At my first networking job at a large insurance company, whenever I had a problem with the network, I had to physically go to the server room to begin the diagnostic process. Obviously, there are times when fixing a problem requires hands-on access to the server hardware. More often than not, though, the fix is something so simple that the walking time to the server is actually longer than the repair time. There are lots of ways to diagnose a server problem remotely, but one of the more innovative techniques that I’ve seen involves a product called sonicadmin from Sonic Mobility.

What’s sonicadmin?
Sonicadmin is a software solution to remote network management. One of the nice things about sonicadmin is that it’s designed to run on a variety of platforms, so it’s likely that you already have a device capable of running it. This is good news for those with tight IT budgets. There are versions of sonicadmin for Pocket PC, laptops, Blackberry with BES version 3.5, and for Blackberry without BES.

Remote access systems have been around for a long time, and I have personally been using a Pocket PC with a Wi-Fi card to manage my own servers via a Terminal Server session for quite a few years. The truth is, though, that sonicadmin isn’t really used to remote-control your servers. While you can manage your servers remotely, don’t expect to see the actual server console in the way that you would if you were accessing the server through the Terminal Services.

Instead, sonicadmin uses a pure text display for all server management tasks. If you have ever used a Terminal Service session over a wireless network or through a dial-up connection, you know just how slow some of the screen updates can be. Sonicadmin uses displays that are composed of 100 percent pure text so that the screen updates are blazingly fast.

Text downloads a whole lot quicker than graphics. This is important because sonicadmin connects to your network through a cellular link. Although I have not been able to find any specs on the actual data transmission speeds, cellular modems generally transmit and receive data at 14.4 Kbps or slower; sometimes much slower. Even so, sonicadmin’s screen updates are surprisingly fast.

Obviously, using a cellular modem rather than a Wi-Fi card drastically diminishes throughput, but it compensates for the performance drop by giving you true wireless freedom. Whether you are in the office, at a client’s office, at a conference halfway across the country, or in the car, you can respond to network problems as they happen and take the appropriate action.

Personally, the idea of linking to my network over a cellular modem makes me a little nervous. Cellular networks are insecure by their very nature. However, Sonic Mobility claims that security was a top priority when developing sonicadmin. Sonicadmin encrypts all administrative sessions with 128-bit triple DES (3DES) security. Other security mechanisms can also be used, including token transaction authentication, SSH, unique device registration, and IP and port restrictions.

While these security features do a good job of covering the basics, there are a few extra security features that I thought were a nice touch. For example, sonicadmin is designed in a way that the access passwords are never stored on your mobile device. I liked this because I can’t count the number of otherwise secure products that blow everything by caching passwords.

The other nice security feature is that the device compiles a full audit trail of all mobile management activity performed on any server or device in your entire network. This is great if you have multiple administrators, each with mobile administration capabilities, because you can see who made what changes and when.

The interface
Even though sonicadmin is completely text based, the user interface is still easy to use. If you have ever done a Terminal Services session through a PDA, then you have probably seen situations in which a window is hard to read. The window might be blurry, or part of the window might appear off the side of the screen, preventing you from accessing necessary data or controls.

Sonicadmin’s text interface is different. Each of the various Windows management utilities has been completely rewritten specifically to work on a mobile device. This means that none of the text is unreadable or extends beyond the boundaries of the screen. For example, if you wanted to access the Event Viewer on a server, sonicadmin would display a special text version of the Event Viewer on your mobile device. This text version would display all of the normal Event Log entries with the columns of information arranged just as they would be in the Windows version. The only thing that’s missing is the window. You can easily scroll through the event logs and tap on a specific log entry to view the event’s full details.

Even though the text-based interface is designed to be easy to read and easy to use and to deliver fast screen refreshes, you may be wondering what you can actually use it for. Well, the answer is practically everything. There are text-based versions of practically every administrative utility that you could possibly need. In the sections below, I will discuss some of sonicadmin’s various capabilities.

Event logs
Earlier, I mentioned how the text-based interface allows you to look at a server’s event logs through a text-based version of the Event Viewer. However, you can do more than just look at the event logs. Sonicadmin also allows you to save or clear the event logs, just as you could if you were using the Windows version of the Event Viewer.

User Management
One of sonicadmin’s key features is a built-in User Management module. This module allows you to view, create, edit, and delete users and groups. You can also suspend or activate accounts. When I first saw this feature, the first thing that came to mind was convenience. No longer would someone have to be stuck at the office setting up user accounts. Accounts could be created on the go during an otherwise nonproductive time, such as while riding in a car.

The User Management module isn’t just a convenience feature. The module can also check and modify file, share, and group permissions. This capability can be extremely valuable when trying to troubleshoot a problem that could be related to permissions.

