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Do Administrative Tools in Windows XP Professional Deliver?

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Microsoft has bundled in administrative tools with its operating systems over the last five product generations. Do the tools really deliver, or are they there as check-off items as Microsoft moves into the enterprise market? Louis Columbus provides a critical assessment.
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Microsoft has bundled in administrative tools with its operating systems over the last five product generations. Clearly, this is a move to compete with UNIX and other enterprise operating systems, but do the tools really deliver? Or are they there as check-off items as Microsoft moves into the enterprise market? The intent of this article is to provide a critical assessment of Microsoft's Administrative Tools in Windows XP Professional.

Administrative Tools

No real surprises here for anyone who has worked with NT, Windows 2000, or the early betas of Windows XP. The tools included here include Component Services, Data Sources (ODBC), Event Viewer, Internet Information Services, Local Security Policy, Performance Monitor, Computer Management, Server Extensions Administrator, and Services. Figure 1 shows the contents of the Administrative Tools folder in Windows XP Professional.

Figure 1 Microsoft's latest Administrative Tools lineup in Windows XP Professional.

There are several new Administrative Tools for use in managing both workstations and networks. The location of the Administrative Tools has also changed. Using the Start Menu as the jump-off point to the Control Panel, you can easily get to the Administrative Tools. Figure 2 shows the location of the Administrative Tools within the Control Panel.

Figure 2 Windows XP Professional includes the Administrative Tools within the Control Panel.

Included in the Administrative Tools folder are Component Services, Computer Management, Data Sources (ODBS), Event Viewer, Internet Information Services Manager, Local Security Policy, Performance Monitor, Personal Web Manager, Server Extensions Administrator, and Services. These 10 applications were first introduced during the Windows 2000 beta, and were trimmed from 11 to the nine that were included in the final build of Windows XP Professional. These applications are briefly described in each of the following sections.

Component Services

Represented by an icon showing a metallic button with blue ornaments around it, Component Services launches the Microsoft Management Console interface—originally delivered in Windows NT 4.0 Workstation and Server. One of the primary tasks that this application completes is configuring and managing COM+ applications. Figure 3 shows the COM+ Applications that are being profiled using this application.

Figure 3 Tracking COM+ application performance using Component Services.

Computer Management

Represented by a PC with two dialog boxes onscreen, this application manages disks, and provides access to other tools to manage local and remote computers. The extensive use of navigational tools in this application, coupled with its access to system monitoring and system performance metrics, makes this application one of the most useful of the 10 included in the Administrative Tools set. Using the MMC interface, it's possible to check the status of all major performance metrics. You can also use the Computer Management application to inquire about the file system that is being used by disk volume on a workstation. This is particularly useful if as an Administrator you inherit a series of workstations from another department and want to see which file system is in use by disk drive or partition. The Explorer-like approach to managing system information is invaluable in that many of the system attributes and characteristics are available from the single Computer Management interface. Like all interfaces on these applications, Computer Management uses the MMC interface for viewing and working with system performance tools and analytical applications for checking system performance. Figure 4 shows the Computer Management application.

Figure 4 Using the Computer Management interface to find tools and utilities for analyzing system performance.

Data Sources (ODBC)

Represented by an icon with a PC, server, and spreadsheet icon, the Data Sources (ODBC) application is used to define ODBC drivers for databases on workstations relative to servers. It has the capability to define ODBC drivers for tracking in Performance Monitor, and has options for defining DSN values that enable communication between databases. This application is particularly useful for defining the relationships between databases and the applications that build queries to use the data included in them.

Figure 5 Using the Data Source (ODBC) application to define database links.

Event Viewer

Represented as a notebook with a series of grammatical symbols on it, the Event Viewer is one of the most valuable applications for tracking system activity. The Event Viewer includes Application, Security, and System logs. Windows XP Professional sees each discrete event as the operating system boots up and runs—recording events of interest into one of the three categories of log files. The analysis of log files is one of the most valuable analytical tools for checking the performance of Windows XP Professional. The Security log is also invaluable for checking to see whether there have been security breaches to the workstations and servers you are responsible for. There is also the opportunity to save log files in text, comma-delimited, or event log format. If you plan to use these files in Microsoft Excel, be sure to export them in comma-delimited format for ease of importing. Figure 6 shows the Event Viewer used to check the Application log of a workstation running Windows XP Professional.

Figure 6 Using the Event Viewer to see how applications are running.

