The Support Authority: If you need help with WebSphere products, there are many ways to get it

An overview of WebSphere technical support resources

This introduction to a new recurring column takes a very high-level tour of all major WebSphere® support resources that are available today, and describes the trends that suggest how they will further evolve over time.

Daniel Julin (dpj@us.ibm.com), WebSphere Serviceability Technical Area Lead, IBM India Software Lab Services and Solutions

Author photoDaniel Julin has 20 years experience developing and troubleshooting complex online systems. As Technical Area Lead for the WebSphere Serviceability Team, he currently focuses on helping the team define and implement a collection of tools and techniques to assist in problem determination for WebSphere Application Server, and to maximize the efficiency of IBM Support. He also occasionally assists directly in various critical customer support situations.



24 January 2007

Also available in Chinese

From the IBM WebSphere Developer Technical Journal.

In each column, The Support Authority discusses resources, tools, and other elements of IBM Technical Support that are available for WebSphere products, plus techniques and new ideas that can further enhance your IBM support experience.

Introduction

The set of resources available to support and troubleshoot WebSphere-based products and applications is always evolving. The IBM Technical Support organization is constantly working to enhance existing resources and to create new resources in response to evolving products, changing customer requirements, and new ideas that could further improve the support experience.

As a result, it can sometimes be difficult to keep track of the changing "big picture" of where all the resources fit and how they work together within the overall roadmap. Think of it as a large puzzle, where new pieces are regularly being added: they fit with the previous pieces, but they themselves often define new open areas that will in turn be filled with other pieces later, and so on.

In this introduction to a new column that will be appearing in the IBM WebSphere Developer Technical Journal, we will take a very high-level tour of all the major WebSphere support resources as they are available today, and show the trends of how we expect they will further evolve over time. In subsequent installments, we will examine various individual areas in more detail, as well as describe new resources and ideas as they mature and become available.


How to interact with support: You decide

First, to understand how the various resources can be used in IBM Technical Support scenarios, let's quickly review the main approaches for which they are targeted. There are some variations for different products and in different countries, but for most users we can characterize three main approaches:

  • Self-help Support lets you resolve a problem on your own, using resources and tools provided by IBM, without a direct interaction with an IBM Support Specialist. Many customers have asked for this, and in response, the IBM Technical Support organization has developed (and continues to develop) an extensive set of online resources, in the form of information and tools to assist with many common support tasks.

  • Remote Technical Support is the traditional method of support. You (the customer) contact IBM, either through the phone or through the Web, to open a problem record (called a PMR). A Support Specialist then works with you to identify and resolve the problem. Nowadays, Remote Technical Support also takes advantage of many online resources to facilitate this interaction. A Support Specialist might refer you to various information pages on a Web site to help explain or document specific technical aspects of the problem, or direct you to use various Web-based tools and documents to collect and exchange diagnostic information, or even propose to remotely access your system to help track down the problem.

  • Premium Support offers a more proactive and personalized assistance beyond what is typically provided by the standard Remote Technical Support agreement, in return for an additional fee. This level of support usually involves a specially-assigned Premium Support Manager or Specialists, access to more specialized Web resources, and (sometimes) on-site visits by your IBM Premium Support team. More details are available on the Premium Support Web site.

In practice, many customers typically use a mix of the Self-help and Remote or Premium Support interactions. Some customers might choose to first spend some time trying to resolve a new problem using purely self-help resources, and then contact IBM Support only if and when that problem proves to be more difficult. Other customers might prefer to always get personal assistance from IBM Technical Support immediately. The choice of when to switch from one approach to another is entirely up to you.

The Software Support Handbook summarizes the various mechanisms and types of support agreements available for all software products at IBM.


What and where are the online support resources?

Whether you use primarily Self-help or the Remote or Premium support interactions, you will encounter many online resources provided on a variety of IBM servers. Let's quickly review them:

In addition to this main support Web site, IBM also maintains various other sites that, although they are not specifically dedicated to the technical support community, contain a wealth of useful information resources that can be extremely valuable in technical support scenarios. The main support Web site contains many references to documents on these others sites, and in some cases can automatically search for relevant documents on these sites. The most commonly referenced listed next.

