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SiteSeer: Browser-based tool tracks site performance

Category: Web monitoring service
Name of tool: SiteSeer
Company name: Freshwater Software Inc.
Price: Starts at $999/year for simplest monitoring tool (ten-day free evaluation)
URL: http://www.freshwater.com/SiteSeer.htm
Windows platforms supported: 95, 98, NT and 2000
Quick description: A browser-based web site monitoring service

*** = Hey, not bad. One notch below very cool

Key features:
All done via a browser; there is no software to download and install. The product tests for various web site performance metrics, including response time and transaction completions.

Extremely easy and straightforward to use. You go to their web site and click on a button to start the testing process. Within minutes, you are collecting data and producing reports.

Refining the reports to get the exact information you are interested in will take some experimenting.


Keeping track of your web site is not an easy job, especially when it comes to understanding how your visitors can or can't access your site and whether some random part of the Internet is down in any given moment. In the early days of the web, you didn't have very sophisticated tools to do this. Pages that had links to various traceroute queries from machines around the world (such as http://noc.iccom.net/traceroute.html) were pretty much all you could do. (Traceroute is a way to see the path IP packets take from your computer to some specific destination. These tools let you initiate the route from a remote location so you can get a better picture of Internet delays.)

But traceroute is a very cumbersome and time consuming process--and not a very good way to collect a lot of data quickly about your site availability or to act as a roving eye around the world. A better solution is to make use of one of various site-monitoring services. The one I like the best is Freshwater's SiteSeer, which starts at about $1000 per year and can get more expensive, depending on your needs.

SiteSeer can keep track of whether your site's URL responds to a ping, test the overall response time of your web server, and get into more detail about the time to complete a typical eCommerce or database transaction. It is a web-based service: you don't download any software either to your own client or to your web and database servers. And all of its reports are available via the web as well, so you can keep up on your site's performance no matter where you are.

You have a wide choice of monitoring types in addition to the ones mentioned above. You also can test more than just web servers with this product: included in the service are tests for Domain Name Servers, Email servers, FTP servers, and Network News servers. These tests go through a series of scripted transactions (such as verifying whether you can retrieve a list of news groups, or sending and retrieving a test email message), and then delivers a report on performance time. Some of the scripts are fairly complex. You'll have to spend some time with the web-based forms to figure out the sequence and make sure you set things up properly. Fortunately, there are extensive help screens with lots of examples that can walk you through the process.

I like SiteSeer because it is very flexible with both its notifications and its reports, yet the various web screens are obvious and fairly simple to comprehend and use. With some of the competing monitoring services, there are so many screens to fill out that you can get lost deep in the menus and not really understand what to do. SiteSeer has four main menu trees: a series to handle configuration of the monitor tools, a series to handle alert configuration and status, another series for reports, and help screens. Navigating around them is easy.

You can send alerts to an email address, to a pager, or an SNMP console. One of the annoying things about automated alert systems is being able to tune the level of alerts TO the severity of the situation: you don't want your network support staff to be buried under a ton of email telling them that a line in Duluth is down for a couple hours. So SiteSeer can be setup to just send a single alert for a particular persistent condition, rather than a continuous stream. That's a nice feature.

You'll want to spend some time customizing your reports, which can be tailored to your particular needs by simply reducing the data displayed to a few key parameters. You will quickly see where the problems are and be able TO take the appropriate action, such as calling your ISP to ask them to bring up your downed connection.

The only real complexity about SiteSeer is how you purchase the product. There are three different service levels and two choices (in each service level) of monitor bundles for the service. The Gold service allows monitoring from a single source, the company's Colorado network operations center. The Global service extends this to up to five places around the world. The Global Plus service extends this to over a dozen of Freshwater's global monitor locations. You can sign up for five monitor locations or five URLs, or up to a combination of multiple monitors and URLs, depending on how much data you want to collect and where you think your customers are located around the world. Perhaps the best thing is to first experiment with the trial account (which allows you to set up a limited number of monitors and produce reports) before you make any decision. And Freshwater makes a second product, called SiteScope, which is intended to monitor NT and Unix server processes and uses agents that are installed on your own servers.

Web site monitoring is an active area, and there are many vendors selling various different tools (check out my review in cNet's Enterprise section, at http://enterprise.cnet.com/enterprise/0-9563-7-3582726.html). But SiteSeer does its job well, won't take a lot of time to get going, and can provide some valuable insights into how others can -- or can't -- get access to your site.

Strom-meter key:
**** = Very cool, very useful
*** = Hey, not bad. One notch below very cool
** = A tad shaky to install and use but has some value.
* = Don't waste your time. Minimal real value.

Bio: David Strom is president of his own consulting firm in Port Washington, NY. He has tested hundreds of computer products over the past two decades working as a computer journalist, consultant, and corporate IT manager. Since 1995 he has written a weekly series of essays on web technologies and marketing called Web Informant. You can send him email at david@strom.com.

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