The Support Authority: What’s new in IBM Support Assistant V4.1

IBM Support Assistant is a free serviceability workbench provided by IBM to facilitate self-help diagnostics for software problems. This article provides an overview of the newest features included in the IBM Support Assistant Workbench and Agent V4.1 software offerings. This content is part of the IBM WebSphere Developer Technical Journal.

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Mihaela Herescu (olteamh@us.ibm.com), IBM Support Assistant Development, IBM

Mihaela Herescu is currently one of the principal designers on the IBM Support Assistant team. In her present job, she is responsible for tasks from design to development to test, and all other aspects of getting the IBM Support Assistant tool to the market. Since she joined IBM in 2001 she has worked with J2EE and Eclipse technologies, being involved in WebSphere Application Server customer support and tool development.



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

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.



Paul Blizniak (The_Bliz_@us.ibm.com), Software Engineer, IBM

Paul Blizniak is a software engineer for the IBM Support Assistant project. His present job has given him much experience with both J2EE and Eclipse technologies. In previous assignments, he has helped develop both the VisualAge Smalltalk and VisualAge for Java products.



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

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.


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24 June 2009

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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:

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...


IBM Support Assistant news

In previous installments of The Support Authority, we presented the capabilities of IBM Support Assistant V4.0 and did a deeper dive into automated data collection to demonstrate how you can simplify and enhance your self-help experience with problem determination. We’re pleased to announce a new release of IBM Support Assistant V4.1 which builds upon the fantastic capabilities already offered. IBM Support Assistant V4.1 brings you new function, enhanced capabilities, and tremendous improvements in usability.

This article offers a tour of the new V4.1 offering to demonstrate how IBM continues to improve the IBM Support Assistant serviceability workbench and make it easier for you to diagnose problems that you encounter using IBM software.


What's new

Installation

There are several installation improvements in V4.1. On both Windows® and Linux® platforms, the workbench installs in multi-user mode only (single-user mode is no longer available), which will require administrator authority. Multi-user mode enables the workbench code to be shared by all users on a given machine, saving you both time and disk space. Also, the user's workspace location can be specified at install time, giving you the flexibility to designate which drives or file systems will be used when installing tool or product add-ons.

On Linux, the installer uses a common RPM-based install approach. As a result, installing the workbench on Linux is approximately three times faster than the previous release. Administration is also easier because you can use the familiar rpm command.

Upgrading from a previous install

Workbench

If you already have IBM Support Assistant V3.0, 3.1, or 4.0 installed, you can install V4.1 right alongside your previous version. The first time that you start up the 4.1 workbench, a wizard dialog will guide you through some first steps, including a migration. In most cases, the migration wizard will automatically detect a previous install and determine where your user data is located so it can transfer some of your settings over to the new workbench. If the wizard cannot detect your previous install, don’t worry: you can browse the file system and tell the wizard where your previous install is located. The migration process will pick up your proxy settings, and even determine the product and tool add-ons that you had installed. Once it determines which add-ons you use, it will step you through the update manager capability to ensure that you’ve got the latest and greatest version of the add-ons.

If you don’t run through the migration the first time that you start the workbench (or if you wish to run it again later), you can always restart it by going to the First Steps section of the Welcome page in the workbench.

Agent / Agent manager

The agent and agent manager components are separate, optional installs that you use if you wish to perform remote data collection capabilities. Agent and agent manager were first offered with IBM Support Assistant V4.0. If you’ve already installed the remote components from the 4.0 release, you do not need to re-install them. You can simply use the V4.1 workbench to deploy the new data collection subagents to the remote systems.

Deployment of bundles to a remote system is accomplished using the Administration => Remote Agent menu options, and is a simple two step process:

  1. Download new add-ons to the local repository: This menu option (Figure 1) enables you to retrieve the updated Base software for the IBM Support Assistant Agent. You should also download the IBM Support Assistant Agent Collector Add-on so that data collection for the agent itself can be performed (see figure).
  2. Install add-ons to agents: This menu option enables you to push the base software bundle (and any other add-ons) out to the existing agents.

Once you’ve completed these steps, your agents will be ready to perform remote data collection and communicate with the IBM Support Assistant V4.1 Workbench.

Figure 1. Download IBM Support Assistant agent and agent collector
Figure 1. Download IBM Support Assistant agent and agent collector

Proxy support

There were several changes in this release related to network connections and proxy support on Windows (there were no changes on the Linux platform from the previous release). The workbench’s default configuration will inherit a user’s Internet Explorer browser proxy settings (including any automatic configuration script that’s defined). This should enable most users to be up and running without further configuration.

