Server tools reviewed

If you're already running thin clients but your servers are bursting at the seams, take a look at these four server optimisation tools that can improve your user experience.


If you're already running thin clients but your servers are bursting at the seams, take a look at these four server optimisation tools that can improve your user experience and make your servers last just a bit longer.

We looked at products that help the operators and administrators of thin client networks to get the best, or even increased, performance from their thin client infrastructure. These applications on review are primarily concerned with optimising the server side of the connection.

As with all things IT, definite performance gains can be had by those willing to start tweaking and modifying their systems and network. And thin client environments can be ripe for this type of tweaking.

The vendors who have submitted products for this review have put their expertise into commercial applications and brought their knowledge and tweaks to the mass market in relatively easily deployable packages. Like cars, the sky is the limit when it comes to tweaking for performance, however a point comes when a system or network hardware upgrade is more friendly on the wallet than to continue pouring dollars into modifying the existing system. Hopefully these relatively cost-effective applications will extend the life and improve the users' experience enough to get a few extra miles from either cheaper servers or existing equipment that may otherwise need costly replacement.

Thin client machines themselves by their very nature should technically need replacement very rarely. However, with their growing popularity, users are beginning to demand more intensive tasks of them that they may not necessarily be capable of in their current state.

A thin client is a dumb terminal with very limited processing capabilities, therefore whatever processing power the end user machine exhibits is derived through the network cable from the server. This brings up the two critical points in the thin client equation: the network and switching infrastructure, and the server power/capacity.

The applications in this review basically take stock of the traffic running across the network and server and work with it to prioritise the flow of data to the critical machines and applications that need it. This is similar to how an individual computer manages multitasking: non-critical tasks are given a lower priority than performance-critical tasks such as multimedia or processor intensive data crunching.
1. AppSense Performance Suite 2.0
AppSense has grown from a UK-based company that started off specialising in thin client deployments and Citrix software. The company's engineers saw a need for some tools to assist with their work, and the project snowballed to become what is today a very comprehensive, refined collection of thin client tools. The software suite is now AppSense's core business.

AppSense's product is a suite of individual applications, namely Performance Manager, Application Manager, Optimizer, and Server Based Toolkit. These applications can either be purchased individually or as the total AppSense Performance suite.

Seeing that AppSense's product is a suite of four individual applications, the two that fit this review specifically are the AppSense Performance Manager and AppSense Optimizer. Performance Manager allows the administrator to control the server processor and memory usage and also has some security benefits. Optimizer increases the server's capacity by focusing on the efficient use of virtual memory and on specific application components such as common DLLs and ActiveX controls.

Application Manager is a security tool that allows the administrator to harden servers by blocking known "loopholes" in server-based computing and protect the system from unauthorised application. The Server Based Toolkit, as its name suggests, provides extra administration and user tools. More information on these other applications can be found at AppSense's Web site.

The installation of this application was a piece of cake, the CD automatically ran the install/setup routine when it was inserted, its default settings were to install the whole suite, however we selected custom install and just installed the two accelerator applications (Performance Monitor and Optimizer). The rest of the installation was fully automated. The system relies on a common data store and also has a deployment management console built in.

As Figures 1 and 2 show, the administration and configuration is via a very easy to use Microsoft Management Console (MMC). The console is mainly text based, however it is still very user friendly. The MMC used in the Expedian/TScale applications is far more graphical.

This is a very refined suite of applications definitely a lot of work has gone into its development from people who are obviously well versed in server-centric environments. For a total solution, one would be hard pressed to go past the AppSense Performance Suite.

At a glance:

2. Expedian 3.0
Expedian is marketed by Wyse Technology, a name synonymous with thin clients. Along with Expedian -- which is designed to increase performance and capacity on the servers -- Wyse also has several other software applications aimed at device and PC management called Rapport and Alcatraz.

Wyse says Expedian's main features are its ability to increase both the capacity and the performance of the servers it is deployed on. It performs these functions by optimising the virtual memory and the registry of the server, as well as managing the CPU resources both autonomically and to specific administrator-defined settings. Expedian also controls the execution of applications on the server and in particular manages the execution of multithreaded applications.

The installation of Expedian could not have been more straightforward with a wizard taking the operator through all the necessary tasks to get the application onto the machine.

