Big Data for Server Guys : Azure OpsInsight Review

Maybe it’s just my IT scars that bias me, but when I hear a vendor push a “monitoring” solution,  I visualize an IT guy sitting in front of his screen, passively watching his monitors & counters, essentially waiting for that green thing over there to turn red.

He’s waiting for failure, Godot-style.

That’s not a recipe for success in my view. I don’t wait upon failure to visit, I seek it out, kick its ass, and prevent it from ever establishing a beachhead in my infrastructure. The problem is that I, just like that IT Guy waiting around for failure, am human, and I’m prone to failure myself.

Enter machine learning or Big Data for Server Guys as I like to think of it.

Big Data for Server Guys is a bit like flow monitoring on your switch. The idea here is to actively flow all your server events into some sort of a collector, which crunches them, finds patterns, and surfaces the signal from the noise.

Big Data for Server Guys is all about letting the computer do what the computer’s good at doing: sifting data, finding patterns, and letting you do what you  are good at doing: empowering your organization for tech success.

But we Windows guys have a lot of noise to deal with: Windows instruments just about everything imaginable in the Microsoft kingdom, and the Microsoft kingdom is vast.

So how do we borrow flow-monitoring techniques from the Cisco jockeys and apply it to Windows?

Splunk is one option, and it’s great: it’s agnostic and will hoover events from Windows, logs from your Cisco’s syslog, and can sift through your Apache/IIS logs too. It’s got a thriving community and loads of sexy, AJAX-licious dashboards, and you can issue powerful searches and queries that can help you find problems before problems find you.

It’s also pretty costly, and I’d argue not the best-in-class solution for Hoovering Windows infrastructure.

Fortunately, Microsoft’s been busy in the last few years. Microsoft shops have had SCOM and MOM before that, but now there’s a new kid in town ((He’s been working out and looks nothing like that the old kid, System Center Advisor)) : Azure Operational Insights, and OpsInsight functions a lot like a  good flow collector.

opsinsight3

And I just put the finishing touches on my second Big Data for Server Guys/OpsInsight deployment. Here’s a mini-review:

The Good:

  • It watches your events and finds useful data, which saves you time: OpsInsight is like a giant Hoover in the sky, sucking up on average about 36MB/day of Windows events from my fleet of nearly ~150 VMs in a VMware infrastructure. Getting data on this fleet via Powershell is trivial, but building logic that gives insight into that data is not trivial. OpsInsight is wonderful in this regard; it saves you from spending time in SSRS, Excel, or diving through the event viewer haystack MMC or via get-event looking for a nugget of truth.
  • It has a decent config recommendation engine: If you’re an IT Generalist/Converged IT Guy like me, you touch every element in your Infrastructure stack, from the app on down to the storage array’s rotating rust. And that’s hard work because you can’t be an expert in everything. One great thing about OpsInsight is that it saves you from searching Bing/Google (at worst) or thumbing through your well-worn AD Cookbook (at best) and offers Best practice advice and KB articles in the same tab in your browser. Awesome!
  • Thanks Opsinsight for keeping me out of this thing

    Thanks Opsinsight for keeping me out of this thing

    Query your data rather than surfing the fail tree: Querying your data is infinitely better than walking the Fail Tree that is the Windows Event Viewer looking for errors. OpsInsight has a powerful query engine that’s not difficult to learn or manipulate, and for me, that’s a huge win over the old school method of Event Viewer Subscriptions.

  • Dashboards you can throw in front of an executive:  I can’t understate how great it is to have automagically configured dashboards via OpsInsight. As an IT Pro, the less time I spend in SSRS trying to build a pretty report the better. OpsInsight delivers decent dashboards I’m proud to show off. SCOM 2012 R2’s dashboards are great, but SCOM’s fat client works better than its IIS pages. Though it’s Silverlight-powered, OpsInsight wins the award for friction-free dashboarding.
  • Flexible Architecture: Do you like SCOM? Well then OpsInsight is a natural fit for you. I really appreciate how the System Center team re-structured OpsInsight late last year: you can deploy it at the tail end of your SCOM build, or you can forego SCOM altogether and attach agents directly to your servers. The latter offers you speed in deployment, the former allows you to essentially proxy events from your fleet, through your Management Group, and thence onto Azure. I chose the latter in both of my deployments. Let OpsInsight gate through SCOM, and let both do what they are good at doing.
  • It’s secure: The architecture for OpsInsight is Azure, so if you’re comfortable doing work in Azure Storage blobs, you should be comfortable with this. That + encrypted uploads of events, SCOM data and other data means less friction with the security/compliance guy on your team.

The Bad:

  • It’s silverlight, which makes me feel like I’m flowing my server events to Steve Ballmer: I’m sure this will be changed out at some point. I used to love Silverlight -and maybe there’s still room in my cold black heart for it- but it’s kind of an orphan media/web child at the moment.
  • There’s no app for iOS or Android…yet: I had to dig out my 2014 Lumia Icon just to try out the OpsInsight app for Windows phone. It’s decent, just what I’d like to see on my 2015 Droid Turbo. Alas there is no app for Android or IOS yet, but it’s the #1 and #2 most requested feature at the OpsInsight feedback page (add your vote, I did!)
  • It’s only Windows at the moment: I love what Microsoft is doing with Big Data crunching; Machine Learning, Stream Analytics and OpsInsight. But while you can point just about any flow or data at AzureML or Stream Analytics, OpsInsight only accepts Windows, IIS, SQL,Sharepoint, Exchange. Which is great, don’t get me wrong, but limited. SCOM at least can monitor SNMP traps, interface with Unix/Linux and such, but that is not available in OpsInsight. However, it’s still in Preview, so I’ll be patient.
  • It’s really only Windows/IIS/SQL/Exchange at the moment: Sadface for the lack of Office 365/Azure intelligence packs for OpsInsight, but SCOM will do for now.
  • Pricing forecast is definitely…cloudy: Every link I find takes me to the general Azure pricing page. On the plus side, you can strip this bad boy down to the bare essentials if you have cost pressures.

The Ugly:

  • Where are my cmdlets? My interface of choice with the world of IT these days is Powershell ISE. But when I typed get-help *opsinsight, only errors resulted. How’d this get past Snover’s desk? All kidding aside, SCOM cmdlets work well enough if you deploy OpsInsight following SCOM, and I’m sure it’s coming. I can wait.

All in all, this is shaping up to be a great service for your on-prem Windows infrastructure, which, let’s face it, is probably neglected.

System Center MVP Stanislav Zhelyazkov has a great 9-part deep dive on OpsInsight if you want to learn more.