Review: Zabbix 1.8 Network Monitoring

Posted on May 24, 2010

There are a lot of monitoring tools and frameworks out there. Some are expensive (such as HP OpenView) some are free (such Nagios). All of them have a niche to fill. Zenoss looks pretty. Nagios is will supported and highly extensible. Up.time and WhatsUp Gold are easy to get going. They’ve all got their thing. As such, I spend a lot of time evaluating and re-evaluating them. The one I circle back on most commonly is Zabbix.

Zabbix won’t win a beauty pageant… its ugly, lets face it. But once you get beyond that its all raw power. Its agent based making it easy to extend. Monitoring something new doesn’t require writting some plugin or writing a complex XML description, its just a simple single line in the agent config. It supports alerting through email, jabber, or SMS natively and is capable of doing fine grained escalations. It graphs everything, so there is no need to have Cacti or Munin or some custom RRDtool setup in addition. It is the only monitoring tool/framework that I’m aware of that natively handles IPMI, both for monitoring and actions. It has proxy capabilities for monitoring into hard to reach places (such as a small branch office) and can be multi-teered to control several sites from one point of control. The list goes on and on. Zabbix truly is the state of the art in monitoring…. and its free!

But… its not entirely the most intuitive tool to use. Several core concepts must be fully understood to be effective with Zabbix or its a big confusing mess.. power that can’t be harnessed.

So a very fortunate thing happened to me. I wanted to do a large proof of concept based on Zabbix 1.8.2 but needed to refresh on some basics, when it so happens that Packet Publishing tells me they’d like me to review Zabbix 1.8 Network Monitoring. While a strange coincidence, I wasn’t sure if this was a blessing or not. Most books on monitoring tools are abstract for the first 4-5 chapters, then have a really crappy installation chapter, followed by several chapters on topics that never seem to be what you actually need to do. That is to say, useless.

Thankfully, Zabbix 1.8 Network Monitoring is perhaps the most practical book I’ve ever read. I’d dare say that if I wrote a book on Zabbix it’d be pretty much the same. There is no lengthy flow of abstract BS, its essentially a systematic walkthrough of Zabbix from beginning to end. The first chapter is how to preform a full installation, hitting on the various options and capabilities impacted by them. Then chapter two moves onto configuration, ending with getting your first alert. So, you’ve got Zabbix fully installed, configured, and alerting, and thats just the first 2 chapters! Thats the way technical books should be. 🙂

The book is laced with screenshots and CLI examples at all turns. It really is a walkthrough, and author Rihards Olups shows you ever step. This is especially important because most of the real configuration in Zabbix is via a web interface, and its confusing to navigate unless you have a picture of what you should be seeing. Its all there, which means you don’t need to frantically flip pages in front of a screen trying to figure out how he did this or that.

It has a great chapter on reporting and another on graphing. I was really pleased that these we’re lumped together or breezed over. They are key capabilities and are given plenty of space.

There is also a great chapter on troubleshooting (appendix actually), which will help you in any areas that cause you to stumble initially.

If you want to get going with Zabbix and don’t want to waste time, this book will save you days. As I mentioned before, Zabbix is configured differently that the traditional tools out there, so you need a keen understanding of core concepts, such as “Hosts”, “Items”, and “Templates”. You can piece it together from the (poor) Zabbix manual and experimentation, your you can just buy the book and get going.

Now…. that said, there are only two shortcomings to the book.

The first is that it can, at times, be a little too fluff-less. There are times a little up-front explanation could have been enhanced before just jumping into it and explaining as he goes along. But that will really be dependent upon your learning style. If you want to get Zabbix going, its great, but if you just want to read about it, its not so easy to just jumping in and out of the text to understand concepts. Again, its a walkthrough, not an overview (such as O’Reilly books, which tell you a lot about it but typically not enough about how to actually make it happen.)

My second nitpick is that distributed monitoring isn’t really explored fully. There is a chapter on monitoring remote sites using proxies, but an additional chapter on complex mult-site installation featuring not just proxies, but also parent-child servers, would have been very welcome. I’m not sure if it was left out because of its complexity or some other reason. Perhaps he’s setting himself up for a sequel covering advanced topics. May have even been due to the length, the book is 428 pages and is really dense material.

The book runs $45 which is pretty standard. The PDF ebook is $33, which is a little steep imho, but like I said, this book really will save you days… so it’ll pay for itself in an hour or two. Incidentally, it looks great on my iPad. 🙂 See the full list of contents and get a sample chapter here: Zabbix 1.8 Network Monitoring. Buy it direct or you can pick up direct from the publisher or at Amazon, or if you’re in the Silicon Valley don’t forget to help out the brothers at Digital Guru.

I’ll throw out a personal thank you to Rihards Olups for the way he wrote this book. His approach was fantastic, and as a technical writer myself I really like the way he tackled it. It takes a special mindset to write so clearly and concisely, and I really appreciate that.