The Support Authority: Get to know the Visual Configuration Explorer

Save time diagnosing complex configuration problems with the Visual Configuration Explorer, a new graphical troubleshooting tool available with the IBM® Support Assistant. This content is part of the IBM WebSphere Developer Technical Journal.

Bob DeLima (bdelima@us.ibm.com), Senior Software Engineer, EMC

Bob DeLima is a Senior Software Engineer for the IBM Software Group System House, Advanced Technology group in Research Triangle Park, NC. Bob is currently involved in advanced technology projects in the areas of high availability, provisioning, solution integration, and scenario-based software development. Contact Bob at bdelima@us.ibm.com.



Russell Wright (rbwright@us.ibm.com), WebSphere Serviceability Development, EMC

Russell Wright has several years of experience developing and supporting data communications and middleware software including WebSphere Application Server. He currently manages the deployment of troubleshooting tools for the IBM Support Assistant and is a developer for the IBM Guided Activity Assistant.



Daniel Julin (dpj@us.ibm.com), Senior Technical Staff Member, EMC

Daniel 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.



03 October 2007

Also available in Chinese

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.

This just in...

As always, we begin with some new items of interest for the WebSphere® community at large:

  1. A few months ago, this column mentioned an ongoing effort to rework the structure of the Web pages on ibm.com and the various support sites under ibm.com to make then easier to navigate so you can find the information that you need quickly. A new major phase of this ongoing effort has now been completed, and you can check it out starting with the top-level page for IBM Software Support. In particular, this page now includes a new streamlined navigator to quickly find the appropriate support areas for all IBM software products, an enhanced search facility, and quick links to the most commonly-needed areas. In a related development, you will also start seeing some changes in the structure of Technotes, published on the various support Web sites, to increase readability and searchability, by distinguishing between documents that provide answers to questions, troubleshooting instructions, downloadable scripts or tools, and so on.

  2. A new edition of the Featured Documents page on various product support sites is being released for 13 products in the WebSphere family at about the same time as this article is being published. Each Featured Documents page is updated every few months to summarize the most important information and the most commonly-accessed Technotes for that product. The information on this page is also sent in an e-mail to customers who have been recently active with IBM Support. See Featured Documents page for WebSphere Application Server to see an example; you can also get to it by selecting the Featured Documents link on the front page of the WebSphere Application Server support site. Similar pages can be found on the support site for each applicable product.

  3. A new tool, the IBM Rational® Diagnostic Tool for Eclipse, has been released on the IBM Support Assistant. This tool examines the configuration of one or more Eclipse installations to spot problems and inconsistencies. Remember that many products and tools in the WebSphere product family take advantage of Eclipse technology, and so this tool can be useful for troubleshooting these problems as well.

  4. Finally,something that may bear reminding at this time of year: the Daylight Savings Time switchover is upon us again. If you checked your systems and applied the suggested fixes in the Spring, you may not need to worry further, but it won't hurt to doublecheck. And be aware that there have been further changes related to Daylight Savings Time since this Spring in New Zealand. If you have systems in, or interact with customers from that part of the world, be sure to check the support site for information on the extension of Daylight Savings Time in New Zealand.

Continue to monitor the various support-related Web sites, as well as this column, for news about other tools as we encounter them.

And now, on to our main topic...


Introducing the Visual Configuration Explorer

When configuration problems occur in a complex software environment, you can spend a lot of time hunting for subtle changes that might have introduced errors. The new Visual Configuration Explorer tool, which runs as a plug-in to the IBM Support Assistant, simplifies configuration troubleshooting by letting you visualize, explore, and analyze the configurations of various software stacks offline.

For example, you could view the entire configuration of your cross-product environment, consisting of DB2®, WebSphere MQ, and WebSphere Application Server products, in a graphical format. Visual Configuration Explorer lets you:

  • Compare different snapshots of the same runtime environment.
  • Create diagrams that show configuration information in a graphical format, including key relationships between configuration elements.
  • Access detailed configuration properties.
  • Search across and within configurations for properties.
  • Compare configurations.
  • Correlate configuration information between different products.
  • Save and restore your work.
  • Collaborate with others during problem determination.
  • Work in a standalone or client/server environment.

A quick tour of the user interface

The Visual Configuration Explorer user interface is based on the Eclipse workbench, as are several other new problem determination tools, like Log Analyzer, the Extensible Verbose Toolkit, and various tools integrated with the WebSphere Application Server Toolkit and the Rational family of products.

Everything you do in the Visual Configuration Explorer is in the context of a workspace, which is where configuration data is stored. When you launch Visual Configuration Explorer, it prompts you to open a workspace. You add configuration sources to your workspace, called providers, and draw diagrams showing their resources and relationships. The workspace contains multiple views, and you can navigate and organize these views to suit your preferences (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Typical Visual Configuration Explorer user interface window
Figure 1. Typical Visual Configuration Explorer user interface window

This article focuses on five of the most commonly-used views:

  • Providers View

    The Providers View is the first view that you would typically work in when you initially start Visual Configuration Explorer. Each provider represents one configuration source and the information that has been read from it. For example, one provider might represent the configuration of a WebSphere Application Server cell taken at one point in time, and a second provider might represent that same configuration captured at a different time. A third provider might represent the configuration of a WebSphere MQ system that is interacting with the WebSphere Application Server cell listed earlier, and so on. You add new providers by clicking the Add a Provider button in the top row of the Providers View.