Both the configuration and administration are handled easily through the Expedian Optimizations console, which has a familiar MMC (Microsoft Management Console) interface. The menu system is very straightforward, logical, and detailed leading even the novice of users through the tasks with ease. There are plenty of detailed graphical displays that are very easy to understand and that show the results of both the intended and applied configuration changes.

As you can see from Figure 3 when compared to Figure 5. the Wyse and RTO Software applications are virtually identical. This is because Expedian is actually an OEM version of TScale.

At a glance:

3. Jetro CockpIT
Jetro Platforms is based in the US and does its development work in Israel. Jetro specialises in server-based computing software and has a full suite of applications called, CockpIT, BoostIT, and WebIT. For this review we will be concentrating on CockpIT which provides a range of features to assist with the administration and security of server deployments as well as performance-based load balancing.

The main features of CockpIT are based around giving the administrator the ability to limit individual users' bandwidth by limiting the number of simultaneous protocol sessions. There are also forms of load balancing which can be controlled by the administrator according to the needs of users, servers, applications etc. The administrator can also control how many applications are run on each server thereby conserving the resources and not letting the server(s) become overrun.

Once the setup routine has been initiated and the password has been given, the user is guided through the rest of the installation. Of particular note, one of the information windows pops up at the beginning of the install with a very simple and easy to follow checklist notifying the operator of each prerequisite that needs to exist for the setup to be successful. Most software vendors have a similar list in their documentation, or worse, wait until there is a problem halfway through the install and then throw up a message like "xyz missing please install xyz and then restart setup". However, not too many developers actually put it in the install routine up front for the operator to quickly run through prior to commencing the application install, so thumbs up to Jetro for including this in CockpIT. The user is prompted for a username and password in the Domain Administrators group, so the most logical and secure thing to do is create a specific administrator account for the Jetro program.

Along with the administrator interface, which is launched after setup completes, a second browser opens with instructions on how to add and activate a server to the admin console. After following these steps, the administrator can begin viewing the servers' status/load as well as configuring the system to suit their requirements.

The administration is very graphical with several large icons and menu systems leading the user through the interface clearly and concisely.

While not necessarily a specific dedicated server accelerator product, CockpIT includes some server optimisation tricks in its swag of features. This application is well suited to enterprises looking for an easy-to-use one-stop solution with a variety of features. Credit must be given to its very well-designed and user-friendly interface as well.

At a glance:
4. TScale 3.0
TScale is produced by RTO software, a relatively young US company that was formed in 2000 with the specific aim of developing run-time optimisation of applications on Microsoft servers, hence the name RTO (Run Time Optimisation).

RTO also produces a product called PMC (Performance Management Console), which allows centralised policy-based management of large TScale deployments (installation, configuration, administration and reporting).

According to the documentation, the software works towards improving scalability, performance and stability of the server. TScale implements two methods to achieve this, both centered around the applications running on the server. The first is Application Shaping and the second, Application Optimisation.

Shaping allows the administrator to specify which applications run in what space, even down to keeping different applications running on specific CPUs in a multi-processor server. For example a four-processor server can be told to run Microsoft Word on processors one and two only while processors three and four are kept for Outlook and Internet Explorer. TScale can also control the priority of specific applications usage of the CPU(s) too.

The application optimisation improves the efficiency that the applications execute as well as tweaking the virtual memory. The engineers at RTO seem obsessed with "runaway" or "rogue" applications chewing through memory and CPU resources and thereby impeding the user experience. The TScale tools allow administrators to control these issues and thereby control and smooth the users experience.

The installation, configuration, and administration of TScale are virtually identical to the Expedian application from Wyse. Which leads us to ask: which came first Expedian or TScale? After a bit of research, we found out that Expedian is an OEM version of TScale that's sold by Wyse; the products are virtually identical in all other respects.

In summary, the Expedian product and the TScale product are both very easy to deploy and administer. Either one should definitely be on any enterprise's short list for further evaluation.

At a glance:
How we tested
Running a full performance test on these packages would have been very difficult and complex. Short of running a benchmark on a "clean" server, installing the optimiser, tweaking the performance, and then running the benchmark again -- and going through this entire procedure once for each package -- it would be very difficult to construct a fair and reliable performance comparison. The following are our criteria:
  • Interoperability: Which thin client and OS platforms are supported, and what hardware can the package run on?
  • Futureproofing: How do the features stack up against the competition? Will the product run out of steam before the others?
  • ROI: What will the software cost and will this be compensated for by the time and resources saved?
  • Service: What support is provided as standard and how much will ongoing support end up costing you?

