Product Reviews

Put Your Tasks on Automatic

Automate your task management without learning a new language.

Here's a simple question: Why isn't there a Visual Studio-like interface for scripting tasks? Why isn't there something that lets me set variables, interact with systems (whether they're logged in or not), run programs, post and retrieve information from databases, perform file transfers, connect to disparate systems using terminal emulation, interact with Microsoft Excel and all sorts of other cool admin tricks? Why does the life of a system administrator have to be so darn complicated? (OK, that was actually several questions.)

Documentation 15%
Installation 10%
Feature Set 35%
Performance 30%
Management 10%
Overall Rating:

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

It may seem like a simple question, but there's a lot more to it than you might think. It would be great if there was a program that instantly brought you a plethora of visual task scripting capabilities. Better still if it were organized in such a way that it was intuitively obvious what you needed to do, without flying out of town to a week-long training class or having to learn a specialized, complicated language. Yet it would still have to be powerful enough to meet all of your task creation, scheduling and deployment needs.

Network Automation has done all this with AutoMate 6. AutoMate is a handy tool with a well-designed methodology for easily creating and automating any system task you could imagine.

Step by Step
Let me give you an example of how AutoMate works, using a simple programming task as a point of reference. A programmer's first effort is typically a piece of code that generates the message "Hello World." Using AutoMate to recreate the process of coding the Hello World message would mean setting up some kind of variable and launching a popup.

First, I used a wizard to create a new shell for a task. I simply highlighted the task and selected Steps from the Task Administrator menu. Then I was taken to a second interface called the Task Builder. The Task Administrator and Task Builder are the only two interfaces you'll need throughout your task building efforts. You can keep track of your tasks in Task Administrator and massage them in Task Builder.

Once I had created the shell for the "Hello World" example, I went to the Variables section of the Task Builder Available Actions pane. There I created a variable called "MyVariable" and added the string "Hello World" (see Figure 1).

Next, I selected Dialogs and Message Box from the Available Actions pane and created a popup window (a "Message Box" in Windows developer parlance). This window would display the contents of my variable. By hitting the Run button, I was able to successfully run this quick little task (see Figure 2). If I had created a more extensive task, I'd be able to run it through its steps, set breakpoints at given intervals and debug my automated script.

This kind of task scripting helps you tap into the underlying power of existing Windows code. You're really just using a simple "select your steps and fill in the blanks" technique. You don't have to sacrifice a thing in terms of power or capability, though.

Automate's wizard-driven interface
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Figure 1. Setting up a variable with AutoMate's wizard-driven interface.

With either the Professional or Enterprise version of AutoMate, you can do almost everything you would want to do from a programming standpoint. It will help you with file manipulation, securing tasks through encryption, administrator notifications, even utilizing secure FTP. The Enterprise version adds terminal emulation, SNMP capabilities and audit level logging. With both versions, you can use a variety of methods to set up administrator notification.

Automating on Autopilot
There were only a couple of very minor annoyances I came across while using AutoMate. When you create a new task, you have to click the Steps button or right-click the task and select Steps in order to launch the Task Builder. Toggling between Task Administrator and Task Builder could be a source of confusion.

The Available Actions pane is not alphabetically sorted right out of the box. When you choose to sort the list alphabetically, however, it displays all the available selections in a line instead of grouping them in like categories as it does when they're unsorted. Why can't a person easily put the list into alphabetical order? I don't really see this sorting issue as a major problem. Once you start using the system, you'll easily memorize the location of the various actions you want anyway.

Check your options.
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Figure 2. Once you've gone through all the options, you can run your task.

AutoMate isn't the cheapest tool on the block. You purchase licenses by the machine, so if you want to deploy tasks to a large number of computers throughout an enterprise network, you could get into the tens of thousands in software costs -- even with the volume discounts.

On the plus side, I really like the ability of AutoMate 6 to use sounds and include recorded text playback. This could be very useful if you need to record training material so users have some sort of human guidance as they surf through a newly deployed program. The speech is computer generated, so use it sparingly or it could become annoying.

Overall, AutoMate's intense automation capabilities are invaluable. You don't have to learn an entirely new language in order to get it to build the tasks. AutoMate 6 is BASIC compatible, but you'll probably never need to actually go in and maneuver any code. Also, you can easily modify any of its numerous setup options.

AutoMate 6 lets you create tasks quickly and on the fly for your Windows computers. If you want the robustness of a full-task scripting program without the hassle of working within a formal programming paradigm, AutoMate 6 is an outstanding tool.

About the Author

Bill Heldman is an instructor at Warren Tech, a career and technical education high-school in Lakewood, Colorado. He is a contributor to Redmond, MCP Magazine and several other Windows magazines, plus several books for Sybex, including CompTIA IT Project+ Study Guide.


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