The Support Authority: IBM Support Assistant V4.0 makes all your support work easier

The latest version of the cost-free and convenient IBM® Support Assistant V4.0 provides a powerful problem determination workbench, new remote access capabilities, an improved user interface, case management features, a built-in guided troubleshooter, and more new features to help you diagnose problems faster -- plus, it even makes it easier to work with IBM Support. This content is part of the IBM WebSphere Developer Technical Journal.

Don Bourne (dbourne@ca.ibm.com), WebSphere Serviceability Architect, IBM

Don Bourne is a WebSphere Serviceability Architect at the IBM Toronto Lab. Don joined IBM in 1996 and has been specializing in the area of serviceability since joining the WebSphere Application Server team in 2003. Currently, Don is working with the IBM Support Assistant team architecting future solutions to help users resolve problems quickly.



Andy McCright (andymc@us.ibm.com), Serviceability Developer, IBM WebSphere Application Server, IBM Japan

Andy McCright is the lead serviceability developer for WebSphere Application Server, based in the Rochester, Minnesota lab. In his five years with IBM, he has contributed to the development of the IBM Support Assistant, the Log Analyzer tool, and assisted customers with various WebSphere-related problems.



Jim McVea (jimmcvea@us.ibm.com), Technical Architect, IBM Support Assistant, IBM Japan

Jim McVea is a technical architect for the IBM Support Assistant project. He joined IBM in 1998 as a Support Analyst and has worked on various support and serviceability initiatives within IBM through the years. Jim's focus continues to be identifying ways to improve the IBM Support Assistant application and analyzing areas to simplify self-help.



Adeel Omer (aomer@us.ibm.com), IBM Support Assistant Marketing and Deployment, EMC

Adeel Omer has had various IBM Support Assistant development roles for over three years and, until recently, was the IBM Support Assistant Marketing Manager. Prior to working with ISA, Adeel was involved with customer support in the WebSphere Early Programs team, providing support for the WebSphere family of products. Adeel now works for the IBM Rational Architecture Management Go-to-market team.



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

Daniel Julin has 20 years of 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.



02 April 2008

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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:

  • The release of IBM Support Assistant Version 4.0 is one of the big news items this month. This major redesign, with a completely new user interface and a host of new features, is the main feature this month, so read on for more information.
  • The IBM Guided Activity Assistant, already available through IBM Support Assistant (including a new presentation in IBM Support Assistant 4.0), can now be accessed directly on the Web. Both versions have similar content and provide step by step guidance to help you through many troubleshooting tasks. The IBM Support Assistant-based version provides additional integration with other problem determination and data collection tools, whereas the Web version provides more direct access with no installation required.
  • The search feature on most IBM Support Web sites for WebSphere products has an enhanced search engine that now searches even more resources, including the full text of Information Center documentation plus many more publications, resulting in millions of searchable pages. You will notice that search results are now organized under three tabs: Technical Support, Information Centers, and Publications. Don't forget to check each category to make sure you find all the relevant information for your specific situation.
  • A new version of the Software Support Handbook is now available. This guide is the ultimate reference for learning about the resources and processes available to help you get the most out of IBM Support.
  • And, as usual, each month brings its share of new or updated problem determination tools:
  • The Impact 2008 conference is going on April 6-11 in Las Vegas. Many past and present contributors to The Support Authority columns will be there, and we look forward to meeting you!
  • The IBM Education Assistant team, together with the eSupport team and the IBM Support Assistant team, recently published a demo DVD with a sample collection of IBM Education Assistant, eSupport, and IBM Support Assistant content. The demo disc will be available at upcoming conferences, including Impact 2008, so be sure and stop by the support booth and pick one up.

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...


The next generation of self-help

It's 24 hours before the launch of your newest Web application and your stress testing is not going well. Your anxiously anticipated application seems to have been slowing down over the past few hours and finally appears to be hanging. You would love to quickly diagnose and resolve the problem, but you're not entirely sure what to do. Where do you start? What tools do you need to help you diagnose the problem, and where do you get them? What information do you need to gather if you need to work with IBM Support? What can you do on your own without having to wait for support? So many questions, so little time!