  • IBM developerWorks is targeted primarily for the software developer community, and contains many technical articles explaining detailed aspects of various products, education resources, and downloads for tools and samples.

  • Product documentation, often referred to as Information Centers, are available on the Library tab of each product information page inside the main software Web site. For example, look at the Information Center for all versions and components of WebSphere Application Server.

  • The Redbooks Web site contains online copies of every available Redbook, Redpaper, and so on. Many Redbooks are specifically dedicated to problem determination, for WebSphere and other IBM products.

  • IBM alphaWorks is a repository for many free downloadable programs associated with emerging technologies, including a variety of experimental problem determination tools.

One registration, many free Web resources

The majority of IBM's self-service online support resources are free of charge. Many of the pages and services on the various IBM Web sites also enable you, upon registration, to create a personalized profile that is then used by the site to tailor the information presented according to your preferences. (In a few cases, such as for services related to Premium Support or to submit PMRs electronically, access is restricted to those with fee-based support agreements.)

IBM has implemented a centralized registration facility that enables you to register once, and then use the same userid/password on many IBM Web sites or functions that require you to sign-in. You can create your account (and customize your profile) free of charge.


Where to begin?

Having all these Web sites and all these online resources is great, but how do you keep track of where they are? And where do you start when you begin to investigate a new problem? Here are a few options:

  • The IBM Support Assistant is a special tool you can download for free and install on a workstation in your environment. It is intended to serve as a front-end and common platform from which you can access all the other specialized support resources and perform most support tasks, without having to worry about where these resources are located, how they are organized, or how to get the latest version. Some of the main features of the IBM Support Assistant include:

    • A search facility that can transparently search across multiple knowledge bases and combine the results.
    • An automatically-updated collection of links to the most commonly-needed Web sites that provide information associated with each product.
    • An automated symptom-based data collection tool that automatically gathers key information needed by IBM Support when you submit problems to IBM.
    • A set of integrated tools to facilitate opening PMRs and communicating with IBM Support Specialists through PMRs; includes collecting and transferring various diagnostic information (such as log files) and sending it all to IBM.
    • An extensible collection of specialized problem determination tools that can be used to perform various tasks in Self-help mode.
    • A facility to automatically download upgrades to the IBM Support Assistant platform itself, as well as to the collection of specialized tools and information resources that are provided inside the tool.

    IBM Support Assistant is a single platform that supports many IBM products (through plug-ins). Over time, you can expect to see many new tools and other resources being consolidated into this platform.

  • The IBM Software Support Toolbar is a special toolbar you can install in your browser (Firefox or Internet Explorer) that provides a customizable search function that searches through the most common collections of support information for each IBM product family -- plus a collection of predefined links to the most commonly-needed Web sites for IBM Support in general, and for each IBM product family. Like the IBM Support Assistant, the toolbar can be automatically updated when new features or information resources become available, and it is common to all five IBM software brands (Information Management, Lotus®, Rational®, Tivoli® and WebSphere).

  • Direct access to the front page for IBM Software Support for each product. If you have not installed either the IBM Support Assistant or the IBM Software Support Toolbar, it may be sufficient to simply bookmark the main page on the IBM Software Support Web site associated with each of the products that you commonly use. Each page includes a search tool that searches only through the documents associated with the product (or group of products) associated with that page and a standardized set of links to the most commonly-needed support documents and online services for that product. To facilitate navigation, the front pages for each product have a common look-and-feel and a common organization for the information they contain.

Deciding which of these three options to begin with will depend on the circumstances and your own preferences. Regardless of which starting point you choose, though, you will eventually find yourself navigating and accessing the same overall set of support resources. (In addition to these options, Premium Support customers might have access to personalized starting points. These will discussed in a future column.)

The next few sections will look at these online support resources and how to use them.


