodology, which increases scalability but adds complexity to the system. There’s a client component you have to install on the client computers, as well as a job scheduler and an execution agent. Execution agents can reside on Windows, Unix or Open VMS computers (the latter in the ActiveBatch Cross Platform Enterprise Edition only). The job scheduler and clients live only on Windows NT or 2000. The idea behind ActiveBatch is that you install the software on the computers participating in the environment then set up a queue from which you schedule your jobs. Pricing for ActiveBatch is relatively high: A typical 10-server installation costs around $8,500.

ActiveBatch keeps track of the jobs you’ve run in its Runbook (a term common to all of the reviewed products), allowing you to keep comprehensive information about jobs that are scheduled to run, are running and that have run, as well as each job’s status. The look and feel are similar to that of Outlook Today. The ActiveBatch demo I ran utilized a proprietary database; but if you purchase ActiveBatch, it will come with a SQL Server 2000 database from Pervasive and will allow you to use your own ODBC drivers to connect to an in-house database.

Verdict: Cool, but expensive. If you don’t have cross-platform needs, look at the other two products. The complexity of learning and operating the system on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being the easiest, 5 being the hardest): 3.

OnLine ToolWorks’ SmartBatch32
There are two editions of SmartBatch32: Standard Edition ($595), for shops with one or two servers, and Enterprise Edition ($1,195, plus $495 for each remote agent) for larger installations. SmartBatch32 jobs can be controlled from a central server (in Enterprise Edition) talking to remote agents. SmartBatch32 is intended for Windows-only installations and can’t play in the sandbox with Unix (though you could certainly write scripts that somehow integrate with Unix systems—through, say, FTP, Samba or NFS—and then run the scripts through SmartBatch32). The most impressive thing about SmartBatch32 is its clear delineation of the job scheduling methodology right in the interface. You can see the main user interface in Figure 1, which shows the Operations area of the product. From there you can introduce as much detail as you’d like: a series of steps makes up a particular operation, jobs comprise a series of operations, dependencies exist in each job and step, and so on. You can think of SmartBatch32 as a repository for various scripts, executables and other kinds of programs around the enterprise you need to run on a routine basis.

Online ToolWorks SmartBatch32
Figure 1. The SmartBatch32 Operations area provides a structured view of your jobs.

The online tutorial is well written, and the SmartBatch32 program is fast! In the Enterprise Edition you can specify which computers the Operation segment runs on. Also, you can store jobs in multiple ODBC-compliant databases from the SmartBatch32 admin console.

Verdict: My favorite. It’s easy to run, scalable and manageable. Complexity of learning and operating: 2.

Opalis Software’s JobEngine 4.0
Opalis has an extremely interesting offering with its JobEngine 4.0. The product is a monster, at least twice as big as the others in this review—taking up 60MB of disk space at installation time. RAM requirements are also hefty, at a minimum recommended 128MB per installation. The idea centers around a workspace into which you drag various representations of activities you’d like to perform.

In Figure 2, I’ve dragged a Date Time Event object from the lower-left Objects-Scheduling pane to the upper-center Workspace pane, giving it a schedule and a title in the process. Options for adjusting the object’s properties pop up when you drag an object to the workspace. Next, I dragged a Run Program Task object to the workspace, filling in the details of my test batch file. Finally, I connected the arrows between the two, right-clicked either object, and selected Trigger from the ensuing context menu. Voila! The batch file ran beautifully. But object manipulation for creating a routinely running batch file? It felt awkward to me until I caught on. I think that this idea of dragging objects to a workspace is very cool. Once you catch on, it takes a lot of the effort out of job scheduling—making it more graphical in nature and less programmatic. However, this methodology takes up a lot of system resources, which may make you think twice about the product.

Opalis JobEngine
Figure 2. The Opalis interface is powerful but takes some getting used to. (Click image to view larger version.)

That being said, the price is right. JobEngine is a bargain at about $330 per computer. Each purchase grants you a satellite license and a user license. Satellite means you have the ability to connect remotely to a computer that’s running JobEngine. User license, of course, deals with the ability to bring up the UI. JobEngine also comes with a Web interface, and I found it easy to configure and use from my browser. JobEngine can store jobs in any ODBC-compliant database. Reports can be generated in CSV, HTML or text format.

Verdict: Interesting idea, but confusing at first. If price is a factor, opt for this product. Complexity of learning and operating: 4.

Wrap-up
All three of these products would be quite satisfactory in most environments. Conceptually, their interfaces perform the same basic functions, though each has its own look and feel.

It will really come down to two things: cost and cross-platform capability. If you’re low on money, Opalis JobEngine seems to be the best bet. Alternatively, ActiveBatch is a nice product and natively supports cross-platform capability (though if you’ve got an FTP, Samba or NFS thing going, this shouldn’t be of huge concern to you).

If I were buying the product, I’d opt for SmartBatch32 because I liked the interface and the way that the company’s engineers designed the product. But remember, you need to figure out what’s important in your own scripting environment and evaluate all the choices against your own requirements.

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