IBM Support Assistant Jump Start Program

The IBM Support Assistant team can assist you in getting the tool deployed within your troubleshooting and serviceability processes. The IBM Support Assistant Jump Start program is a three- to six-week program during which the team assists you with the installation, usage, and customization of the IBM Support Assistant so that you can use it to its fullest advantage. For more details or to request enrollment, please contact us at ibmsa@us.ibm.com.

Here’s some good news: IBM Support Assistant V4.0 has just been released, and is now better suited than ever to help you diagnose problems that you encounter with IBM software -- and to help you work more seamlessly with IBM support teams.

The IBM Support Assistant, a free tool that you can download from IBM, helps you focus your problem solving efforts around three major activities:

  • Find information

    To start, the IBM Support Assistant can be used to find information from key resources both within and outside of IBM. The IBM Support Assistant's search facility presents search results from Google, IBM software support documents, IBM developerWorks, newsgroups and forums, and from the product Information Centers for your IBM software products. The IBM Support Assistant can help you find information about support-related resources for over 300 IBM software products (for example, the list of recommended fixes for IBM WebSphere Application Server V6.1, or information about the latest problem reports for IBM Rational® Software Architect V7.0).

  • Analyze problem

    As in the scenario described above, suppose you are trying to resolve an application hang. To help you resolve the problem yourself, the IBM Support Assistant provides a Guided Troubleshooter that can help you diagnose a number of common and potentially complex problems, and even show you which diagnostic tools are best to use along the way. If you're looking for the diagnostic tools you need to help you resolve your problem, the IBM Support Assistant provides free tools for your use. Of course, sometimes you need to gather up data from your systems. Conventiently, IBM Support Assistant is capable of collecting data from IBM products to either help you in your investigation, or to provide for IBM support.

  • Manage service request

    If you need additional support, the IBM Support Assistant can help you pull together the data you need to open a PMR (problem management record) with IBM Support. For problems like an application hang, the IBM support team will generally ask you to collect MustGather data (a set of detailed instructions which you need to follow to get information useful to diagnosing a problem). The IBM Support Assistant provides fully automated MustGather scripts so you can gather the information quickly and be confident of its accuracy. The IBM Support Assistant will also help you gather up information about what you have installed on your systems, which helps support teams understand your environment. After leading you through gathering the necessary data, the IBM Support Assistant will help you open a PMR and attach the information you've gathered.


What's new in IBM Support Assistant V4.0

If you already use IBM Support Assistant V3.0 or V3.1, then you will notice some big changes that will make upgrading worth your while. These updates are the result of feedback from conferences and from working directly with users like you. Here are some highlights:

  • Redesigned UI organizes common tasks into activities and provides an Eclipse rich client interface.
  • Remote access simplifies use of tools on data from your remote systems.
  • Remote data collection makes gathering problem determination data from your remote systems easy.
  • Case management keeps your problem investigations organized.
  • Guided activities helps everyone diagnose problems like an expert.
  • Information flashes provide timely news about all the IBM software products that you work with.
  • Extensible search makes finding information from across IBM and your own enterprise simple.
  • Inventory collection makes gathering release and fix levels of common IBM software products easy.
  • Multiple language support enables the IBM Support Assistant to be used in 29 languages.

Figure 1 shows the initial welcome panel that displays when you launch the IBM Support Assistant, with pointers to the main functions.

Figure 1. IBM Support Assistant welcome page
Figure 1. IBM Support Assistant welcome page

You can download the IBM Support Assistant, from the IBM Support Assistant Web site, where you will find download packages for the IBM Support Assistant Workbench and for the Agent and Agent Manager.