Searching the online support resources

Throughout the various support-related Web pages, there are numerous taxonomies and index pages that facilitate navigating and browsing through particular types of information, but as with any large collection of Web-based information, a simple search is sometimes the fastest way to find a particular piece of information. Your main options for searching include:

  • Search tool in IBM Support Assistant. This tool scans through multiple information sources, including the main IBM Support Web sites, developerWorks, the product Information Centers, and so on.

  • Search box in the IBM Software Support Toolbar. This tool is a shortcut to invoke a search on one specific page in the IBM Support Web site hierarchy (either all of IBM Support, the support page for one family of products, or specific document types within one family of products). This tool does not combine searches from multiple sources, so the results will be to the same as searching directly on a given IBM Support Web page (which is the next item).

  • Search box on a particular page in the IBM Support web site. Each product or product family page on the IBM Support Web site has its own search tool that searches for all documents associated with that product or product family. Though it is not an explicit aggregator like the IBM Support Assistant search tool, the search engine on each of these pages will also return various results from other sites that are deemed of particular relevance for support purposes (for example, Redbooks, selected articles from developerWorks, product Information Centers, and so on).

  • Search box on developerWorks. Even though developerWorks is a source of in-depth information about products and technologies and is not specifically focused on support issues, it does contain content related to problem determination, and its search engine indexes many support-related documents, both internal and external to developerWorks.

  • Search box in each product Information Center. Every Information Center contains its own integrated search tool that searches only the contents of that Information Center. Although this search is much narrower in scope than all the other searches above, it may sometimes be more expedient to search directly in the applicable Information Center than indirectly through one of the broader search tools.


Getting step-by-step guidance for problem determination

In some cases, the fastest approach to tracking down a resolution is to simply search for all documents that match a particular set of keywords or error messages that characterize a problem. At other times, you may need more detailed and explicit guidance to help conduct your investigation:

  1. The IBM Guided Activity Assistant is a new and rapidly-growing tool that literally guides you step-by-step, interactively, through many common support-related tasks. The IBM Guided Activity Assistant runs inside the IBM Support Assistant on your own workstation, and currently contains topics or flows for several common types of WebSphere Application Server problems. New topics are being added regularly. Stay tuned to this column for announcements of new topics and upgrades to the tool itself.

  2. If you prefer a simpler Web-based guide, there is the Troubleshooting Guide for WebSphere Application Server, a collection of documents, and part of the IBM Support Web site for WebSphere Application Server, that guides you through categorizing your problem within a pre-defined set of problem types, and then takes you quickly to various documents that contain instructions for investigating your specific type of problem.

The IBM Guided Activity Assistant and the Troubleshooting Guide for WebSphere Application Server can both help you resolve a problem entirely on your own (Self-help), or in collaboration with an IBM Support Specialist (Remote Technical Support).

You can also find valuable problem determination instructions in various Redbooks that are focused specifically on your topic, and in the Troubleshooting and Support section of the Information Center.


Resources for learning

Beyond immediate assistance with one very specific and time-critical problem, customers also frequently ask for more education and in-depth information about the workings of various aspects of the products, and more guidance on performing various tasks. Therefore, we also include resources for general education and learning as part of the arsenal of technical support resources. The main resources in this area include:

  • The IBM Education Assistant is a growing collection of relatively short education modules, available online in a variety of attractive and easy-to-use formats (narrated presentations, video, and so on). A key objective for these modules is to be very focused, enabling the user to learn about one very specific topic very quickly, without taking the time to go though an entire formal course that usually covers several topics at once.

  • The WebSphere Support Technical Exchange is an ongoing series of Webcasts presented by experts in the technical support community on a broad range of topics related to supporting WebSphere products. Replays of past Webcasts are available on the Previous Webcasts tab of the WebSphere Support Technical Exchange page.

  • IBM developerWorks maintains an extensive collection of technical articles, tutorials, Webcasts, newsletters, and more, featuring in-depth information on a wide range of topics, across multiple technologies and all IBM software products.

