Panopta: Tech Partner Spotlight

May 18, 2011

This is a guest blog from Jason Abate of Panopta, a SoftLayer Tech Marketplace Partner specializing in monitoring your servers and managing outages with tools and resources designed to help minimize the impact of outages to your online business.

5 Server Monitoring Best Practices

Prior to starting Panopta, I was responsible for the technology and operations side of a major international hosting company and worked with a number of large online businesses. During this time, I saw my share of major disasters and near catastrophes and had a chance to study what works and what doesn't when Murphy's Law inevitably hits.

Monitoring is a key component of any serious online infrastructure, and there are a wide range of options when it comes to monitoring tools — from commercial and open-source software that you install and manage locally to monitoring services like Panopta. The best solution depends on a number of criteria, but there are five major factors to consider when making this decision.

1. Get the Most Accurate View of Your Infrastructure
Accuracy is a dual-edged sword when it comes to monitoring that can hurt you in two different ways. Check too infrequently and you'll miss outages entirely, making you think that things are rosy when your customers or visitors are actually encountering problems. There are tools that check every 30 minutes or more, but these are useless to real production sites. You should make sure that you can perform a complete check of your systems every 60 seconds so that small problems aren't overlooked.

I've seen many people setup this high-resolution monitoring only to be hit with a barrage of alerts for frequent short-lived problems which were previously never detected. It may hurt to find this, but at least with information about the problem you can fix it once and for all.

The flip side to accuracy is that your monitoring system needs to verify outages to ensure they are real in order to avoid sending out false alerts. There's no faster way to train an operations team to ignore the monitoring system than with false alerts. You want your team to jump at alerts when they come in.

High-frequency checks that are confirmed from multiple physical locations will ensure you get the most accurate view of your infrastructure possible.

2. Monitor Every Component of Your Infrastructure
There are lots of components that make up a modern website or application, and any of them could break at any time. You need to make sure that you're watching all of these pieces, whether they're inside your firewall or outside. Lots of monitoring providers focus purely on remotely accessible network services, which are important but only one half of the picture. You also want an inside view of how your server's resources are being consumed, and how internal-only network devices (such as backend database servers) are performing.

Completeness also means that it's economically feasible to watch everything. If the pricing structure of your monitoring tool is setup in a way that makes it cost prohibitive to watch everything then the value of your monitoring setup is greatly diminished. The last thing you want to run into when troubleshooting a complex problem is to find that you don't have data about one crucial server because you weren't monitoring it.

Make sure your monitoring system is able to handle all of your server and network components and gives you a complete view of your infrastructure.

3.Notify the Right People at the Right Time
You know when the pager beeps or the phone rings about an outage, your heart beats a little faster. Of course, it's usually in the middle of the night and you're sleeping right?! As painful as it may be, you want your monitoring system to get you up when things are really hitting the fan - it's still better than hearing from angry customers (and bosses!) the next morning.

However, not all outages are created equally and you may not want to be woken up when one of your clustered webservers briefly goes down and then corrects itself a few minutes later. The key to a successful monitoring solution is to have plenty of flexibility in your notification setup including being able to setup different notification types based on the criticality of the service.

You also want to be able to escalate a problem, bringing in additional resources for long-running problems. This way outages don't go unnoticed for hours while the on-call admin who perpetually sleeps through pages gets more shut-eye.

Make sure that when it comes to notification, your monitoring system is able to work with your team's preferred setup, not the other way around.

4. Don't Just Detect Problems, Streamline Fixing Them
Sending out alerts about a problem is important, but it's just the first step in getting things back to normal. Ideally after being alerted an admin can jump in and solve whatever the problem is and life goes on. All too often though, things don't go this smoothly.

You've probably run into situations where an on-call admin is up most of the night with a problem. That's great, but when the rest of the team comes in the next morning they have no idea what was done. What if the problem comes up again? Are there important updates that need to be deployed to other servers?

Or maybe you have a big problem that attracts interest from your call center and support staff (your monitoring system did alert you before they walked up, right?) Or management from other departments interrupt to get updates on the problem so they can head off a possible PR disaster.

These are important to the operation of your business, but they pull administrators away from actually solving the problem, which just makes things worse. There should be a better way to handle these situations. Given it's central role in your infrastructure management, your monitoring system is in a great position to help streamline the problem solving process.

Make sure your monitoring system gives you tools to keep everyone on the same page by letting everyone easily communicate and log what was ultimately done to resolve the problem.

5. Demonstrate how Your Infrastructure is Performing
Your role as an administrator is to keep your infrastructure up and running. It's unfortunately a tough spot to be in - do your job really well and no one notices. But mess up, and it's clearly visible to everyone.

Solid reporting capabilities from your monitoring system give you a tool to help balance this situation. Be sure to get summary reports that can demonstrate how well things are running or make the argument for making changes and then following up to show progress. Availability reports also let you see a "big picture" view of how your infrastructure is performing that often gets lost in the chaos of day-to-day operations.

Detailed reporting gives you the data you need to accurately assess and promote the health of your infrastructure.

The Panopta Difference
There are quite a few options available for monitoring your servers, each of which come with trade offs. We've designed Panopta to focus on these five criteria, and having built on top of SoftLayer's infrastructure from the very beginning are excited to be a part of the SoftLayer Technology Marketplace.

I would encourage you to try out Panopta and other solutions and see which is the best fit to the specific requirements for your infrastructure and your team - you'll appreciate what a good night's sleep feels like when you don't have to worry about whether your infrastructure is up and running.

-Jason Abate, Panopta

This guest blog series highlights companies in SoftLayer's Technology Partners Marketplace.
These Partners have built their businesses on the SoftLayer Platform, and we're excited for them to tell their stories. New Partners will be added to the Marketplace each month, so stay tuned for many more come.