Start out by downloading and installing the Workbench first on your personal desktop machine. The workbench provides access to all problem determination and support capabilities. Once the IBM Support Assistant Workbench installed, try using some basic capabilities, like the tutorials and simple searches. To ready the workbench for more extensive use, you can customize it with add-ons:

  • Product add-ons give the workbench awareness of the specific products you are interested in. This information is used to extend your search options, provide you with product-specific news feeds, add product-specific information to the Guided Troubleshooter, and add product-specific data collections for use when you gather data.
  • Tool add-ons contain ready-to-use tools that you can launch from the workbench. These can help you with a variety of advanced problem determination tasks. The First Steps wizard on the main workbench welcome page (Figure 1) can help you through this process if needed.

If you require the ability to perform data collection and other tasks remotely, you can set up the IBM Support Assistant's remote agents. Download the agent and agent manager installer and follow the installation instructions (provided in the workbench's online help and with the agent and agent manager installer package). The agent manager keeps track of the agents you install, and works under the covers to handle digital certificates to secure communications between the agents, agent manager, and the workbench. Typically, you will only install one agent manager, and then one agent on each machine you want to access remotely. After you set up your agent manager and one or more agents, you need to connect your workbench to your agent manager to give it access to the services on all of the connected agents. Figure 2 shows an overview of the overall architecture of the agent system.

Figure 2. Workbench and agents architecture
Figure 2. Workbench and agents architecture

If you are unsure about whether or not you might want to install the agent manager and agents:

  • The agent manager provides security services for communication between the agents and the workbench, and between the agent manager itself and the workbench.
  • Agents provide file system browsing and file transfer capability to the workbench for each of the systems on which they are installed.
  • Agents provide services to the workbench, such as log file filtering and transfer, of use primarily to the Log Analyzer tool.
  • Agents provide data collection capabilities, enabling you to easily execute dozens of product-specific data collections on your remote systems.

The IBM Education Assistant offers some very useful tutorials to help you get set up with the IBM Support Assistant V4.0. A future article will discuss installing and configuring agents in a complex environment.


Finding your way around the workbench

IBM Support Assistant V4.0 has a new user interface and workflow. Still, it provides many of the same features and much of the same flexibility for configuration and layout that users of other Eclipse-based tools, such as the WebSphere Application Server Toolkit or the Rational family of tools, are already accustomed to.

The next sections look at some of the new features in the tool and where you can go for help or more information.

  • Welcome page

    The welcome page (Figure 1) is the starting point for all activities in the IBM Support Assistant workbench. The First Steps link lets you run a Customization wizard to help set up Internet connectivity and run through the Updater to get product and tool add-ons. A Migration wizard is also available from the First Steps page to help you install the same product and tool add-ons that you were using in IBM Support Assistant V3. A Tutorials link on the welcome page provides access to quick Flash demos on using the IBM Support Assistant and to help you understand its features. The welcome page lists Latest News to help you find out the latest features and offerings from the IBM Support Assistant. Finally, the three main IBM Support Assistant activities are featured on the welcome page as:

  • Activity-based design

    Activities represent a group of actions that are bundled for a common purpose. For example, the Find Information activity groups together a multi-source search and access to product information, enabling you to get the latest product information and find useful product resources.

    Activities can also be launched from the Launch Activity button which is always visible on the IBM Support Assistant.

    After you have started an activity, a new tab for that activity will appear on the panel. You can quickly switch between activities simply by selecting these tabs. Within each activity, a second row of tabs might also display, reflecting multiple functions or steps within one main activity.

  • Case Manager

    The Case Manager feature (Figure 3) enables you to organize and keep track of all troubleshooting activities, store files, notes, and any other artifacts in one location so that they can be shared more easily with other problem analysts and support teams. The Case Manager can be found under the Administration menu entry.

    Figure 3. Case Manager
    Figure 3. Case Manager
  • Systems Explorer

    The Systems Explorer (Figure 4) enables you to browse the file systems of remote machines that have the IBM Support Assistant agent installed. When presented with a list of all the systems, you can authenticate with a target system using credentials that will be accepted by the host operating system (that is, an account login and password for the system you want to explore). With the Systems Explorer, you can look through a remote machine's file system and attach any files of interest to the Case Manager, after which they are transferred to the local system.