  • Redbooks are popular publications that are highly regarded as a source of technical material that expands and amplifies standard product documentation.

  • The Online Resources Webcast summarizes the available Self-help tools, and is updated whenever new features that same you time and effort are rolled out.

  • The WebSphere Education team offers a variety of formal courses, both online- and classroom-based. WebSphere Education recently introduced a new course specifically on WebSphere Application Server problem determination.

  • And, of course, the Information Centers remain the primary source for reference information and task-oriented product documentation.


Stay up to date with new information

New support resources are constantly being developed and updated. Likewise, new potential problems are occasionally discovered as well. Here are some ways you can keep up to date with new information in the technical support area:

  • If you monitor nothing else, be sure to regularly check the IBM-wide product alerts site. This site is used to notify the entire IBM customer community of pervasive issues that have been discovered, and that have the potential to affect large numbers of customers.

  • Periodically monitor the main IBM Support Web page for each product for new Flashes. A Flash is a short document published on the IBM Support site notifying all users of a particular product of important news relating to that product, such as the release of new support resources, or the discovery of serious issues that could affect many users.

  • Subscribe to the My support service. This service enables you to specify a profile listing all the products that you are interested in, and the types of news that you would like to receive for each product (like Flashes, new release information, new APARs, and so on). You can then request to receive a weekly e-mail summary of news, or periodically monitor a personalized Web page that shows only those news items that you selected in your profile. Read the weekly e-mail notification Technote for more details.

  • Periodically monitor the Featured documents page for each product of interest. This page summarizes the information that the IBM Technical Support team feels is most valuable to the majority of customers for that product (for example, most important recent Technotes, recent and upcoming fix pack releases, emerging issues, and so on). This page is continuously updated, and a snapshot is also sent in e-mail to all customers every few months. For an example, see the Featured documents page for WebSphere Application Server.

  • Subscribe to one or more RSS feeds generated by IBM Web sites. Many IBM Web sites (or sections of Web sites), including the IBM Support site and developerWorks, now offer RSS feeds that provide notifications of new content published on the site. For example, see the RSS feeds from IBM Support for the WebSphere product family.

  • Monitor forums and newsgroups associated with WebSphere products for announcements, and to share information and questions with other users. Note in particular the IBM Support Assistant forum and the WebSphere Application Server forum. (Most forums are also available as RSS feeds.)


Download fixes and updates

The sections on the IBM Support Web site for each specific product is also the place where you can find and download new fixpacks (and sometimes individual interim fixes) for that product. Typical documents associated with this function include (using WebSphere Application Server as an example):

  • List of all available fixes for all versions of a product, with links for downloading each fix or fix pack.

  • Recommended fixes for a product, identifying currently recommended fix packs and interim fixes, as well as providing links to supporting documentation, such as fix lists.

  • Update strategy for a product.

In addition to these generic summary documents, each product Web site will also contain one document describing each defect, or APAR. These documents can be searched when trying to identify previously-discovered issues.


Working with IBM through PMRs

As noted earlier, online support resources are also used in the context of the Remote Technical Support process, when working with IBM Support Specialists through PMRs. Here are some of the key services and resources provided specifically for this process:

  • To open a PMR or to exchange information related to a PMR, you can communicate with IBM Support either through the phone, or through the Electronic Service Request facility. This facility can be accessed either directly through a Web site, or through the client tool integrated within the IBM Support Assistant. You can also exchange e-mail with the IBM Support Specialist while working on a particular PMR, but for most products (particularly for WebSphere Application Server) it is not currently possible to open a new PMR through e-mail. Other modes of interaction may be considered in the future.

  • At various times, an IBM Support Specialist might ask you to collect a specific set of diagnostic information from your system (such as logs). To facilitate that process, IBM Support publishes a collection of MustGather documents that provide explicit information on the exact diagnostic information that should be collected for each type of problem, and instructions on how to collect it.

