CentralWatch Keeps Web Apps Speedy

SAN MATEO (07/17/2000) - Nobody likes to wait to make his or her purchases, either in the physical world or when shopping online. A Web application with poor responsiveness can disgust even your most eager potential buyer, who will walk away from the transaction -- and your business -- with nothing but hostility to share with the world.

This means that e-vendors must nurture and coddle their databases as much as possible. The amount of time your customers spend waiting during transactions directly depends on the speed with which your business applications retrieve information from your database.

Granted, if your online portal has Web appeal, some users may actually forgive slow service and try to complete their purchases anyway. But if your database server ignominiously crashes (say a table runs out of disk space), it will probably take minutes, if not longer, before you can restore the service. By then, you will have lost even the most tenacious customer.

Unfortunately, your database requires constant human supervision, even to prevent trivial resource problems, such as limited disk space or poor indexes, from becoming business-crippling disasters. Right now your DBA (database administrator) is probably juggling the tasks of monitoring database performance and predicting future requirements.

This is not only time-consuming and costly but also hardly a catchall. Even the best DBA can miss crucial database cries for intervention.

A new product from Indura Software Corp., CentralWatch 1.5, will help your DBA keep an eye on your Oracle databases. CentralWatch summarizes database performance trends and statistics, helping your DBA identify any potential business-halting situations.

The ability to recognize and prevent database problems before they happen will save you an immeasurable amount of lost revenue from downtime and help keep your customers active and satisfied.

Although the product is inexpensive and does a fine job of keeping your DBA in the know, it still needs a lot of ironing out in the areas of trend analysis and alert features, which is why I could only give it a score of Good in my testing.

In addition, the product supports only Oracle databases. If you use IBM, Informix, or Sybase, a product such as Platinum Enterprise DBA from Computer Associates would probably be a more appropriate choice. Platinum also offers superior diagnostic capabilities.

Taking care of business

During the configuration of your database and applications, your DBA uses operational details, such as the average number of items per order, to allocate disk space. If, for instance, the actual number of items per order increases significantly, your table may run out of space or experience performance degradation.

This can have the same catastrophic impact on your business as it would for a pub that's out of ale; you can't take orders until resources are restored.

Poorly managed indexes, on the other hand, have a more subtle effect: They slow you down. An index is the shortcut to reaching your data. In the above example, if your number of items per order grows, that shortcut may become more like a convoluted path, which adds costly time to each transaction. Again, your customers are kept waiting, frustrations mounting.

To prevent such potentially disastrous malfunctions, your DBA must continually reconfigure your database to make it consistent with changing business requirements.

But identifying these business conditions has traditionally been a laborious and imprecise science, costing your DBA precious time and your company loads of money. With CentralWatch, your DBA can easily pinpoint business trends and plan database modifications accordingly.

Database systems, including of course Oracle, have internal reporting mechanisms that store unusual situations, such as memory shortages or poorly performing queries, in special diagnostic tables.

However useful, the information in these tables is very specific to each occurrence. The information can be helpful in preventing particular malfunctions from reoccurring, but doesn't give your DBA an overall picture of how your database needs to change to account for developing business activity.

To foresee future requirements, such as a need for additional processors or memory, your DBA must collect performance trends and examine operational projections, tweaking and retweaking your database to function accordingly.

This can easily cost your DBA several hours every day.

CentralWatch automates the process of collecting those statistics and grouping them to derive trends. It delivers the big picture, rather than a long list of unrelated events. Not only will this save your DBA time, but it will also deliver more reliable projections than he or she could manage freehand.

Probably the most interesting characteristic of CentralWatch is that it does not require installing a local agent on your database server. You do not even need to install the product on the same machines where your database resides.

This is a big plus, because it means that you won't jeopardize your database with faulty installations of new products. Your Oracle database can sit on any platform, and CentralWatch will access its diagnostic tables with the usual connectivity protocols, such as TCP/IP.

I installed CentralWatch on a Windows NT server and easily connected to Oracle instances on NT and Novell NetWare. The product has a server component, which collects data from each database instance and a client component with a friendly GUI, which let me define the databases to watch and the information to collect from them.

You can install the client and server on separate machines. In addition, you can set up each CentralWatch server to monitor a different group of databases and connect your client GUI to each server.

This means that CentralWatch will easily adapt to your company's geographical breadth. From the same server you can access remote databases over a WAN, and local instances using TCP/IP.