    Another feature of the Systems Explorer is the ability to view a remote system’s System Inventory. The inventory report shows basic hardware information (such as the machine type and serial number) as well as information on the system operating system, installed software, and corresponding fix levels. Once an inventory report is generated, it can be attached to a case and included with all the information collected about the target system.

    Figure 4. Systems Explorer
    Figure 4. Systems Explorer
  • Updater

    The IBM Support Assistant Updater (Figure 5) can always be launched from the Update menu entry. There are three options here:

    • Find Updates to Add-ons lets you know if updates to any of the currently installed add-ons are available.
    • Find New... lets you browse and select new add-ons to be installed.
    • Manage Installed Add-ons lets you view the properties of currently installed add-ons and uninstall them should you wish to do so.
    Figure 5. Updater
    Figure 5. Updater
  • Other important locations

    The IBM Support Assistant help documents are available by selecting Help => Help Content. This is also where you can view logs. The Help menu also has a link for providing feedback to the IBM Support Assistant team.

    The Support Assistant preferences panels, File => Preferences, lets you set important configuration preferences, such as the update site, the location where the Case Manager stores files, proxy server settings, and so on.


Find Information activity

The Find Information activity is intended to help you quickly find the most useful information that might help answer your questions or resolve your problems. This activity can be launched from the major link on the welcome page or from the Launch Activity button. The Find Information activity creates two secondary tabs in the IBM Support Assistant screen:

  • Search

    The Search component (Figure 6) enables you to search many different locations concurrently, saving you time looking for answers in different locations. IBM Support Assistant V4.0 comes with usability enhancements that have simplified the user interface.

    Enter the main search string in a large text box at the top of the page, then select any particular individual locations you want to search, called search targets, from the navigation panels on the left. This list of search targets includes:

    • IBM Software Support documents
    • IBM developerWorks
    • Newsgroups and forums
    • Google
    • Specific product Information Centers, from each of the individual product add-ons that have been installed
    • Any additional search targets you created.

    Regarding the last item in the list, IBM Support Assistant V4.0 enhances the flexibility of the search interface by enabling you to add your own search targets in addition to those pre-configured in the tool and those contributed by various add-ons. This lets you add a knowledge base internal to your organization as a search target, such as an internal problem ticket database, documentation about custom applications, information about your environment, and so on. The IBM Support Assistant documentation has more information on configuring custom search targets.

    Finally, the Advanced Search link filters results by type (fixes, downloads, and so on), or by products and versions (for example, if you want to see only results for a certain IBM product/version). You can also access advanced search options for a target by selecting the search target link in the navigation bar.

    Figure 6. Search screen
    Figure 6. Search screen
  • Product Information

    Product Information pages (Figure 7) also get a new look in V4.0. Product Information pages can be brought up by selecting the product you want from a drop-down list. The page subsequently populates with product-specific information from:

    • Product home page and support page
    • Newsgroups and forums
    • Skill enhancement resources
    • Problem determination resources
    • Product news.

    The News section of the product information pages contains information from the product’s support news feed, organized by categories such as flashes, fixes, technotes, and so on. This content is fetched from the Internet, so it is updated every time you visit the page and can provide real value in aggregating all the useful product updates in one easy location.

    Figure 7. Product Information screen
    Figure 7. Product Information screen

Analyze Problem activity

The Analyze Problem activity is a troubleshooter’s playground. It provides tabs for collecting diagnostic data, troubleshooting assistance, and a palette of diagnostic tools. This activity can be opened from the Launch Activity button on the workbench.

  • Collect data

    Data collection has always been a major part of the IBM Support Assistant. In Version 3, users collected diagnostic data under the Service tab, implying that this data was only useful to IBM service and support personnel. In Version 4, data is collected under the Analyze Problem activity, further empowering you to perform your own problem analysis (Figure 8).