  • As an alternative to manually following all the MustGather instructions, it is now possible in many cases to use the diagnostic collection facility inside the IBM Support Assistant. This facility executes all the necessary steps automatically. It does not yet replace all the manual MustGathers, but it is being constantly updated and expanded. WebSphere Application Server also ships with a collector tool that automates the most common diagnostic data collection steps.

  • Once diagnostic information has been collected, it must be sent to IBM Support for analysis. This can be done either through the Web-based ESR facility, or automatically from the IBM Support Assistant (indirectly via ESR), or manually by FTP to a public server maintained by IBM. Either way, your files will end up on an IBM system called ECuRep, from which IBM Support can readily access, analyze, and work with it. Read the Technote on exchanging information with IBM Support for more details on these options.

  • On occasion, an IBM Support Specialist will propose to access your system remotely using the IBM Assist On-site facility. When using this facility, the Support Specialist is able to view your desktop directly and work with you to perform any necessary tasks even faster.


Problem determination tools

In addition to using the various sources of information about various types of problems and how to address them, we also often need a variety of tools to help perform some of the prescribed actions, and in particular to analyze complex diagnostic data collected from a failing system. In keeping with the Self-help approach, IBM Support has tools that can help you perform such activities, and makes as many of these tools as possible available directly to customers. Some of the mechanisms that enable this include:

  • IBM Support Assistant provides a powerful platform for delivering and using problem determination tools. It takes care of automatically downloading and updating selected tools from a central distribution site, and presents all available tools to the user in an integrated tool catalog. Each tool can then be invoked and used directly from the IBM Support Assistant user interface. This frees you from much of the burden involved in searching for new tools, installing them, and figuring out how to invoke them. In addition to the IBM Guided Activity Assistant (introduced above), some of the tools that are currently available in the IBM Support Assistant tools catalog for use in WebSphere Application Server problem determination include:

    • IBM Pattern Modeling and Analysis Tool for Java Garbage Collector for analyzing JVM verboseGC logs.
    • Memory Dump Diagnostic for Java for analyzing JVM heap dumps to track down memory leaks).
    • ThreadAnalyzer used to analyze thread dumps to track down deadlocks, slow-downs and crashes.

    We expect many more tools will be made available through the IBM Support Assistant in the future.

  • Other tools, for a variety of reasons both historical and technical, work best when integrated either inside in the WebSphere Application Server administration console, the Application Server Toolkit, or IBM Rational Application Developer. Such is the case for example for the WebSphere Application Server classloader viewer and the Log and Trace Analyzer tools.

  • More tools at various stages of their evolution are available as simple downloads from the IBM Support Web site, developerWorks, or alphaWorks. You can find these tools with a simple search of the online knowledge bases, as outlined above.

There is hardly space here to do justice to the richness of the various tools both available and under development. We will have to return to this topic in a future article.


Product serviceability features

Finally, to complete the technical support picture, we must also point out that effective problem determination depends on the use of various serviceability features integrated into the product itself (such as logs, traces, state dumps, hang detection, leak detection, and so on). These features are generally documented as part of the normal product documentation (in the Information Center) and might also be the subject of various documents on the IBM Support Web site and in troubleshooting guides.

The IBM Technical Support organization is responsible for implementing and coordinating the implementation of many serviceability features with the various product development groups, and works diligently to extend product capabilities in this area. We will also discuss this in more detail in an upcoming installment.


Conclusion

This concludes our very quick tour of the many components of technical support for IBM's WebSphere brand, and hopefully gives you a rough idea of what is available now and what we are currently working on. In future installments of this column, we will examine some of these facilities and specific tools in more detail, and discuss how they apply in practice to solve real world problems.


Acknowledgements

The author thanks Brad Cottingham, David Draeger, Glenn McGorty, Elaine Papanikolaou, Lee Perlov, Jim Stetor, and all the other members of the WebSphere Technical Support organization for their helpful discussions and revisions when preparing this article. We also thank the developerWorks editors for helping to put together this article.

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