SolarWinds Server & Application Monitor (SAM) is an agentless monitoring tool that gives you deep insight into your server hardware and software. With SAM we can quickly and easily perform root cause analysis and resolve issues before they become a larger problem.
Latest posts by Timothy Warner (see all)

This post was sponsored by SolarWinds.

Let me ask you a question: How do you monitor your Windows servers? Let's say that your environment looks like the following example:

  • 30 Dell and HP servers spread across three datacenters in different geographical locations
  • Mixed-mode Windows Server 2012 and Windows Server 2008 domain
  • Core infrastructure services: AD DS, AD CS, DNS, SQL Server, Exchange Server, SharePoint Server, IIS
  • 10 of the physical servers host virtual machines (VMs) using both Microsoft Hyper-V as well as VMware ESX hypervisors

Whew! That is a lot of stuff to keep track of, correct? If you rely solely on vendor-provided in-box monitoring tools, then I'm sure you spend way too much time touching individual servers in order to perform root-cause analysis of problems, generate performance baselines, and the like.

On the other hand, tools like Microsoft' System Center Operations Manager (SCOM) 2012 are great for monitoring core Microsoft services. But what about Dell- and HP-specific server data? SCOM's VMware support is limited, which makes sense when you consider the market competition between the two companies.

If you're looking to invest in a third-party, "one-stop shop" solution for your server and application monitoring needs, then I submit that SolarWinds' Server & Application Monitor (known henceforth as SAM) may be a good fit for you.

Let me summarize the four chief differentiators of SolarWinds SAM from its competition, and after that I'll walk you through installation, configuration, and usage.

  • Ease of installation. SolarWinds says that you should have no trouble installing and configuring SAM by yourself and in under 1 hour.
  • Huge variety of templates. SAM includes built-in monitoring templates that map not only to popular applications and services (all of the ones I mentioned in my above example are covered, for example), but also has templates for several hardware vendors. That means you can scan and alert on metrics such as fan speed, internal temperature, and the like.
  • Dynamically generated performance baselines. The SAM tool generates a baseline of typical activity for your servers and application. This makes it easier for the tool to detect deviations from the baseline and to alert you as to the difference.
  • Expert Knowledge. The SAM tool provides expert knowledge on possible reasons why performance is poor and suggestions for remediation.
  • Customization. As we'll see a little later, we have complete control not only over how we monitor our servers and applications, but how the data is presented to us in the Orion management Web console.

Expert Knowledge helps you troubleshooting performance problems

Expert Knowledge helps you troubleshooting performance problems.

The general monitoring workflow with SAM works as follows:

  • Deploy. Install one or more SAM instances in your environment. No agent software needs to be installed on monitored physical or virtual machines.
  • Monitor. As I mentioned, the scope of SAM's in box monitoring templates is comprehensive. You shouldn't have need to do much initial tweaking, although SolarWinds makes their monitor API available so you can develop your own custom monitors.
  • Alert. What I like here are the myriad ways in which you can be notified when SAM detects and reports a problem. Especially cool is the fact that the SAM Web application includes mobile views that are optimized for iPhone, Blackberry, and Android devices.
  • Resolve. SAM gives you specific enough information to make it easier for you to determine the root cause of a problem to ensure that it doesn't arise again.

Deploying SAM

Here are the minimum system requirements for SolarWinds SAM:

  • CPU: 2.4GHz
  • RAM: 4GB
  • HD: 4GB
  • OS: Windows Server 2003; Windows Server 2008 R2; Windows Server 2012
  • IIS: At least version 6, with 32-bit compatibility mode tools installed
  • Database: SQL Server 2005 SP1 or later (SQL Server 2012 is supported)
  • .NET Framework: At least version 3.5, although .NET 4.0 is recommended
  • Web browser: IE 7 or higher with Active Scripting enabled; Mozilla Firefox 13 or higher; Google Chrome

As with all vendor-supplied system requirements lists, those minimum values should be well exceeded on your candidate SAM servers.

The big choice you have to make with regard to installation is whether you want to do an express or advanced installation. The express option assumes you don't have a full instance of SQL Server available and therefore gives you an instance of SQL Server 2008 Express Edition.

By contrast, the advanced installation option requires that you have a full SQL Server instance online and available in your network.

Once installation completes, you'll need to configure your initial network scan and set up your monitors.

Configuring SAM

The first time you load up the SolarWinds Orion Web console (this is an IIS Web site that listens for connections by default on TCP port 8787 and does not require SSL), you can walk through the Network Sonar Wizard, as shown below.

SAM allows us to customize how network discovery scans are performed

SAM allows us to customize how network discovery scans are performed.

Basically, what we are doing here is scoping the discovery parameters for SAM. The Network Sonar Wizard configuration steps are as follows:

  • SNMP: Add Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) credentials for SAM to use
  • VMware: Identify any VMware ESX/ESXi host servers that you want to manage
  • Windows: Determine which Windows boxes (physical or virtual) that you want to include
  • Network: Specify the IP subnets that you want to scan
  • Discovery Settings/Discovery Scheduling: Configure the tool's scan frequency

I think you'll be impressed with the depth of information the SAM discovery scanning provides. As I mentioned previously, the tool has built-in support for several of the most popular server hardware vendors, including the following:

  • HP ProLiant
  • Dell PowerEdge
  • IBM System x

NOTE: To obtain a full list of included monitors and supported vendor hardware, please check out the documentation on the SolarWinds SAM download page.

