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Free Windows performance monitoring tools not to be missed

Unbeknownst to some admins, the latest versions of Windows Server include new or updated tools that can minimize the need for third-party options.

CHICAGO--Most server administrators are familiar with free Windows performance monitoring tools such as Perfmon, but the latest versions of Windows Server also contain new and updated free tools that are comprehensive enough to rival expensive, third-party offerings.

At BriForum 2010 held here last week, Ian Parker, senior Web services administrator at Thomson-Reuters in Ann Arbor, Mich., hosted a session that detailed three tools built into Windows Server 2008 for performance monitoring: Windows System Resource Manager (WSRM), Data Collector Sets and Xperf.


WSRM can be used to allocate processor and memory resources to applications, users, Remote Desktop Services (RDS) sessions and Internet Information Services (IIS) application pools -- all of which will eat away at compute resources if left unmanaged.

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WSRM doesn't cap anything until the processor load exceeds 70% utilization, at which point administrators can create custom resource policies, processes and task prioritization. For example, you can set Internet Explorer as a low priority during March Madness, when administrators expect their end users who are basketball fans to be watching a lot of flash video, Parker said.

Policies can be customized by file name, user groups, registered service, process or application name. WSRM also lets IT administrators exclude processes from management and set calendar rules and policies that can be auto-selected by certain events, such as hardware or cluster changes.

In addition, WSRM lets administrators consolidate resource usage data from multiple servers and collect the data locally or in a custom SQL Server database. Administrators can also create and manage computer groups for RDS Host servers.

The tool, which was originally available in Windows Server 2003 Enterprise and Datacenter editions, is now available with Windows Server 2008 R2.

Data Collector Sets 

A Data Collector Set (DCS), the next generation of Server Performance Advisor (SPA), is an XML-based collection of performance and diagnostic tools built into Windows Server 2008 and Windows Server 2008 R2 that comes with sets for LAN, system diagnostics and system performance.

The DCS tool is customizable and the data can be exported and used on other servers, which is helpful for establishing criteria for servers across an entire organization. DCS also provides information such as the state of registry keys, UAC, firewall status and the amount of memory and CPU installed, which can be used for documentation, Parker said. "If I wanted a quick diagnosis of the general state of a server, I would run Data Collector Sets for a few minutes," he said.

One of the biggest benefits of DCS is that it lets administrators troubleshoot Active Directory (AD) performance issues without having to install anything. Before Data Collector Sets were built into the operating system, administrators had to install tools such as SPA.

"It's easy to diagnose CPUs and disks, but Active Directory is a different ballgame," Parker said. "It's a little bit of a black box."

With DCS, the AD performance feature is located in the Server Manager snap-in under the Diagnostics node, and when the Active Directory Domain Services Role is installed, the Active Directory Diagnostics Data Collector Set is automatically created under System, Microsoft reported.


While DCS is a great tool for general performance issues, Xperf is best for specific issues with system usage and high disk I/O problems.

Xperf is a Windows Server 2008 performance tuning tool that uses Event Tracing for Windows (ETW). It gives a complete, system-wide view of performance over long periods of time, which is useful for working on specific performance issues. It's also the only tool that fully processes all of the events from the kernel and correlates them into information that IT pros can use to solve problems, according to Microsoft.

"If I had a particular process or program that was misbehaving, especially if the other processes on the same server were fine, I would probably go to Xperf," Parker said. "In general, Xperf is far more detailed and powerful, though sometimes, it is overkill."

The in-depth process analysis information Xperf provides is particularly useful when used as overlay graphs. For instance, administrators can overlay data to correlate how memory consumption and disk paging spikes are related or to see which processes peg CPU core utilization.

And though it collects large amounts of data, Xperf tools have very little overhead -- about 1,500 to 2,000 clock cycles per log, according to Microsoft. It's also Xcopy deployable for fast installation.

Since it is a developer tool, Xperf is accessed via command lines instead of a GUI. It is officially supported by Microsoft as part of the Windows Performance Toolkit, so it can only be obtained through Windows SDK.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho or follow @BridgetBotelho on Twitter


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