A Job Scheduler for the Ages

By By Derrick Harris, Managing Editor

November 12, 2007

More than a Job Scheduler

It’s funny how we argue over semantics in the world of distributed computing. Whether a particular software product creates a grid or a fabric or whatever varies depending on whom you ask and, quite frankly, under which buzzword its vendor chooses to market it. Therefore, one might be a little underwhelmed by Advanced Systems Concepts Inc.’s  (ASCI) decision to market its ActiveBatch software as a “job scheduler,” even though its list of capabilities lends the product to far sexier (and more nebulous) labels.

ActiveBatch, branded from its inception in 1997 until 2000 as Batch Queue Management System, is geared toward job automation over distributed and heterogeneous platforms, including those running Windows, Linux, IBM AIX, HP-UX, Solaris and/or OpenVMS operating systems. The only requirement in terms of operating systems is that the job scheduler must be on a Windows machine. As for its distributed nature, ActiveBatch has tested to be scalable up to 2,000 server connections, and up to 1.3 million jobs per day. In terms of what kinds of ActiveBatch can handle, pretty much anything (scripts, applications, file operations, etc.) is fair game so long as it can support a command line — and no rewriting or recoding is required.

Where ActiveBatch really earns it stripes, though, is in the breadth of scheduling and automation options it offers. According to Jim Manias, vice president of sales and marketing for ASCI, jobs can be scheduled to run simply by time or by a variety of triggers, including the completion of other jobs or the presence of a particular file (or the lack thereof). Going more granular, specific exit codes from completed jobs will trigger corresponding jobs to begin, and when setting file-based automation, jobs can be programmed to be triggered by whether or not a file contains specific attributes.

In addition, ActiveBatch’s workload balancer can send jobs to either to predetermined machines or to available machines, and to either one machine or to a group of machines. It also can handle transaction processing based on user-defined criteria, such as the size of the queue or the time of day. And the product’s Job Steps feature opens the doors to parallel processing by allowing users to decompose jobs into various parts that run on separate machines at the same time. New in Version 6 is a feature called Virtual Root, which allows for multi-tenancy of the job scheduler, enabling transparent distribution of jobs over various departments within an organization. It is event-driven processing at its finest, and all designed with the goal of maximum efficiency or, as Manias puts it, reducing “slack time.”

“Twenty-four hours is not what it used to be,” he said. “People have less time … to be able to deal with ensuring that they achieve the success that they sign up for in terms of service levels.”

Also very important to ASCI is the ability to resolve, or at least mitigate, problems as quickly as possible. Aside from server to server failover, ActiveBatch works with Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI), a collection of about 15,000 hardware and software commands within the Windows OS that allow users to register certain events. Manias gives the example of a user registering the termination of a specific service with WMI, wherein the alert generated by WMI would trigger ActiveBatch to restart the terminated service. One customer, he added, has ActiveBatch programmed to page security to the server room should the intrusion switch on a server be flipped between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Another key aspect of this mitigation strategy is to ensure that jobs get done correctly and on time. To accomplish this, ActiveBatch employs checkpoints that allow jobs to automatically restart from the last checkpoint in case of failure. The solution also incorporates runtime monitoring, which compares the current runtime to historical averages. If, explained Manias, a job that normally takes three hours were to complete in 10 seconds, ActiveBatch would assume something went wrong and rerun the job.

“Everything is done in what I refer to as ‘near real time,’” said Manias. “I would not use it to monitor carbon rods in nuclear reactors, but certainly in the near-real-time world which makes up today’s global economy, it has absolutely been proven to be a top performer.”

A Wide Range of Customers

One customer that appreciates ASCI’s dedication to problem resolution is Canada’s Equitable Life Insurance, which, according to systems administrator Andrew Garland, uses ActiveBatch for “pretty much all” of the company’s batch scheduling, including billing, checks and Web server updates. On top of the product’s functionality, Garland also takes advantage of the personal support offered by ASCI. Any problems — such as hot-fix-requiring problems that have arisen after service pack update — are fixed very soon after calling, he said.

Furthermore, Equitable regularly tests the limits of its test environment by “[hammering] our applications fairly hard, probably harder than they are intended to [be hammered],” often to the point of maxing out the old operating systems on which they run, admits Garland. Instead of telling Equitable it’s out of luck because it has joined Microsoft in discontinuing support of those operating systems or suggesting an OS upgrade, ASCI tries to help Equitable work around these issues.

Garland also notes that he was impressed by the relatively low price of ActiveBatch, and he continues to be impressed by the product’s cross-platform capabilities, its easy-to-use GUI and the ease with which he can add or subtract machines to his distributed architecture.

Among ActiveBatch’s other users are Dutch Yellow Pages publisher Truvo, who adopted ActiveBatch as a cross-platform scheduler to manage the processing of book production data; Conshohocken, Penn.-based Ecount, a Citi-owned provider of prepaid services, which uses the solution for processing banking transactions, and utilizes a variety of job triggers to make more efficiently coordinate its business processes; and Denmark’s Jyske Bank, which chose ActiveBatch to increase the scale of the bank’s batch processing environment and to do parallel processing. According to a case study on the ASCI Web site, ActiveBatch has helped Jyske Bank to quadruple the number of portfolios it can process during its nightly batch processing window, and is helping the system become self-repairing and self-managing via its alerting and event-driven processing capabilities.

According to ASCI’s Manias, about 60 percent of the company’s business is in the United States, with a good portion coming from the financial industry. Other sectors where ASCI has seen traction for ActiveBatch range from health care to manufacturing, including at least one fast food chain. Corpus Christi, Texas-based Whataburger leveraged the solution to distribute its back office operations across the chain’s numerous outlets, which has allowed the company to perform real-time cash analyses, among other things.

Lots of Bells and Whistles; More to Come

Aside from the numerous features already mentioned, current ActiveBatch customers running Version 6 also receive the benefits of ASCI’s points system. Users must purchase points, which can be allocated as they see fit among any machines — physical or virtual. While it might seem like an unnecessary step, Manias says otherwise, explaining that having points allows users to switch execution agents from machine to machine simply by deleting the queue from a machine in reallocating those points to any other available machine. With the tight budgets and timeframes in today’s IT world, commented Manias, “reusability becomes a big factor.” And for those who need to scale their ActiveBatch infrastructure in a hurry, the job scheduler can create and install a lightweight execution agent on-demand. Version 7, which is slated for release in 2008, will introduce “agentless” computing for those who are interested.

The upcoming version also will offer historical analysis, wherein users can see the history of particular applications on certain servers and allocate jobs accordingly, and “green” technology that suspends power to inactive systems based on user-defined criteria.

However, the most unique feature of ActiveBatch is one that already exists: mobile management. That’s right, with the purchase of the Wireless Server software add-in, users can monitor and manage their ActiveBatch environments from their smartphones, PDAs or Blackberries. Says Manias about this feature, although really speaking for the ActiveBatch solution as a whole, “We’re not the brontosaurus, monolithic, intergalactic kind of mainframe system.”

More information about Advanced Systems Concepts can be found at www.advsyscon.com/

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