Internet Information Services Manager

Represented by a globe with a server in the foreground, the Internet Information Services Manager handles the task of managing the Internet Information Server, which is the Web server for Internet and intranet Web sites. The interface for this application is intuitive and easy to navigate. Within the Internet Information Services Manager interface, the default FTP Sites, default Web Sites, and Default SMTP Virtual Server are all shown along the left side of the page. Checking on the ASP scripts for your Web site, for example, is possible using this application because the subdirectory structure of your site is shown onscreen. Using the Explorer-like interface for navigating the FTP Sites, Web Sites, or Default SMTP Virtual Server makes it possible to quickly edit files, regardless of their location in the hierarchy. Figure 7 shows an example of the Internet Service Manager application.

Figure 7 Using the Internet Information Services Manager application to manage FTP and Web sites.

Local Security Policy

Represented by a server with a padlock on it, the purpose of this application is to view and modify local security policy, such as user rights and audit policies. There are comprehensive series of tools available for managing Account Policies, Local Policies for security, Public Key Policies, and IP Security Polices for the local workstation. You can also monitor both successful and unsuccessful event completions by login. Figure 8 shows the contents of the Local Security Policy application.

Figure 8 The Local Security Policy is worth looking into to ensure the security of your systems.

Evaluating Performance Monitor

Microsoft has done very little to actually change the functionality of this tool over the last three product generations of Windows NT/XP. Although it's useful for handling the object: counter relationships that this operating system uses as variables to track performance, it still doesn't get to UNIX-specific commands that many administrators need. Although the graphical interface also makes comparing the specific object: counter combinations useful, there is still much that needs to be added, including the following:

  • Capability to customize the Performance Monitor graphical interface to the preferences of the administrator. What is amazing about the lack of support for this feature is that many UNIX-based performance management tools provide this level of functionality.

  • Object:counter relationships that are customizable. Microsoft defines each of the variable relationships that can be tracked in Performance Monitor, which is a serious limitation of this application. Many other tools used for tracking overall system performance allow for this type of variable definition, and not having this level of functionality in Performance Monitor makes this utility limited in its functionality.

  • A common data model across third-party operating systems. Performance Monitor's data model, or the way the data is organized, does not scale to other platforms easily, if at all. All the performance data can be saved off in ASCII files, yet the actual definition of variables that are being tracked—the schema of how the variables are defined—is not transportable across third-party operating systems.

Figure 9 shows what Performance Monitor looks like in Windows XP Professional.

Figure 9 What the Performance Monitor in Windows XP Professional looks like.

The bottom line on Performance Monitor is that it's easily learned and used, yet does not scale to third-party operating systems outside the Microsoft family of products. If you're a system administrator who is working with multiple operating systems (some from Microsoft and some not), don't spend too much time with this application; get a tool that scales across multiple operating systems.

Server Extensions Administrator

Like Component Services, Server Extensions Administrator is used to handle the FrontPage extensions for your Web site. (FrontPage is Microsoft's Web site development application.) FrontPage is also integral to Microsoft's CommerceServer and Content Management Server efforts, including an overall Web strategy is the development of Web sites, which rely on FrontPage Extensions. Figure 10 shows an example of the Server Extensions Administrator application.

Figure 10 Managing FrontPage extensions by using the Server Extensions Administrator application.

Services

This application has two gears that interlock with each other. The Services application is used to define which operating systems start and stop; and which classes of users can have access to system resources for full control of all events on the Windows XP Professional system: the capability to modify only, read and execute only, just read, or just write to the networked volume. There is also extensive support for customizing each login type on a Windows XP Professional workstation or system, giving or restricting access to 13 advanced permissions that can be applied to each class of user. The biggest contribution of the Services application is that it lists the name; description; status; startup type; and logon, which triggers the service to start. Like Performance Monitor, this is a very comprehensive application. Figure 11 shows an example of the Services being tracked through the MMC interface.

Figure 11 The Services application provides tools for defining how services are used in Windows XP Professional.

Summary

In order for Microsoft to move into the enterprise marketplace, it needed to have system administration functions that rivaled those of UNIX and other third-party operating systems. With the set of tools in XP, Microsoft continues to provide "check-off" functionality in its Administrative Tools, yet skip the tougher tasks of making these applications capable of working with third-party applications. If you're a system administrator who relies on many operating systems besides Microsoft, these tools will be useful for getting the users you support more independent. Use applications that can scale across multiple operating systems for the heavy lifting part of managing multiple systems.

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