When communicating with remote agents, the browsing and file transfer functions will not use any form of NTLM proxy authentication.

In addition, NTLMv1 and NTLMv2 proxy authentication is also supported. The current user's Windows credentials are automatically obtained from the platform and used for authentication, saving you from having to re-enter this information.

Data collection

Data collection continues to be one of the central features in IBM Support Assistant V4.1. Data collection has been enhanced with several new features and improvements to some existing ones. See Collecting diagnostic information using the IBM Support Assistant for a comprehensive overview of data collection in IBM Support Assistant.

Intuitive navigation for various data collection options

The new Collect Data page helps you navigate intuitively through the various data collection options available in IBM Support Assistant. The page has been redesigned for better usability and quicker collections through the three types of data collection:

  • Local data collection: You can always quickly collect data from the machine where IBM Support Assistant Workbench is installed.
  • Remote data collection using IBM Support Assistant Lite: Now it’s easy to export a lightweight IBM Support Assistant Lite portable collector that can be easily transferred to a remote system for performing data collection. This is an extension of the portable collector from IBM Support Assistant V4.
  • Remote data collection using IBM Support Assistant agents: Collect data from remote systems via IBM Support Assistant Workbench. Each remote system should have an IBM Support Assistant agent running to which the workbench will communicate.

Collect Data is the default tab in the Collect and Send Data activity in the IBM Support Assistant workbench (Figure 2). Collect and Send Data is the new name for the Manage Service Requests activity from the previous release, and more accurately reflects a user’s primary goal for the activity. The Collect Data tab can also be accessed from the Analyze Problem activity.

The Collect and Send Data activity includes updated cheatsheets to help you use the different types of data collection. Select the data collection option appropriate for your environment and the cheatsheet for the selected option will display for you. You can view or hide the cheatsheets the same way as in IBM Support Assistant V4.

Figure 2. Data collection options
Figure 2. Data collection options

IBM Support Assistant Lite

What was previously called Portable Collector in IBM Support Assistant V4 is now called IBM Support Assistant Lite. IBM Support Assistant Lite provides a graphical user interface (Figure 3) in addition to the console mode available in the portable collector.

You can use IBM Support Assistant Lite similar to how you use the portable collector: you export it from the workbench for one of the available collectors and transfer it to a remote system (using FTP, SCP, memory key, or another transfer method). After extracting the IBM Support Assistant Lite files on the remote system, run one of the launch scripts for the mode you selected for the tool:

  • Graphical mode

    For Windows, run the runISALite.bat script from the tool's \ISALite directory.

    For Linux, AIX, HP-UX, and Solaris, run the ./runISALite.sh script from the tool's /ISALite directory.

  • Command line console mode

    For Windows, run the runISALiteConsole.bat script from the tool's \ISALite directory.

    For Linux, AIX®, HP-UX, and Solaris™, run the ./runISALiteConsole.sh script from the tool's /ISALite directory.

Figure 3. IBM Support Assistant Lite
Figure 3. IBM Support Assistant Lite

Similar to the portable collector, IBM Support Assistant Lite requires JRE 1.4.2 or higher available on the remote system. Java can now be better detected by using the JAVA_HOME environment variable or by looking for “java” in the system’s path. For certain products, such as WebSphere Application Server, if you run IBM Support Assistant Lite from the product installation directory, the tool can detect and use the JRE shipped with the product.

Viewing collector script documentation

Automated collection scripts contained within a product add-on will sometimes contribute documentation to the IBM Support Assistant help system. This documentation can provide additional details about the collection script and its actions. You can also easily locate the documentation directly from the Collect Data view. Collectors with available documentation will have the More Info button enabled when selected in the workbench, as shown in Figure 4. The More Info button will be disabled when collector documentation is not provided. Both the System collector and the IBM Support Assistant V4.1 collector that are pre-installed with the workbench provide documentation about the data that is collected. This functionality is currently only available for product add-ons installed in the workbench. If you want to view documentation for collectors installed on an agent system, then you will need to also install the corresponding product add-on on the workbench.

Figure 4. Data Collection More Info button
Figure 4. Data Collection More Info button

Secure file transfer

Currently, you cannot transfer data collection files larger than 20 MB to IBM using the HTTPS file transfer with IBM Support Assistant Workbench or IBM Support Assistant Lite running with JRE 1.4.2.

The archive file that is created by the data collection can now be transferred to IBM using secure file transfer via HTTPS. This is provided in addition to the FTP transfer and it is available for all the collection environments (IBM Support Assistant Lite, Workbench, and Agent). The HTTPS file transfer option is available as the last step of the data collection. As with the FTP transfer, you must have a valid PMR number in order to use the HTTPS file transfer.

