Product Reviews

Simple Is Best

Streamline your batch-management processes with ActiveBatch 7.

In an enterprise environment, it's pretty standard to need system- and data-management operations that don't come "out of the box." These can take the form of in-house built applications or scripts to perform line-of-business actions. As the business grows and needs change, the scripts may become large with many "IF NOT EXIST" clauses to ensure that subsequent actions do or don't take place. As you can imagine, this can become an administrative and programming nightmare.

ActiveBatch is a distributed job-scheduling and management system that simplifies the process of running and monitoring the tasks your business depends on.

Basic Requirements
The installation guide is very thorough, though at times a little too much so -- the endless screenshots of "Open File" dialog boxes can become tiresome. At times, too, the instructions can read like those in an Idiot's Guide: "A database is made up of many things, but among the most important are a series of tables and columns (fields) that allow for persistent access to the data."

I'm pretty sure that anyone who's looking to implement distributed job scheduling might have come across the concept of a database some time ago. But, to be fair, as with any documentation, it's never easy to know the experience of your audience.

The minimum required hardware for ActiveBatch is certainly not heavy-duty. The system will run happily on a 2Ghz Intel, AMD or Itanium processor with 1GB of memory and a mere 30MB to 35MB of hard disk space. In terms of the operating system, Windows XP and above is recommended, though the program can run on Windows 2000.

There's a long list of software dependencies, but certainly nothing out of the ordinary or unnecessarily costly: Windows Scripting host; XML version 6; the Microsoft .NET Framework version 3; MDAC 2.7; some form of MS SQL or Oracle database, including SQL Express; Outlook 2003; and Crystal Reports. Most of these requirements will be found on your average desktop machine. There is, however, no support for MySQL databases.

ActiveBatch comes in a number of components: the Windows based Client -- in GUI mode, via the command line, or, as it's COM based, programmatically through languages such as C# or VB.NET; the SQL- or Oracle-based Job Scheduler; and the Execution Agent, which runs on a number of different platforms including Windows, OpenVMS, Linux, Solaris, AIX and Unix.

Ready to Go
The Installshield wizard installation process is very straightforward. Overall, it's clear that a lot of thought has gone into making ActiveBatch as intuitive as possible. However, be aware that if you haven't previously installed the database software, the installation won't complete. The installer doesn't give the option to download and install these requirements first -- which would have been a helpful addition -- but these needs are clearly stated on the Web site, as well as in the supporting documentation.

The full installation takes just a few minutes. Once everything is up and running, you can start creating your batch jobs. One thing to note is that ActiveBatch won't help you write scripts, so previous knowledge of scripting is required. ActiveBatch will, however, help you make your scripts less complex and provide much clearer oversight of the workflow process, which is useful.

Here's one example: Your current script performs action A and action B. The success or failure of action B is dependent on the files created by A. If the script was this simple, I couldn't recommend switching to ActiveBatch, but if you need to specify stricter schedules, have it run according to the fiscal calendar or any number of added complexities, then this is where ActiveBatch can perform to its full potential.

Under the Hood
This software is like Visio for job scheduling: It shows you a graphic representation of how your batch jobs run. Then, using drag handles, you create the relationships between the different jobs and assign the workflow process to the relationship.

The list of workflow processes you can set up with ActiveBatch is very impressive. For example, there are pre- and post-job steps; the passing of data between jobs using variables; job dependencies in the form of job completion; file-existence, time, variable and resource job triggers including Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) events; file triggers; Web services; and e-mail.

The scheduling and calendars are very thorough. You can create a new calendar and add as many relative and fixed holidays as you need. Similarly, scheduling can be as fine-tuned as you want, again reducing the complexity of the scripts to be run.

Jobs can be monitored through e-mail alert, pager and PDA; trigger events; event log; simple network management protocol (SNMP); Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM); and HP OpenView, and even the resources the job takes up can be tracked through Performance Monitor. Advanced Systems Concepts Inc. certainly has all the bases covered.

The interface is one that all Windows users will find familiar. The menu structure is shown in a window on the left-hand side, called the Object/View Navigation, the Variable explorer is beneath it, and there's a large, main window on the right-hand side, with a smaller Instances window beneath it.

Missing Features
One feature I'd like to have when working with the objects would be the ability to right-click in the main window with the option of creating a new item. Instead, you need to right-click on the specific folder in the Navigation window and create a new item from there. So, to create a new job, the user needs to right-click on the Jobs, Folders and Plans menu item and then create a new item, as opposed to simply right-clicking in the main screen -- even if that main screen is already showing the objects currently in Jobs, Folders and Plans.

This is the same for the other creatable objects including Schedules, Calendars and Alerts. The right-click Create New Item option is just something that we've come to take for granted these days. Strangely, Advanced Systems Concepts has recognized the need for this simple action in creating Jobs, Folders and Plans if you're in the System View window. For a product with so much thought put into it, this seems to be a minor oversight.

Installation 20%
Features 20%
Ease of use 20%
Administration 20%
Documentation 20%
Overall Rating:

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

One Size Fits Most
I can honestly say that, apart from this, I can't think of a single feature that was missing from this product. This software is well developed and will provide as little or as much granularity over job scheduling and job flow as you need, and all in one easy-to-use package.

Despite the documentation's ease of reading, I wouldn't recommend that someone unfamiliar with database layout and design use this product. It requires a good understanding of trigger events, queuing, schedules and a number of other factors that make this product not one for less-advanced users.

There were a number of times reading the documentation that I thought, "I don't need to see a screen shot of this." Certainly, if someone needs to be told what the components of a database are, they aren't ready to be installing either SQL or, more specifically, Oracle, just yet.

If you're familiar with SQL -- or Oracle -- and can create even basic batch files, then this product can really help. It'll reduce the time you take to create and administer complex batch files that your business depends on. Though I wouldn't throw a less-advanced admin in to the deep end with it, doing so would give them a good oversight of the workflow. With a bit of assistance, they could be able to use ActiveBatch within a very short time.

Final Verdict
I would recommend this product without hesitation to anyone who needs to use batch files within their enterprise. Additionally, because the SP2 update includes support for VMware -- such as snapshotting and powering on and off of virtual machines, among several other new capabilities -- it will also make administering your virtual environment much easier.

ActiveBatch Job Scheduling Version 7

Price available on request
Advanced Systems Concepts Inc.

About the Author

Stuart Fordham has worked in IT infrastructure for finance and medical health companies for five years.


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