Unfortunately, given the timeframe and logistics involved, we couldn't set up a test rig of this size and complexity; one that would be able to max out a thin-client server. There are some very nice simulation tools out there but it is very difficult to create a static "virtual" test rig that could reliably be used to test each product.

For this reason, we decided it was best to dispense with a head-to-head performance test and concentrate on an overview of each application, paying particular attention to each vendor's unique features.

In the meantime, our recommendation is to use this review as a guide to each acceleration application and then create your own shortlist of desired features to suit your thin client deployment, this should definitely assist in cutting down the field.
Specifications

Product Name AppSense Performance Suite Expedian Jetro CockpIT TScale
Company AppSense Wyse Jetro Platforms Crescom Info Tech
Web www.appsense.com www.wyse.com.au www.jp-inc.com www.crescom.com.au
Phone 1300 767 550 1300 889 973 +972 2 652 1585 03 9569 2166
Price AU$4995 AU$780 single processor, AU$1560 dual processor AU$265 per concurrent user access AU$726 single processor, AU$1460 dual processor, AU$2926 per four-processor system, AU$4390 per eight-processor system, AU$7326 for performance management console
Warranty AU$1098.90 for 12 months software subscription 90 days then AU$225 per year for single processor, AU$448 per year for dual processor, discounts for longer contracts; unlimited phone support AU$440 per server per year 12 months, then €16 (~ AU$27) per concurrent user per year Per year, AU$132 per single CPU, AU$264 per dual CPU, AU$528 per quad CPU, AU$792 per eight-way CPU; discounts for longer contracts
Thin client platforms supported Citrix MetaFrame, Terminal Services Citrix MetaFrame, Terminal Services Citrix MetaFrame, Terminal Services, HTTP Citrix Metaframe, Terminal Services, New Moon
Server platforms supported Windows NT/2000/2003 Server Windows 2000/2003 Server Windows 2000/2003 Server Windows 2000/2003 Server, management console requires these platforms or Windows XP
 


Final Words
It would be great if all IT performance and capacity gains could be achieved so easily and cost effectively.

Each of these applications were very easy and straightforward to install and administer, and due to their server-based environment, their benefits can be felt by all users over the network as soon as they have been deployed, without having to physically configure every client machine. In fact it would be hard to imaging a thin client deployment without one of these applications running on its servers, it would be akin to an athlete competing with clogs on instead of runners.

Regardless of whether you have a Terminal Services 2000/2003 deployment or Citrix, each of these applications is designed to help you get the best performance possible from your servers. But remember ensure your network is in tip top physical shape before deploying any applications. Look out for...

  • Perform your own in-house audit, or hire an external thin-client specialist/consultant to perform a thorough audit of your thin client network and infrastructure. Pay careful consideration to your network cabling, switching, and routing. This audit will reveal whether or not your company is in a position to deploy a thin client server acceleration application, or whether some money can be spent improving the environment to achieve the performance and reliability increase. Remember, an accelerator will not fix existing problems in the network. In fact, it may even cause more problems to a poorly-deployed network foundation.
  • Ask the accelerator vendors to demonstrate their products in your environment, or provide your company with an evaluation before committing. Even if this costs some money and time to achieve, it is better to ensure that the planned acceleration will benefit the company and save some money rather than just stalling a server or network upgrade for a couple of months. There is no point in spending money to fix something up for a couple of months; these applications are designed as long term solutions, not stopgap measures and designed to be robust and scalable.
  • Make sure the administration method suits your needs. The more features that can be tweaked from within the package, the better it can be customised for each particular deployment and application. For example, one thin client site may rely on a lot of graphical content running though its systems and naturally would need to prioritise that traffic. Another company may be using their clients to access large databases and that traffic is more important.



About RMIT IT Test Labs


RMIT IT Test Labs is an independent testing institution based in Melbourne, Victoria, performing IT product testing for clients such as IBM, Coles-Myer, and a wide variety of government bodies. In the Labs' testing for T&B, they are in direct contact with the clients supplying products and the magazine is responsible for the full cost of the testing. The findings are the Labs' own--only the specifications of the products to be tested are provided by the magazine. For more information on RMIT, please contact the Lab Manager, Steven Turvey.


This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine, a ZDNet Australia publication.

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