Archive viewer

You can now view and analyze the contents of the collected data from the Case Manger in the IBM Support Assistant Workbench. This new feature is called the Archive Viewer and it provides additional value above just using a standard file compression utility. You can examine the contents of a specific artifact, learn more about the purpose of certain files, and filter the contents of the data collection archive.

To use the Archive Viewer, select an existing data collection archive file in the Case Manager, and then select the Case Manager => Open in Archive Viewer menu option. Alternatively, right-click on the data collection archive file in the Case Manager view, and select Open in Archive Viewer. The selected data collection archive will be opened using the Data Collection Archive Viewer. The Archive Viewer will process the data collection archive and supply a list of valid categories or tags that can be used to filter the contents of the archive.

To filter the contents of the data collection archive, select a valid category or tag to filter the data that is displayed. The complete contents of the data collection archive are displayed by default. (The availability of filters will vary from product to product.)

To learn more about a specific artifact in the data collection archive, select the artifact inside the Data Collection Archive Viewer (Figure 5) and additional information will display, if available. If the artifact selected from the Data Collection Archive viewer is a file, you have the option to view the contents of the file either by selecting the Quick View link displayed in the details panel, or by right clicking on the file and selecting Quick View or Open Outside.

Figure 5. Archive Viewer
Figure 5. Archive Viewer

Service request changes

The Service Requests tab in the Collect and Send Data activity has also been improved in IBM Support Assistant V4.1.

Service request links

The Service Requests links now open in the IBM Support Assistant Workbench’s embedded browser rather than an external browser. This is more convenient because it creates a seamless experience between the workbench and the Web site where service reports are managed.

Access to IBMLink/ServiceLink

Access to IBMLink/ServiceLink is now available from the Service Requests tab in the IBM Support Assistant Workbench. The new link has been added to the IBM Hardware section. This is convenient for opening service requests for several IBM products directly from your serviceability workbench.

Usage gathering

The Usage Gathering Feature is new in this release and enables you to influence the future design of the IBM Support Assistant. The information collected through this feature will help the IBM Support Assistant team better understand which functions are accessed frequently and how you use the workbench so that they can direct efforts on improving the functions that are most useful. Enabled by default, this feature works in the background to determine how the workbench is utilized, records user activity and navigation, and pools collected data into a database for reporting purposes. No user-identifiable information is collected through this feature.

This feature will have a minimal impact on user experience and performance, and includes a filtering capability to restrict the type of information that is uploaded. After a configurable amount of time, a dialog pops-up asking for permission to upload the collected data to IBM. You can always view the collected data before it is uploaded, so you can see exactly what is being sent.

Figure 6 shows a screen capture of the usage gathering pop-up dialog.

Figure 6. Usage Data Upload dialog
Figure 6. Usage Data Upload dialog

Media Viewer

The Media Viewer (Figure 7) was introduced in a 4.0.2 fix pack for IBM Support Assistant and is now part of the base offering. This feature enables you to build an education playlist for IBM software products top help you quickly grow your (and your team’s) product skills. Think of Media Viewer as your ability to create skills playlists, similar to how you might build an MP3 playlist in iTunes or Windows Media Player.

For example, suppose you want to provide an educational overview for new employees on WebSphere Application Server, You can start with many of the tutorials and presentations available from the IBM Education Assistant repository and group them together, from multiple products, in any order that you desire. Additionally, you can insert your own documents into the playlist so that you can customize the education roadmap to meet your team’s processes and business requirements. The simple drag and drop interface lets you quickly create a playlist that you can then export for sharing with team members, or download all of the content in the playlist to your local machine so that you can play it back later with offline viewing.

Figure 7. Media Viewer
Figure 7. Media Viewer

Improved IBM Support Assistant serviceability

Automated data collection is now available for IBM Support Assistant related issues, which should help speed up the resolution of problems with the IBM Support Assistant application. Automated data collection is available for both the IBM Support Assistant Workbench and Agent.

Collecting data for workbench issues

A collector that automates data collection for workbench issues is pre-installed with the workbench. It is available from the Local Collection option in the Collect and Send Data tab, similar to other product collectors. The name of the Workbench collector is IBM Support Assistant V4.1, as shown in Figure 8.

