Product Reviews

Your Network at Your Fingertips

Manage multiple jobs across multiple platforms from a single console.

The number of tasks required to manage increasingly complex networks seems to grow exponentially -- even as we grow more reliant on technology to "automate" our network management. IT managers at busy enterprises find themselves with hundreds of operating system-level tasks to manage -- copying files, rebooting systems, running defragmentation tools and so on.

Documentation 10%
Installation 10%
Feature Set 30%
Performance 40%
Management 10%
Overall Rating:

1: Virtually inoperable or nonexistent
5: Average, performs adequately
10: Exceptional

Surprisingly, many still do these tasks the old-fashioned way -- going from server to server to check on a job or troubleshoot a job that may have failed. Then invariably, the entire process is repeated because the one job that failed caused several others to fail. It’s cumbersome, difficult and wasteful. There has to be a better way.

There’s the Task Scheduler within Windows, but that’s not a particularly robust tool. One major limitation to the Task Scheduler is that it can’t run automated jobs that work with OSes other than Windows. It’s also fairly limited in scope and capabilities. That’s where ActiveBatch 5.0 comes in.

Taking Task Scheduler to Task
ActiveBatch has three main components: the client user interface, the Job Scheduler and the Execution Agent. Execution Agents operate on multiple platforms, while the Job Scheduler runs only on Windows. The Job Scheduler also integrates with SQL Server through an actual version of SQL Server, or through the Microsoft Desktop Engine (MSDE) for SQL Server. The client UI runs on Windows or over the Web. With a special add-on, you can also run it on a BlackBerry.

Installation is easy -- all you need to know in advance is the server and database you want to use. There is a bit of a learning curve to get past after installation, but once you’ve mastered a few basic concepts, you’ll be up and running fairly quickly.

ActiveBatch is a meaty program with a rich menu of features; you’ll be discovering new things long after you get started. One of the easiest ways to summarize its many features is to compare it to Task Scheduler. While it’s ultimately a one-sided contest, this is illustrative of how far Advanced Systems has gone with ActiveBatch.

ActiveBatch outclasses Task Scheduler in several ways. You can defer jobs, simultaneously run multiple copies of the same job and have alerts sent when jobs are completed. You can have alerts sent as e-mail messages or Windows Alerter service messages. You can also set up jobs so they record the amount of time required to run, including the actual amount of processor time used. All job aspects are logged in a text file and all job activities are recorded in another historical file.

On Windows clients, you can run ActiveBatch through the ActiveBatch Administration utility or an ActiveBatch MMC snap-in. Of the two, the administration utility provides a better and more detailed interface for controlling ActiveBatch. The Outlook-like interface gives you easy access to all the program features. The MMC snap-in is well-suited for tasks like job administration delegation.

Most importantly, ActiveBatch reduces scheduling to a single point across a wide range of operating systems, platforms and even applications.

You can integrate ActiveBatch with Active Directory (including ADAM) through special AD extensions that can publish both Job Schedulers and Execution Agents to the directory. You can use this to create aliases for each of the Job Schedulers. Because this sets up an abstraction layer between the jobs and the actual published schedulers, Job Schedulers point to different machines running the service. This lets you schedule jobs without worrying which machine will handle the actual execution.

ActiveBatch also supports dependencies. This helps you set pre- and post-job conditions. If a dependency fails, you can tell ActiveBatch to fail the scheduled job or wait until the other job is complete. If you continue, it will check every two minutes to see if the precondition is complete before running the originally scheduled job. If a job fails, ActiveBatch can prevent subsequent jobs from even starting and trigger any number of actions to correct known problems and restart the process from any point. ActiveBatch can alert you not only when a job fails, but if it’s taking longer than usual or consuming too many resources.

There’s no need to switch servers when you have to create, run, troubleshoot or reconfigure a job. ActiveBatch provides you with a centralized execution queue, so every aspect of working with any job on any server in your enterprise is right at your fingertips.

ActiveBatch makes full use of the Microsoft Windows Security Model, including Kerberos Security. You can fully secure any ActiveBatch objects such as User, Schedules, Alerts, Calendars or any other object. Any changes you make to an object cascade to all associated objects.

ActiveBatch lets you specify the quantity of a resource required for job execution. You can also indicate whether your job requires a certain drive letter or disk resources.

Diverse Jobs
ActiveBatch comes with five types of jobs (by comparison, most job schedulers only support one). Four are supported on all platforms; only e-mail is "Windows only":

  • Process lets you run user-written scripts and/or executable images.
  • Embedded Script lets you use a job to create a script, rather than a file. You can have the script written in any scripting or command language available on the intended platform.
  • FTP can initiate a series of FTP commands in a heterogeneous fashion.
  • File Operations let you perform operations such as copy, move, delete and so on without regard to the specific platform you’re on and what command shell you might need to use.
  • ActiveBatch can compose e-mail.

While these five templates outnumber those available in other job schedulers, I still wouldn’t consider them as a limitation. The best thing you can do with ActiveBatch is be creative.

Thinking "inside the box" with ActiveBatch will certainly help you accomplish your tasks quite effectively, but doing so limits what you can accomplish. For example, you could set up an ActiveBatch job to check certain system performance counters and take appropriate actions based on the results. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

A date? Let me check my schedule...
[Click on image for larger view.]
Figure 1. ActiveBatch gives you a multi-layered view for task management and scheduling.

ActiveBatch comes with a number of different views of ongoing enterprise jobs. The System View lets you see the current status and immediate results of every job in the queue. Icons in the System View show job dependencies and workflow. They’re color-coded based on the current run status and the last execution result. The Run Book shows your job schedules in a calendar view, and the Daily Activity View shows daily job executions in a detailed list.

High availability options include support for Microsoft clusters, seamless failover and other capabilities. You can restart jobs, job plans and even instances on failover. You can also reboot after a process failover on the current server or another server to ensure on-time completion. Checkpoint Restart lets you accept job failover from the last good checkpoint for restart in the event of a job or system failure.

ActiveBatch 5.0 helps you reliably coordinate job execution on Windows, Linux, Unix and OpenVMS systems. Most importantly, it reduces scheduling to a single point across a wide range of operating systems, platforms and even applications. You can set up jobs to be triggered by events, data, traditional date and time scheduling or simply on-demand.

ActiveBatch 5.0 is a true enterprise-level job scheduler. Although somewhat complex at first, it truly saves time by centralizing job execution, management and monitoring. In this particular product, the promise matches the delivery. This elegant solution is a worthwhile addition to any system administrator’s toolbox.

About the Author

David W. Tschanz, Ph.D., MCSE, is author of the recent "Exchange Server 2007 Infrastructure Design: A Service-Oriented Approach" (Wiley, 2008), as well as co-author of "Mastering Microsoft SQL Server 2005" (Sybex, 2006). Tschanz is a regular contributor to Redmond magazine and operates a small IT consulting firm specializing in business-oriented infrastructure development.


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