The only limitation to this benefit is that CentralWatch clients must share the directory in which the server stores database statistics. In fact, CentralWatch has a client-server architecture, which somewhat limits remote DBA access to the CentralWatch server.

A browser-based GUI (now a Windows client) and TCP/IP connection to the CentralWatch server would be a better alternative, making it possible to use the product remotely. Indura Software is considering this feature for future releases.

Reporting the nitty-gritty

CentralWatch shines in its ease of use. Selecting which database to monitor and what information to collect with what frequency was a breeze. The client GUI contains three panes that display the resources you can access, the data you want to collect, and the reports created so far.

CentralWatch uses a standard set of queries that at predefined intervals will collect information about your database, such as the number of connections recorded or the amount of memory used.

As this relentless data collection continues, CentralWatch builds a scenario of your database's performance, which it displays in readable reports and graphs.

The CentralWatch client offers Status-, Trend-, and Events-based reporting. The Status reports give readings of static elements, such as configuration parameters, number of objects (tables, views, indexes), users, and access rights.

The Status reports also offer global statistics that you can use to assess transactional load or potential resource problems. For example, you can learn which users are consuming more resources or which queries are generating more disk activity.

Although I was satisfied with the Status reports feature, I would have been more impressed if it had provided automatic action-item reports, based on thresholds. This would create a so-called attention list that would bring emergencies to your DBA's attention. Currently, he or she must dig through each report to find possible problems.

CentralWatch's Trends reports are invaluable for helping DBAs with capacity planning. The Trend reports deal with emerging patterns, such as determining how today's number of connections compares with yesterday's.

For example, the Trends reports will tell you if your number of transactions is increasing at a faster rate than planned and give you a chance to take action before your database responsiveness deteriorates as a result.

The last set of CentralWatch reports, Events, identifies specific items that need immediate attention. For example, the Events reports will let you know if your logs need manual archiving or if a data space is getting full.

Missing alarm features

Despite all these great features, I have mixed feelings about this first version of CentralWatch. The product does an excellent job of uncovering hidden database statistics and offers numerous standard data collection approaches that can save you from database disasters. However, it has several flaws that dragged its score down.

For instance, once I completed my installation, which was swift, I had to manually start the server. Even though this required no more then clicking on the right icon from the Windows Start menu, it was annoying. True, this is hardly a major issue, but it is a red flag that this new product may need some refining.

In addition to the product's lack of threshold-based attention lists, I was also disappointed that CentralWatch offers no emergency alert options to get your DBA's attention when your database is in serious trouble.

It would be extremely helpful if CentralWatch sent a 911 e-mail or pager message to your DBA in emergency situations, for example if your disk space was getting dangerously low or if you had repeated transaction failure.

In addition, CentralWatch does not help your DBA with corrective database actions, such as writing scripts to move a table from one location to another.

CentralWatch will help your DBA determine that these actions must be taken, but will not assist with the completion of these tasks.

As mentioned, the product is for Oracle databases only, although the company intends to add support for Sybase and Microsoft in the fall of 2000.

Despite these limitations and first release woes, the product has the potential to prevent costly database performance degradation. And its moderate cost is a small price to pay for the peace of mind it offers. Although I could only give the product a Good as it stands, I look forward to excellent releases in the future.

Mario Apicella is a technology analyst for the InfoWorld Test Center. Send him e-mail at mario_apicella@infoworld.com.

THE BOTTOM LINE: GOOD

CentralWatch 1.5

Business Case: Indura's database monitoring software helps prevent costly operational downtime by keeping all of your Oracle databases under surveillance. It also helps identify any business-crippling database problems before they happen.

Technology Case: CentralWatch collects database statistics by issuing SQL queries to system tables and storing results in a local archive. Therefore, it does not require modifications to your database servers and can work equally well on local or remote databases.

Pros:

+ Easy to set up and personalize

+ Clean, agentless architecture

+ Flexible settings for collecting statistics+ Numerous customizable reportsCons:

- Limited to Oracle databases

- No alarm-triggering thresholds

- No pager or e-mail alarm notifications- No assistance correcting abnormal conditionsCost: $5,995 for as many as three Oracle instances; $995 per additional instancePlatform(s): Windows NT, Windows 2000, Oracle 7.3 databases and laterIndura Software Corp., Colorado Springs, Colo.; (877) 371-1151; www.indurasoft.com.

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