Product Reviews

Product Review: N-able N-central 9.0

Automate common processes for managing distributed client devices over multiple networks with this monitoring tool.

One of the most time-consuming tasks network administrators face is mundane systems management. The latest release of N-central from N-able Technologies Inc. seeks to eliminate the minutia with a console that automates common management procedures via a single pane of glass.

Most network-management products are designed to monitor and troubleshoot a single network. N-central allows for the management of multiple networks or network sites.

N-central is a leading remote monitoring and management (RMM) automation software platform used to manage large numbers of distributed client devices. Managed services providers (MSPs) commonly deploy RMM systems such as N-central to monitor and maintain their customers' client systems, but N-central 9.0 is also suited for large, multisite enterprises.

Noteworthy in N-central 9.0 is its new Automation Manager and Remote Control Manager. The Automation Manager comes with hundreds of preconfigured objects that IT pros can use to create workflows that automatically diagnose, maintain and remediate remote devices based on scripted policies. N-able says it created these "automation objects" so less-experienced administrators could create workflows without having to code these tasks.

The new Remote Control Manager is a management console that incorporates backup and recovery, endpoint security, spam management, auditing and policy management. It also includes the company's Netflow traffic-management tool and Group Policy manager.

Customers can deploy the N-central software on-premises or in the cloud. I used the cloud-based software because, when you sign up for the free trial of N-central, N-able provides access to the cloud portal. As such, most administrators' first experiences with N-central will likely be in the cloud.

Three-Step Configuration
The configuration process is based on three main steps: create a customer or site, add devices and manage devices. N-central has created a series of videos that walk you through each of these configuration tasks.

  1. Add Customers. The first step in getting N-central up and running is to define either a customer or a site. When I opened the console for the first time, the software took me to the Create a Customer/Site page by default. The page also contains a link to a video that walks you through the process, as shown in Figure 1. As you can see, setting up a customer or site is simple. You must specify a name for the customer or site that you're setting up, specify your license type and then provide a set of credentials.
  2. Add Devices. The next step in the process is to add the devices you want to manage. The software gives you three different options for adding devices. You can install a Windows probe to discover the network, deploy an agent to individual computers or manually create a device that represents an external Web site or IP address. I chose to deploy a probe. The process seemed to work well, and it was nice to deploy a single probe instead of manually deploying an agent to every device I wanted to manage. Once the software discovered the devices on my network, importing them into N-central was a quick, easy and completely intuitive process. All I had to do was select the checkbox next to each device and then click the Import button.
  3. Manage Devices. Once you import the various devices, you can begin managing them. N-central provides a wide variety of management options. Many of these options have to do with deploying software or patches on remote machines.

[Click on image for larger view.]
Figure 1. The first step in configuring N-central is to define a customer or site.

File Transfer
The first management task I attempted was a simple file transfer. This is a nice feature to have, because I can recall countless times when I needed to push files to servers or workstations.

The file transfer is well-implemented. The software asks for the file name and destination path, but the folks at N-able really went the extra mile with the file transfer feature. N-central provides options for overwriting files on the target machine and for flagging the file as Read Only.

I was impressed with the way the console guided me through the task. As I populated each field, it displayed a message explaining exactly what I needed to put into the field. For example, when I specified the remote target, the help message described how the remote target path should look.

Other things you'll notice are several filtering options to select the target machines to which you want to copy a file. You can transfer the file to essential devices, such as those with Office 2010 or Exchange Servers, to name a few.

The Backup Manager
The most surprising feature to me was the Backup Manager. I can't recall reviewing another management app that has an integrated backup application. N-central lets you schedule both full and incremental backup jobs of selected targets. The backups are disk-based, and the Configuration section allows you to configure the network share path to be used by your backups.

N-central offers backup and restore based on CA ARCserve D2D R16, and can restore at the file and folder level as well as bring back Exchange mailboxes and SQL tables (even when those servers are operational). The software also offers bare-metal recovery capabilities; you download an ISO file and burn a recovery CD to perform the bare-metal recovery. N-central doesn't appear to have granular recovery capabilities. I couldn't find anything in the documentation about how to restore individual files, folders or applications. However, the software is designed to integrate with Symantec Backup Exec (which I don't have), and it's possible it is used for recovery.

One of the main features of N-central is the ability to deploy software. Software deployment is easy to set up. The controls are much like those used for file deployment, except that you also have the option of specifying a set of command-line parameters, or even a parameters file.

As was the case with the file transfer function, you can specify the machines to receive the software by using a variety of different filters. There are also functions that allow you to schedule the software deployment and generate notifications based on successful deployments or failures.

Reporting Tools
N-central offers too many features to cover them all, but I couldn't end this review without mentioning the software's reporting capabilities. N-central offers a wide range of report types. The available report categories include Administrative, Asset, Events, Status and Scheduled Reports. Each of these categories includes one or more reports you can generate.

By my count there are 17 predefined reports. You can run these on the fly or schedule them. I decided to run a status report to see how long it would take. Granted, I have a small network with only about a dozen devices, but it generated the report almost instantly.

A note on my ratings of N-central: I gave the installation process a perfect score. Often, when I review a product, I spend hours trying to get the software installed and running before I can even begin the review process. Having cloud-based software that was already running made the review process so much easier that I had to score the installation process as a 10 out of 10.

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

All in all, I really liked this software. For the most part I found it to be easy to use, which is quite an accomplishment for management software. I also liked that the software adapts so well to environments with multiple networks.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 22-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.


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