Figure 8. IBM Support Assistant Workbench Collector
Figure 8. IBM Support Assistant Workbench Collector

In cases where the workbench cannot be started, an additional standalone data collection utility is provided to gather workbench logs and other problem determination data. The standalone data collector is located in the rcp subdirectory of the IBM Support Assistant Workbench installation directory, and it can be invoked by running startcollector.bat on Windows or ./startcollector.sh on Linux.

Collecting data for Agent issues

A collector that automates data collection for Agent issues is pre-installed with the agent. It is available from the Remote collection using agents option in the Collect Data tab, similar to other remote product collectors. The name of the Agent collector is IBM Support Assistant Agent Data Collector.

For situations when, for example, the agent collector cannot be run because the connectivity between the workbench and agent is compromised, an alternate solution is available. The Agent collector is available on the update site so that you can install it in the workbench and export it as an IBM Support Assistant Lite collector. You can manually transfer the IBM Support Assistant Lite collector to the agent system and run it to collect agent log files and other problem determination data.

Guided troubleshooter

The Guided Troubleshooter, based on the IBM Guided Activity Assistant technology, continues to be an integral part of the complete problem analysis experience. It guides you through all phases of the troubleshooting process, starting with the problem symptoms and ending with an implemented solution. The Guided Troubleshooter makes it easy for you to leverage IBM Support Assistant workbench services with guided activities that can start a data collection, store the collected diagnostics in a case, and launch the most appropriate diagnostic tool for the problem you’re troubleshooting. If at some point you decide to contact IBM technical support, you can use the workbench to open a service request and export your entire guided troubleshooting history so that a support engineer can pick up where you left off.

Two primary additions to the Guided Troubleshooter for IBM Support Assistant V4.1 include:

  • Cheatsheets that assist you with using diagnostic tools.
  • A guided activity that shows you how to use the Log Analyzer.

Cheatsheets for diagnostic tools

Cheatsheets were introduced in the IBM Support Assistant V4.0 workbench. Initially, there were two cheatsheets: one that introduced you to the cheatsheet feature, and another that helped you open a managed service request. IBM Support Assistant V4.1 includes additional cheatsheets to help you with different types of data collection.

In the IBM Support Assistant V4.1 Workbench, diagnostic tools can now include a cheatsheet with the tool add-on package. When a diagnostic tool includes a cheatsheet, that cheatsheet will open when you launch the tool from the workbench tools catalog in the Analyze Problem activity (Figure 9).

Figure 9. Cheatsheet for Memory Dump Diagnostic for Java tool
Figure 9. Cheatsheet for Memory Dump Diagnostic for Java tool

Log Analyzer how-to guided activity

Earlier versions of the IBM Support Assistant Workbench included a default Guided Troubleshooter guide that walked you through each of the troubleshooting phases at a high level. IBM Support Assistant V4.1 still includes this guide, but it has been expanded to walk you though how to use the Log Analyzer diagnostic tool to troubleshoot problems.

To reach the Log Analyzer guided activity:

  1. Click the Guided Troubleshooter tab in the Analyze Problem activity.
  2. Select Troubleshoot a problem and click the Next button.
  3. Assign a case name in the Case Name field and click the Next button.
  4. Choose General Troubleshooting and click the Next button.
  5. On the General Troubleshooting – Find Existing Solutions page, click the Next button.
  6. On the Identify Symptoms page, click the Next button.
  7. Choose How to use the Log Analyzer and click the Next button.

The Log Analyzer how-to guided activity shown in Figure 10.

Figure 10. Log Analyzer how-to guided activity
Figure 10. Log Analyzer how-to guided activity

Diagnostic tools

Diagnostic tools are invaluable when troubleshooting problems. IBM Support Assistant V4.1 includes an upgrade to the platform runtime that simplifies IBM’s ability to deliver new tools to you.

The suite of troubleshooting tools for the IBM Support Assistant workbench continues to grow. In addition to the many great tools already available, like Log Analyzer, Visual Configuration Explorer, and others, several new Java and WebSphere Application Server diagnostic tools were introduced after the release of IBM Support Assistant V4.0 in April of 2008:

See the IBM Support Assistant Tools Add-on List for a complete list of available tools along with brief descriptions of what each tool does and when to use it.

Watch the IBM Support Assistant Support page for flash announcements of new tools and upgrades. Announcements are also posted to the Latest News feed in the lower right corner of the IBM Support Assistant workbench Home tab.


Conclusion

IBM Support Assistant V4.1 brings new functions, enhanced capabilities, and significant improvements in usability. This high level tour introduced these new features to help you better understand some of the tools and resources available to assist you with your troubleshooting activities. As you become more familiar with the IBM Support Assistant, you will come to understand how valuable it can be for keeping your WebSphere environment problem-free.

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