You should find that most or all of your services and applications are properly detected and loaded up with out-of-the-box monitors. SAM includes pre-built monitor templates for over 150 applications.

SAM uses a variety of methods, including WMI, CIM, scripting technologies, and various vendor APIs such as the VMware protocols.

It is worth stating that (a) you can scale out multiple SAM instances to provide redundancy for your monitoring infrastructure; and (b) absolutely no agent software is required on any of your monitored physical or virtual computers.

Admittedly, the Orion Web interface is overwhelming at first. Let's have a look at the Dashboard home page together (see the annotated screenshot below) and I will explain what's going on.

NOTE: The trade name Orion refers to the Web application engine that underlies not only SAM, but other SolarWinds products as well.

The Orion Web console is packed chock-full of information.

The Orion Web console is packed chock-full of information.

  • A: The Home tab contains a lot of summary/rollup data, and gives you easy access to your server nodes. The Applications tab allows you to drill into specific application platforms that are monitored in your environment
  • B: This information bar alerts you with notable recent events
  • C: Here we can view a quick roll-up of monitored applications. The icon state changes depending upon the health of the application. You can expand an application to view the individual monitors attached to each one
  • D: This graphic gives you at-a-glance insight into your monitored apps. Notice that we can export all the page data to PDF as well as customize the layout of the page.
  • E: Here we can see summary data for our hardware. Clicking a server name takes you to a separate page where we can remotely manage the box.
  • F: SAM allows you to logically group servers and services for ease of management. For instance, you might create groups to differentiate your company's multiple datacenters or business points of presence.

There are two ways that you can drill into a particular server node or an application. One way is to hover over the relevant node or application. As shown in the screenshot, a pop-up window appears showing key monitoring values.

Hovering your mouse over a monitored server or application gives you a helpful pop-up summary

Hovering your mouse over a monitored server or application gives you a helpful pop-up summary.

The other option is to click the node or application directly and SAM will generate a dynamic ASP.NET page for that item, showing you even more (customizable) data. You can view low-level hardware data, such as power supply status, internal temperature, or fan speed. You can also view running processes, manage services, or reboot the Windows host remotely.

Look in the Management section You can manage processes and services remotely for Windows hosts

Look in the Management section: You can manage processes and services remotely for Windows hosts.

Before we move onto alerting and reporting, let's mosey over to the Applications tab in the Orion Web console interface. SolarWinds puts a lot of effort into their application monitoring templates. SQL Server is especially well-covered.

We can drill down several levels when we use SAM to monitor our applications

We can "drill down" several levels when we use SAM to monitor our applications.

Receiving and resolving SAM alerts

The at-first overwhelming amount of data that SAM gives you can be analyzed easily enough by using the included Advanced Alert Manager tool. Here we can create, manage, disable, or delete alerts across our groups, nodes, and applications.

How will SAM notify you if it detects a fault with one of your servers or applications? Let us count the ways:

  • Send an e-mail message
  • Send an SMS text message
  • Play a sound
  • Log to a file
  • Log to Windows Event log
  • Send a syslog message
  • Execute an external program or script
  • Send a Windows net send message
  • Get or Post an HTTP URL

Fire up the Advanced Alert Manager and click View > Active Alerts to see what's currently on your plate, alert-wise.

You don't have to hunt around to view SAM alerts

You don't have to hunt around to view SAM alerts; they are all aggregated for you in the Advanced Alert Manager tool.

The Configure Alerts area in Advanced Alert Manager allows you to edit an existing alert or create your own alert from scratch. Let me briefly walk you through the process.

Creating new SAM alerts is an essentially pain-free process

Creating new SAM alerts is an essentially pain-free process.

  • General: Enable or disable the alert; specify how often the alert conditions are checked
  • Trigger Condition: Create one or more threshold conditions that determine if the alert triggers
  • Reset Condition: Control the conditions under which the alert is reset
  • Alert Suppression: Selectively disable an alert based upon a conditional expression
  • Time of Day: Specify the days and times when the alert should be active
  • Trigger Actions: Create the actions that occur when an alert is triggered
  • Reset Actions: Create the actions that occur when an alert is reset
  • Alert Sharing: Make your alert available to other SolarWinds products installed on your system and to other SolarWinds subscribers

Okay, I like SAM. What's next?

SolarWinds SAM is licensed on a per-monitor basis instead of a per-server basis because SolarWinds realizes that its customers have different hardware and application monitoring needs. After all, who wants to pay for features that are irrelevant for our environment?

Here's the SAM price breakdown that is current as of November 2013:

  • SAM AL150: Up to 150 monitors - $2995
  • SAM AL300: Up to 300 monitors - $5295
  • SAM AL700: Up to 700 monitors - $9495
  • SAM AL1100: Up to 1100 monitors - $14495
  • SAM AL1500: Up to 1500 monitors - $19495
  • SAM ALX: Unlimited monitors - $31495

You can download a fully-functional, time-limited demo, or you can check out the software by interacting with SolarWinds' live demo environment. On the download page you will also find the quite excellent documentation library that includes video walkthroughs, datasheets, white papers, and manuals.


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