Microsoft System Center Advisor - Part 2: Usage and privacy

In part 2 of this overview of System Center Advisor we look at how SCA helps with troubleshooting, the different parts of the console, the data that’s collected and conclude with a look at the future of SCA.
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Paul Schnackenburg

Paul Schnackenburg works part time as an IT teacher as well as running his own business in Australia. He has MCSE, MCT, MCTS and MCITP certifications. Follow his blog TellITasITis.
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Part 1 of this review gave an overview of System Center Advisor. Today, I will discuss how SCA can be integrated in your network.

A typical troubleshooting session without SCA starts when you’re tracking down a problem; when you’ve identified the symptoms and any event log / error log messages you use your favorite search engine to try to come up with a solution. This can sometimes take hours of searching and implementing different solutions until the right one is found.

Using System Center Advisor ^

Sometimes, having gone through the above process and not fixed it you reach for the phone and call Microsoft’s support. They have a checklist of configuration items and will work through this with you. The vision of SCA is to help you avoid the trawling of forums and KB articles as well inspecting the checklist for you and simply present a solution based on your particular configuration. Each item that is surfaced in SCA has a thorough explanation of the context and why the issue might appear as well as details of how to fix it.

If you have a decentralized IT departmental structure or if you’re a consultant that uses SCA across multiple companies you can create one company per department and select each of them in a drop down menu. Users are divided into administrator roles and user roles. The only difference between the two is that users can’t close accounts or create additional users. Otherwise a normal user can do all other activities available in the console.

System Center Advisor - Console Configuration

System Center Advisor Console Configuration

The console itself has several panes; the first gives a list of current critical and warning alerts and can be sorted by severity and / or server name. The Current Configuration pane presents all relevant data that you’d need at the time of troubleshooting in one place, whereas the Change History panel is my personal favorite. Think about it, if you’re helping someone troubleshoot, isn’t your first question – “what did you change”? And the answer is (almost always); “nothing”. So this panel keeps track of recent configuration changes that could be the cause of your current troubleshooting woes.

System Center Advisor - Console History

System Center Advisor Console History

The other difference between SCA and other monitoring products like SCOM is that the suggestions offered by SCA will change over time, as hotfixes and updates are incorporated into Service Packs and Update Rollups they will be retired from SCA when you’ve upgraded your servers.

Data collected by Systems Center Advisor ^

SCA looks in the registry, event logs and the SQL error logs for its data as well as using WMI calls, SQL OleDB queries to understand your environment. There’s a full list of what data is collected in an Excel spread sheet (see resources).

Data collected is stored in XML files, these are compressed into a CAB file and subsequently copied to the gateway which then uploads these to your account. For companies that are worried about what data is uploaded to Microsoft’s cloud there’s a very comprehensive privacy statement, particularly making is crystal clear that no licensing information is included. For those of a suspicious nature it’s easy to open the cab files waiting to be uploaded on the gateway server and inspect the xml files directly to see what data is involved.

Conclusion ^

Exchange and SharePoint support is the next obvious step and is on the roadmap for SCA but won’t appear in the first release, which is due towards the end of the year. A future improvement that I hope Microsoft considers is integrating SCA into SCOM so that a separate online console isn’t necessary.

Overall SCA is an interesting product, perhaps paving the way for other parts of the Systems Center suite to be offered as cloud services in the future. It spotted several problems in my lab environment that I definitely wouldn’t have seen without extensive research.

Resources ^

System Center Advisor homepage
Go and sign up for the release candidate to get the feel for what SCA can do for your servers.

Microsoft Connect
The RC is supported through the connect site with forums and other resources.

System Center Advisor Configuration Data Points
The Excel sheet that lists all the data points that SCA collects.

Microsoft System Center Advisor Technical Overview
System Center Advisor technical overview session at TechEd US last month.

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