    In addition to making data collection an easier and more accessible experience, V4 enables you to collect data from remote systems using the new agent technology. Any system with an IBM Support Assistant agent installed can run the collection scripts specified by an authorized workbench user. For diagnosing problems that span multiple systems, this feature can save a lot of time and effort. Be aware that the collection scripts present in the workbench are determined by which product add-ons are installed, and correspond to the specific data collection recommendations for each product.

    There are times when you might need to gather data from a system that has no IBM Support Assistant agent installed on it. In these situations, the Portable Collector can come in handy. From the Collect Data tab, click the Create Portable Collector button. You can specify the type of collection and the location in a dialog to create a portable collector file. Once completed, you can then copy that collector file to another system, extract it, and then run the appropriate collection script.

    Finally, the Version 4 data collector is “case-aware,” meaning that you can download the collected data directly into a case folder. Usually, the collector output is stored in a .zip file. In the Case Manager, you can open .zip files, select the archived files that you are interested in, and then extract them directly into your case. Once inside the case, they are visible to IBM Support Assistant tools and the Guided Troubleshooter.

    Figure 8. Data Collection screen
    Figure 8. Data Collection screen
  • Guided Troubleshooter

    The Guided Troubleshooter (Figure 9) is based on the IBM Guided Activity Assistant, but is now more tightly integrated into IBM Support Assistant. This is a wizard-like utility that assists you in active problem determination. The installed product add-ons determine the types of software for which it can provide guidance. For example, the WebSphere Application Server product add-ons enables the Guided Troubleshooter to provide assistance in diagnosing and resolving WebSphere Application Server-related problems, such as memory leaks, hangs, crashes, and so on. Each “flow” in the Guided Troubleshooter is recorded in the Case Manager, enabling you to put all diagnostic information in one place.

    The Guided Troubleshooter can also help in determining if you should download specific tools that might help in problem determination, and will even provide guidance in the usage of these tools.

    The Guided Troubleshooter contains flows for solving many different types of problems for multiple software products, and new flows are continuously being added. Two of the most popular flows currently available are the Java™ Out of Memory and Java Hang flows. This content can turn a novice troubleshooter into a pro when solving problems like memory leaks, heap exhaustion, race conditions, and deadlocks, in any Java-based software product like WebSphere Application Server or WebSphere Portal.

    Figure 9. Guided Troubleshooter
    Figure 9. Guided Troubleshooter
  • Tools

    As a user trying to troubleshoot problems, you can rely on the IBM Support Assistant to be the central place to find and acquire new serviceability tools. The level of integration with IBM Support Assistant varies based on the tools. Tools are add-ons that can be downloaded using the Updater menu. Some tools are specific to a particular product (and might require that you download that product add-on), while others are considered common tools that can be used for multiple software products.

    The Tools tab (Figure 10) is where you can install and launch these tools. The first time you access the Tools panel (under the Analyze Problem activity), no tools will display, but it will show a link to the Updater, where tools can be downloaded and installed. After you have installed some tools, you can find additional tool add-ons or updates to existing tools from under the Update menu.

    Here is a list of some of the tools currently available for download for the IBM Support Assistant (new tools are continuously added, so check frequently for updates):

    • Pattern Modeling and Analysis Tool (PMAT) analyzes Java verbose garbage collection logs and presents results in graphical and tabular formats.
    • Log Analyzer correlates logs from different products to identify problem causes and solutions.
    • Memory Dump Diagnostic for Java (MDD4J) analyzes Java heap dumps to identify memory leaks and other memory-related issues.
    • Thread Analyzer analyzes Java thread usage and identifies deadlocks and bottlenecks.
    • Visual Configuration Explorer visually explores and troubleshoots cross-product configurations.
    • IBM Monitoring and Diagnostic Tools for Java - Dump Analyzer analyzes Java systems dumps to identify a variety of problems.
    • Symptom Editor creates custom symptom definitions using pattern matching for Log Analyzer to analyze.

