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Automating repetitive tasks is one of the hallmarks of an efficient IT team. However, automation tools native to Windows only provide basic functionality. With no central management or reporting, task sprawl can spread quickly with little or no control over where automations are running. Keeping tabs on tasks becomes a manual process of checking the status of jobs one at a time.
VisualCron can help here. I installed VisualCron, both Server and Client, on Server 2019. Installation was simple and the setup was quick. I had a couple of questions while setting up the examples below. The response I got from VisualCron was fast and helpful. Overall, setup and interacting with the program was easy.
Azure File Transfer
The following example shows how to configure VisualCron to copy files automatically from a directory to Azure blob storage. VisualCron requires configuring a connection before it can send files to Microsoft Azure. VisualCron uses Azure storage access keys to connect to the storage account. After setting up the storage account in Azure, go to Access keys under Settings. You need two pieces of information to set up the connection: the Storage account name and one of the two keys.
Next, move on to creating the storage account connection in VisualCron. Go to Connections and select Add to create a new connection.
Set the Protocol type to Microsoft Azure and give it a name in the Main settings tab.
Go to the Authentication tab next. Set the Authentication type to Password. Enter the storage account name in the Account name field and one of the two storage account keys in the Account key field. Click OK to finish setting up the connection, and close out of the Manage Connections window.
This example uses the directory C:\Source on the VisualCron server as the source for file uploads. This will upload any file placed in this directory to the storage account set up in the previous step. Create the job by selecting Add Job at the top of the application. Give the job a name in the Main settings tab and select the Put job in queue checkbox. This prevents skipping new files if VisualCron is actively uploading a file.
The next step is to add a trigger that will start the job. Go to the Triggers section and select Add > Event Trigger > File. This creates a file-based trigger. Go to the File tab and select the source folder in Folder path. In this example, VisualCron will monitor the C:\Source directory. Click OK to close the trigger window.
Finally, go to the Task tab and select Add > Cloud transfer > Upload file(s). Go to the Upload file(s) tab and select the connection previously set up. Search for the destination blob container that files will upload to. This example uses the upload container as shown below. Click OK twice to exit out of the setup.
To test it, place a file in the source directory.
The file will upload to the blob storage container selected as the destination.
Keep in mind this is not a synchronization operation. If you want to remove files at the destination when they are removed at the local source, that requires setting up a job that triggers when the local file is deleted with a Cloud transfer, Delete item(s) task.
Web macros in VisualCron provide the ability to interact with web data by recording steps in a web interface. Web macros facilitate automating data uploads and downloads; they extract data, screenshots, and scrape web preform pages. The interface uses a familiar Chrome engine in a multi-tab interface.
The example test I ran was to automate downloading the VisualCron install file. I started by going to Add Job and giving the job a name. Then I went to the Triggers tab, added a Timed trigger, and selected Interval. I gave that a name and went to the Interval tab. I set the interval frequency and Start time, like below, and clicked OK.
After setting that, go to the Tasks tab and select Add > Net > Web macro. Go to the Web macro tab. This tab has several options to modify the web browser behavior. For example, you can select not loading images to speed up processing, block pop-ups, or change the language value.
Next, click the Record button. This will start the macro creation process by recording the interaction with the web browser. For this example, I'm going to the site www.visualcron.com. Once that loads, go to the Download page. Notice it records the steps taken on the right side of the window.
Click on the installer Download button to start the download. A Download window opens with options for the download. In the Folder field, browse to the download location. In this example, I selected the same C:\Source directory. Click OK in the Download window and Stop in the Web macro window. It will ask to save the steps; click Yes and then OK twice to get back to the job grid.
This task will run every day and download the file to a specific folder, all without writing a line of code. This example may not be the most compelling because I don't need to download this installer every day. There is a lot of potential, however. We could use similar steps to download backup configurations for a web-based appliance or data updated daily from a website. We can automate just about any interaction with a website with this tool.
Putting it together
In the web macro example, we downloaded a file to the C:\Source directory. This action will trigger a file upload to the Azure storage account due to the file transfer automation setup earlier. This illustrates how multiple automations can run together to create a seamless, end-to-end task flow.
We could also integrate these examples with a multitude of other triggers, conditions, and tasks. VisualCron provides the capability to interact with both cloud and on-premises services such as email, Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google, social media, SQL Server, Windows services, IIS, and the list goes on. There are virtually endless opportunities to automate processes in any environment.
There are plenty of options for process automation, including free tools and tools native to an OS. The problem with this approach is "task sprawl"—automation tasks set up on multiple hosts with no central management. These tasks get forgotten, or they fail without notifications, and managing them quickly detracts from the value they are supposed to add.
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The advantage of VisualCron is its central management point along with the ability to automate on-premises and cloud tasks. Add that to a very affordable entry price, and the product becomes even more appealing. With its simple interface and multitude of interaction points, VisualCron is a good option for businesses starting out or businesses in need of advanced, cross-platform automation support.
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