    The Providers View lists all of the configurations currently loaded. Each provider is displayed as a tree that contains a hierarchy of topology objects, grouped by type. For example, a provider for a WebSphere Application Server cell contains topology objects for each node, which contain topology objects for each server, which contain topology objects for each server subsystem, and so on. A WebSphere Application Server configuration contains many different topology objects for each aspect of that configuration. As you work with Visual Configuration Explorer, you simply navigate through the tree in the Providers View to select the particular elements of interest.

    Each topology object has properties represented as a tree structure of name/value pairs. Topology relationships describe the correlations between topology objects, and they are useful for comprehending, visualizing, and exploring configuration information.

    Figure 2 shows more details about the elements in the Providers View.

    Figure 2. Providers View
    Figure 2. Providers View
  • Diagram View

    The Diagram View lets you graphically view the relationships between configuration elements. You populate the Diagram View by dragging-and-dropping individual topology objects from the Providers View into the Diagram View. Each topology object is represented by a symbol with lines showing its relationship to other objects. To keep diagrams simple, you pick a small number of topology objects that represent one particular perspective on the overall system configuration, and you use that diagram to work with that particular set of objects. You can create multiple diagrams to view the overall system configuration from different perspectives.

    The Diagram View also contains tools to automatically add sets of related objects. For example, you can automatically add all the children or siblings of a given object, or the parent of a given object, and so on. (Refer to the Visual Configuration Explorer documentation, provided online with the tool.)

  • Properties View

    Each topology object in the Providers View contains properties represented as a hierarchy of key/value pairs. For example, an object associated with an instance of a server in WebSphere Application Server might have properties that represent the arguments to be used when starting the JVM, the ports to use for various communication channels, and so on.

    The Properties View is the place to examine these individual properties. It contains a small navigator through the tree of all the properties associated with the given topology object, a table view listing the key/value pairs for the properties at that node in the tree, and a detail pane showing the full value of the currently-selected property.

    The Properties View can also be used to compare two or more topology objects of the same type: simply drag one topology object onto the Properties View associated with another topology object, and a new column will be created in this view showing the values of each of the corresponding properties from both objects side by side, with differences flagged in color.

    Figure 3. Properties View
    Figure 3. Properties View
  • Search View

    There are often times when you want to search for information, and the Providers View and Properties View have a Search button that lets you search all topology objects or properties in the hierarchy. The results of each search are shown in the Search View. Clicking an entry in the search results causes the other views to jump to the object or property associated with that entry. The examples below include an example of performing a search and the Search View in action.

  • Compare View

    Finally, one of the most powerful features of the Visual Configuration Explorer is the ability to compare two configurations from different servers, or two configuration snapshots from the same server. To compare configurations, select both object trees to be compared in the Providers View or the Diagram View and then click the Compare Objects button, or choose the corresponding entry in the context menu. The results of the comparison are shown in the Compare View as a simple list of entries for each of the corresponding properties that have been found to be different. As with the Search View, clicking an entry causes the other views to jump to the objects or properties associated with that particular difference. The search and compare example in the next section explains more.

The Visual Configuration Explorer includes many other powerful features that cannot be adequately described in this space. Refer to the tool documentation -- or simply explore the menus in the tool itself -- to discover many of its other capabilities.


Common usage scenarios: Using search and compare

Two of the more useful features in the Visual Configuration Explorer are the search and compare functions. This example takes a brief look at how you can use these features to help isolate problems in your configuration.

  1. Collect WebSphere Application Server system configuration information.

    Before starting, it is important to know about WebSphere Application Server configurations and how to pull them into Visual Configuration Explorer. As you may know, a WebSphere Application Server configuration is represented as a large set of XML documents that are persisted versions of the WebSphere Common Configuration Model. Most stack products that are built on top of WebSphere Application Server provide extensions to this model, and access to these configuration files is provided through the WebSphere ConfigService interface. Visual Configuration Explorer leverages this interface with an exporter utility that instantiates a ConfigService instance, reads the entire contents of a WebSphere Application Server configuration, and then writes that information to a portable format that can be handled natively by the Visual Configuration Explorer. The exporter module is provided within the Visual Configuration Explorer installation as part of the websphere-tools package. You must deploy this package on all target servers that you want to analyze with Visual Configuration Explorer.

    Instructions for deployment are fairly simple:

    1. Extract the contents of the package into the $WAS_ROOT directory of your WebSphere Application Server installation.
    2. Once extracted, go into the $WAS_ROOT/vce directory and type vceexport (you can optionally specify a profile name using the -profileName parameter).
    3. The resulting exported configuration will be placed in $WAS_ROOT/vce/output directory in the form of a .configuration file, which can be dragged directly into Visual Configuration Explorer's Providers navigator.
  2. Perform a search.

