Zenoss: a great system monitoring program which tries to do everything right

I was happily hanging out in the sysadmin room of a major ISP around here in Western Australia (no, I wasn't meant to be there, if you really want to know!). Steve, the senior sysadmin in charge of the place, showed me a computer screen (running Vista, but I won’t comment on that) and said "Oh yeah, I'm sure you know about this...". "Yeah, I know Google maps" I answered. He looked at me embarrassed. "Err... actually, we use Zenoss server monitoring here... look close. That's our VPN!" It was a map of their server in Australia. There were green lines between them. Green meant "OK". Thing is, I had no idea what Zenoss was until that very moment. I am supposed to be a capable system administrator. I have used Nagios for server monitoring, and I had even heard of RRDTool. However, what Steve showed me was what I call "server monitoring done right".

He was probably excited knowing something I didn't know (you get that when you're vaguely well-known), and did his best to show off his fancy monitoring system. He showed me more (carefully picked, I later discovered) screenshots, and decided to add my own server to the list of monitored ones--yes, that's www.freesoftwaremagazine.com. Which was down (no joke). I felt a little uneasy about asking the crucial question: "Is it free? You know, as in freedom...". "You mean Open Source?" "Alright, yeah, is it then?".

Zenoss is server monitoring done right. It has an ever-expanding community, it has all the buzz (something I have obviously missed, somehow...), and it's like the Ruby On Rails of web development: everything just seems to happen more easily while using it, and things "just work".

Who says that geeks don't follow fashion? I installed Zenoss on my own monitoring server that very night. I added a couple of devices, got lost in the configuration, read the documentation, found my way around it, and wasted even more time monitoring servers I keep an eye on as part of my night job. I am one of those people who installed Ruby On Rails when it came out, learned Ruby, tried to work professionally with RoR, and then went back to PHP/Drupal. Today, I am officially a Drupal developer. With Zenoss, will it last? I can't tell for sure, but it's been one week, and I must say I am highly addicted to the graphs I get from it.

"But is it free?" I had asked. "Well, not this version, no. This is the enterprise edition." My heart sank.

I don't like it when software is released under a free license... but it really isn't. PHP is a practical example, although not many are aware of this problem. PHP is free (as in freedom), but if you have a very busy web server and need an PHP cache, you have no choice but fork out money to Zend (all of the other free PHP caches will eventually kill your apache, more or less randomly). PHPA, a free accelerator by ionCube, was stopped after treading on Zend's toes a few years ago.

I like Zenoss. I plan on using it every day. As a magazine publisher, I would probably be offered an Enterprise edition for free. What’s the difference? Well, this Zenoss comparison page sums it up well. Now, the first screenshot I ever saw of Zenoss was the "global dashboard". I liked it--a lot. However, you don't get it with the "Zenoss Core Edition" (released under the GPL). Other important (or shall I say Ruby-ish?) features are missing. The real question is: will the community develop a "free global dashboard" module? (It's only Python code after all...). If a member of the community does, will it step on Zenoss toes? What if somebody clones all the "commercial pack" features? I guess time will tell.

I ranted about the license. However, I do think that Zenoss is a fantastic product that deserves the attention it's getting (just like RoR did and still does). I am not just in love with the graphs, I think the full product has a degree of polish I rarely see in software these days. People are developing Zenpacks, and I am sure it will get more traction.


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