    When you have some tools installed, you can launch them from the Tools panel. In addition to selecting a tool to launch, this panel lets you select or create a case folder, which enables “case aware” tools to store their output files in the selected case folder. By capturing tool output in a case, it is easily accessible for future analysis, can be accessed by the Guided Troubleshooter, and can be easily provided to IBM Support via the Manage Service Request activity. At the time of writing, there are two “case aware” tools available in IBM Support Assistant V4.0, the Log Analyzer and Memory Dump Diagnostics for Java (MDD4J).

    Figure 10. Tools
    Figure 10. Tools

Manage Service Request activity

If you are unable to resolve a problem using the Find Information activity or through the troubleshooting capabilities of the Analyze Problem activity, then Manage Service Request is the next activity to perform. This activity helps you expedite the support process when you need to interact with IBM Support.

Launch this activity from the link on the welcome page or from the Launch Activity button. The Manage Service Request activity creates two secondary tabs, Collect Data and Service Requests, plus a Guided Activity Assistant sidebar.

  • Guided Activity Assistant

    The Manage Service activity has a simplified version of the Guided Troubleshooter that provides a special flow for providing guidance through the steps to manage your service requests. This specialized guidance is provided in a small sidebar on the left side of the activity panel and provides step-by-step instructions on how to:

    • Collect Diagnostic Data: An optional step on how to use the Collect Data capability to automate the process of gathering problem determination artifacts.
    • Collect Inventory Data: An optional step that shows how to collect and view software inventory data.
    • Export Case Data: An optional step that walks you through the process of exporting all the problem determination information that you’ve collected in your case. This might be useful to the IBM Support team to ensure that they get all of the notes, files, and data you’ve pulled together during your own investigation.
    • Create a new Service Request: This step guides you through the steps required to open a new service request with IBM Support.
    • View or Update Service Requests: Similar to the previous step, except this one focuses on what you need to do when you want to simply view or update a service request that has already been opened.

    By following the guidance provided in the sidebar, you can help to ensure that your problem submission and resolution will be quicker and less complex.

  • Collect Data

    Data collection capabilities are available here the same as they were in the Analyze Problem activity. In the Manage Service Request activity, data collection serves the purpose of simplifying the process of gathering problem determination artifacts that would be needed by IBM Support teams, in contrast to gathering input to use with local tools. Automated data collection can be performed on the same system on which the IBM Support Assistant Workbench is running, or you can specify collection for a remote system where an IBM Support Assistant agent has been installed. By proactively collecting data for a specific problem and problem type (symptom), the time to resolution can be shortened, since IBM Support can have the artifacts they need when the problem report is initially opened.

  • Service Requests

    The Service Requests tab is where you can create new requests to IBM Support, or view and update existing requests (PMRs). The links provided here will take you to the appropriate interface to submit or review electronic software or hardware problem reports. Once you’ve accessed the service request site, you can describe the issue you’re facing in your own words and attach the problem determination artifacts that you’ve gathered.

    Using these links might require special registration and a password that you would have received after purchasing a services contract from IBM. The Support Service Request help page can provide additional information about registering and authorizing callers for electronic problem submission.

    Figure 11 shows an example of the panels you might encounter while managing service requests. This example shows the results of a search through open service requests, which you can now read and update.

    Figure 11. Manage Service Requests
    Figure 11. Manage Service Requests

Conclusion

IBM Support Assistant V4.0 provides a powerful problem determination workbench and new remote access capabilities. Users familiar with IBM Support Assistant V3.0 will appreciate the improved GUI experience, access to product news feeds, case management features, and built-in guided troubleshooter. Users taking the next step to remote troubleshooting will be able to leverage remote data collection, file retrieval, and advanced log handling capabilities. By using the IBM Support Assistant, you might be able to significantly reduce the time and effort required to find solutions for your software problems, and improve your experience when working with IBM Support. With not much time left to fix a hanging Web application, it's nice to have the help.

The IBM Support Assistant team encourages and values your feedback. Take advantage of the Submit Feedback button, available through the Help menu.

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