Building Better Service Level Dashboards

Microsoft has added a lot of functionality into SCOM 2012 to make creating dashboards easy. The only problem is they have given you a blank canvas without much in the way of guidance. This can be great, but it can also be problematic. The fact that you can make a 9 cell grid layout filled with graphs and data doesn’t mean that you should.

What you should do, is strive to build effective dashboards.  What is an effective dashboard? There is no right answer– I am making up the phrase– though I would argue that effective dashboards are ones in which the dashboard is designed to give insight into a service with a specific audience in mind.

A dashboard that is useful for your engineers or sysadmins is going to–OR SHOULD–look very different from a dashboard for Tier I support. Much like a dashboard for Tier I should look different from a dashboard for non IT customers. I like to break down service level dashboards into specific sub categories based on audience.

For the sake of this post lets divide potential dashboards into three groups:

1. Dashboards for non technical internal clients often published on an internal sharepoint site.

2. Dashboards for Tier I Support and upper IT management published via limited rights login to SCOM web console.

3. Dashboards for Systems engineers and Sysadmins.

Obviously this is going to vary greatly depending on what business you are in, but you get the idea.

I think in general we tend to do a pretty good job with 1 and 3.  Service Level Dashboards for non technical internal clients just need to provide basic information: is the service up or down, and to the best of our monitoring ability how well are we meeting the SLA?

The out of box Service Level Dashboard in SCOM 2012 does this quite effectively:

I say to the best of our ability above, because even with synthetic transactions there is always the possibility that a complex service can be degraded or down in some respect without your monitors picking up on it. (Exchange servers are up and running perfectly, but your BES server for Blackberries is down.) Or alternatively, your monitoring picks up a problem, but isn’t smart enough to correlate it into a change in the dashboard.  At best service monitoring is an evolutionary process not one that you set up and leave alone. IT Managers may not want to hear it, but ultimately your ability to track  a service depends on the accuracy of your monitors, and building accurate monitors requires iteration and time.

Dashboards for engineers and sysadmins are often built with very specific requirements in mind, or are redundant and aren’t needed so they tend to not be a problem either.

Where I most see the most potential for people to get into trouble is in creating dashboards for their Tier I support, and also for senior IT management. The easy answer is to just have them use the simple up/down  service level dashboard. The problem is that while this is a perfectly acceptable level of transparency to provide to Non IT, it often isn’t enough info, especially for the occasional situation when your up/down dashboard says everything is fine, and users are calling in complaining with issues.

Below is an example of a dashboard I would create for an e-mail or messaging service  for Tier I operators and upper level IT management that seeks to find the middle ground:

– In the Upper left you have a state widget. It is pegged to a group which contains all servers related to e-mail service. It should be made up of not just exchange servers. Mine contains BES and ISA servers to provide a more complete picture of the health of all related parts. Some would say build a simple distributed app to do this, but this starts to get troublesome when dealing with load-balanced systems, or systems where a negative status of one system doesn’t need to roll up to the status of the entire app.

– Upper middle is a Service Level Widget which is tied to the Exchange 2010 Application from the Exchange 2010 MP. It’s not perfect, but it does a decent job of generally showing when core e-mail functionality is up or down.

– Upper right: An alerts widget which looks at anything related to the health of the servers in the group on the left.

– Middle: Graph of outlook latency. Honestly, it is unlikely that Tier I is going to gain useful info from this graphic. You can, and I have been able to see noticeable shifts if one member of a load balanced or clustered pair is down, but this falls into the category of behold the power of pretty graphs. Sometimes its nice for your Tier I and upper IT management to feel empowered, and for whatever reason I have found that pretty graphs can do that even if they may or may not know exactly what they are looking at.

– Bottom: Again empowerment via pretty graphs.

 

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