DNS management
Although probably not something you would use every day, sonicadmin allows you to troubleshoot a DNS server as well. You can remotely connect to a DNS server, view DNS zones, and reconfigure DNS records as necessary.

Print server management
I used to work in a help desk environment, and it often seemed that the most commonly spoken phrase by end users was, “I can’t print.” Fortunately, sonicadmin allows you to control all network print servers from the palm of your hand. You can pause or delete print jobs with ease, and you can even stop and restart the spooler service.

File Explorer functionality
One of the features of sonicadmin that really caught my attention was File Explorer. This tool allows you to browse, copy, cut, paste, and delete files, just as if you were sitting at the server console. You can even remotely e-mail a file. This seemingly basic functionality can have a huge impact on the way you manage systems on the go.

A few years ago, I was in New Orleans attending a class. As luck would have it, there was a major problem with one of my Exchange Servers while I was gone. Because no one else in the office knew much about Exchange, I had to talk to Microsoft Product Support on the phone, but also had to get my office on three-way.

When the support person and I would come up with something to try, it would be up to the people in the office to try the technique and feed us the results. In the end, one of the files had somehow been changed to an incorrect version. Had I been able to remotely view the files, I could have fixed the problem in a matter of minutes rather than having to spend all of that time on a three-way cell phone call.

Text editing
An extension of File Explorer is the ability to edit text files. Occasionally, when working on a server, you may have to make a change to a file, such as a hosts file or an INI file.

Entering commands
One of the best features of sonicadmin is a full-featured command prompt. Any text-based utility is fair game, whether it’s issued via a DOS prompt, a Telnet session, or SSH session. For example, if you needed to work on a connectivity problem, you could use the command prompt to issue commands such as IPCONFIG and PING.

Service and device management
We’ve all seen a service hang or stop unexpectedly. Sonicadmin has a full-featured text version of the Service Control Manager that allows you to stop, start, and pause services and devices. A related component also allows you to view all of the processes that are currently running on the system and to stop a running process, if necessary.

Cycle power
Another great feature is the ability to cycle power to any network device by remote. During my last job for a nationwide chain of hospitals, a router went down at a facility that was well over 200 miles away. The hospital was located in one of the more rural and isolated parts of eastern Kentucky, in a little town called Pine Knot.

I wasn’t able to talk the staff through the process of rebooting the router, so I had to jump in the car and drive three and a half hours, flip a switch, and then drive three and a half hours home. Had something like sonicadmin existed at the time, I could have cycled the power to a router, a server, or just about anything else without having to make that long drive.

Normally, if a server slows to a crawl for no apparent reason, you’d use the Performance Monitor to figure out why. Sonicadmin doesn’t have a Performance Monitor. What it does have is a screen that gives you a server’s vital statistics. This includes such vital information as the server OS, build number, service pack, and server up time. You can also see the number of processes that are running, the server’s memory used and memory free, CPU utilization, and the amount of free disk space on each partition. While the information isn’t as comprehensive as what you’d get through the Performance Monitor, you do get most of the important information presented to you in an easy-to-read summary.

Implementing sonicadmin
Sonicadmin is designed to be easy to integrate into your existing network. You must run the core sonicadmin program on a server. You can use a dedicated server for this, but sonicadmin is designed to be low overhead and can easily run on an existing server. Additionally, sonicadmin is highly scalable, able to manage a variety of devices, and doesn’t require you to run an agent on a managed server.

What’s missing?
All in all, sonicadmin seems like a very powerful, cross-platform mobile management tool. While the current version works extremely well, I hope to see some enhancements in future versions. For example, the vast majority of the network problems that I have had to deal with in the last few years involved Exchange Servers. While it’s true that Exchange rides on top of a normal Windows server, I would like a version of the Exchange System Manager on sonicadmin. I would also like to be able to manage user’s mailboxes and public folders remotely.

While I’m making a wish list, I would also like to see similar functionality added for SQL Server and better Active Directory support. A mobile version of Active Directory Sites and Services and a mobile version of Active Directory Domains and Trusts would have been nice, as would a Mobile Group Policy Editor and a mobile version of the Internet Services Manager. Who knows? Maybe future versions will even be able to manage DHCP server scopes.

The good news is that sonicadmin already supports some third-party applications. Some examples are NetIQ’s AppManager and OpalisRobot.

So what’s the verdict on sonicadmin? While it’s true that there are a lot of features missing from the product, sonicadmin is still by far the best mobile network management solution that I have seen to date. The current version is an excellent tool for taking care of simple to moderately complicated network issues while on the go. I am very anxious to see what capabilities will exist in future versions.