    With the configuration information collected, let's take a closer look at the search feature. This scenario starts with a Visual Configuration Explorer that has a configuration already loaded for a WebSphere Application Server cell. Suppose that you want to find the heap size settings for all the servers in the cell:

    1. Select the entire configuration in the Providers View and then launch the search tool by clicking the associated button in the upper right corner of the view (Figure 4).
      Figure 4. Search a configuration
      Figure 4. Search a configuration
    2. A dialog opens that lets you choose the search settings. Search settings include choosing case sensitivity, scope, and whether or not to interpret the search string as a regular expression or as a literal string. For this example, use the regular expression .*heapsize.
    3. When you click OK, Visual Configuration Explorer searches for all property names that end in the string "heapsize" and returns a search results view (Figure 5).
      Figure 5. Search results view
      Figure 5. Search results view
    4. When you select an entry in the Results View, the navigator highlights the associated configuration artifact. Then, if you click the navigate to attribute view icon, that artifact's Property View opens (Figure 6).
      Figure 6. Property View for a highlighted configuration artifact
      Figure 6. Property View for a highlighted configuration artifact
    5. An Export button is also provided in this view so that you can export any property or result view to an XML file.
  3. Compare two configurations.

    Now let's take a look at the compare function. This scenario starts with a preloaded Visual Configuration Explorer workspace that contains snapshots of a WebSphere Application Server cell taken at different times. The intent is to show what has changed over time.

    1. Similar to the search scenario (Figure 4) in the Providers View, select the two configurations that you want to compare (instead of one for the search function) and then launch the compare tool by clicking the Compare button in the upper right corner of the Providers View.
    2. A dialog box appears with three buttons: Subtrees, Properties, and Cancel. For this scenario, click the Subtrees button to recursively compare the two complete configurations. When the Compare finishes, a Compare Results View similar to Figure 7 is displayed.
      Figure 7. Compare Results View
      Figure 7. Compare Results View
    3. As in the search example, selecting a result forces the navigator to display the source objects of the difference, and clicking the display properties view button shows the differences in a Property View.
      Figure 8. Merged View
      Figure 8. Merged View
    4. The difference between this Property View from the search Property View is that this displays as a merged view where properties for both objects are displayed in adjacent columns (Figure 8). Notice that the properties that are different between the two configurations are shown in red.
    5. Another handy feature you can apply here is the Filter function. By selecting the Filter tool in the property view, you can apply various filters to further customize the way the view is displayed (Figure 9).
      Figure 9. Filter settings dialog
      Figure 9. Filter settings dialog
    6. Clicking OK on the dialog in Figure 9 filters out any properties that start with the string "_Web" and shows only unequal values (Figure 10).
      Figure 10. Updated view after applying filter
      Figure 10. Updated view after applying filter
    7. And, of course, just as in the search example, either view can be exported to an XML file by using the Export tool.

FAQs

  • How do I obtain the Visual Configuration Explorer?

    Visual Configuration Explorer runs as a plug-in to the IBM Support Assistant V3. To obtain Visual Configuration Explorer, you need to first download and install the IBM Support Assistant, and then download and install the Visual Configuration Explorer tool plug-in.

  • Is Visual Configuration Explorer a WebSphere-only tool?

    No, you can use Visual Configuration Explorer to explore the configurations of many IBM software products organized into various cross-product environments.

  • How do I get updates for Visual Configuration Explorer?

    Updates for Visual Configuration Explorer are available via the Updater component in IBM Support Assistant. Click on Available Plug-ins Updates in the IBM Support Assistant Updater to obtain updates for Visual Configuration Explorer.

  • How do I give feedback about Visual Configuration Explorer?

    You can email your questions and comments to vcebuild@us.ibm.com. Please include contact information if you want to receive a response. You can also visit the Visual Configuration Explorer Discussion Forum for up-to-date information and advice.

  • Can I create or edit configurations with Visual Configuration Explorer?

    No, Visual Configuration Explorer helps you view and troubleshoot complex software configurations, but it is not a configuration editor.

  • How can I acquire a WebSphere Application Server configuration that Visual Configuration Explorer can read?

    Visual Configuration Explorer includes a utility that lets you export a WebSphere Application Server configuration to a file that it can read. You can enable the export utility by selecting the websphere-tools package when installing Visual Configuration Explorer.

  • Where can I find documentation about Visual Configuration Explorer?

    Documentation is provided online with the tool. Install Visual Configuration Explorer in your copy of IBM Support Assistant, start the tool, and select the Help menu.


Conclusion

This article offered a brief overview of the capabilities of the new Visual Configuration Explorer, available with the IBM Support Assistant. This tool aims to save you time when diagnosing complex problems related to the configuration of many WebSphere (and other) products, and will expand with more capabilities and new usage scenarios as development continues.

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