Lithium Shows a Pretty Face for Net Monitoring

Friday Feb 23rd 2007 by John Welch

The Lithium Network Monitoring Platform might not outshine the competition in features alone, but it presents an appealing interface and relatively easy setup.

While the iPhone and AppleTV and all the rest got all the press at Macworld, there was one product that was impressing the heck out of everyone in the networking/IT space: the Lithium Network Monitoring Platform, from LithiumCorp.

Now, right off, as many of you will think, there's not anything that the Lithium NMS does that other tools don't. You can use Nagios and Cacti and others to get all the functionality that you find in Lithium, and you can get that functionality for free.

What Lithium gives you is, okay, I admit this shouldn't be important, but Lithium's console applications are gorgeous. They incorporate high-resolution images and some basic animations (like the way you get the individual drive data in the Xserve RAID module), but they don't detract from the functionality of the application.

One of the dangers of trying to add "flair" to an application like this is that it's all too easy to lose sight of the information in all the glitz. Lithium manages to avoid that trap, and the sizzle only enhances the usability of the application.

That's important. I know it's not popular for network applications to have beautiful UIs, and indeed, sometimes there's a perverse pleasure in using the 'ugliness' as a judgment on the quality of the application. I think that extremism in either direction is wrong. There's a place for quality UIs in network applications, if for no other reason, for the inevitable dog and pony shows that we have to do for various corner office denizens.

While the Console application only runs on Windows and Mac OS X, Lithium has a solid web console, which is where you'll do most of the heavy lifting. The only complaint here is that Lithium has made some design decisions that make Lithium easier to use in a multi-site/multi-client configuration, which can make it a bit annoying to use when you only have one site.

It's not that it's hard to use in a smaller situation, but you have to jump through some hoops that – while appropriate for a large multi-site setup - – are annoying for a smaller setup. One thing that occurs to me though is that you could create a "dog and pony" show site for various executives or corner office folks that don't need to see the more technical info, but want a network dashboard for their own needs.

However, minor annoyances with the setup paradigm aside, the web console is functional, and in my tests, works perfectly under both Firefox and Safari, so you can use it on pretty much any platform that can run Firefox. Both the fat and web consoles show you performance graphs, etc. The Web console uses RRDtool to generate the graphs, so anyone familiar with RRDTool graphs will know what to expect there. The Console shows you the same data, but allows you to add multiple graphs to a single window, via the "Multi-Graph" option. This can be more than handy when you want to combine data views in ways that the programmers might not have thought of.

The installation and setup of Lithium, while not exactly easy, is not hard either. There are a few steps that can seem tedious, but compared to the installation and initial configuration of things like Nagios and Cacti, Lithium is cake.

I have some minor nits about the installation. Lithium uses Postgres, which is an excellent database, but I'd like the option to use MySQL, since that is on every copy of Mac OS X by default. Lithium installs at the root level of the boot drive, and that's just annoying if you have a specific way or place you like to install such items. I do however like the fact that Lithium is a self-contained application, so uninstalling is simple. I’d like to be able to point that installation folder somewhere else, but it's not, as of yet, a huge inconvenience.

However, if I had to state my single biggest complaint about Lithium, it would be the inability to create custom probes and modules. Lithium is, right now, a gated community. If you use it, you have to live with its rules. This is unlike products such as Nagios and Cacti where you have a nigh-infinite number of ways to customize the way you use the application on your network. Lithium has told me that not only customizable probes, but direct support for Nagios plugins is in the works. Based on the pace I've seen on the application, I have hopes that both of those features will become a reality soon.

However, don't just take my word for it. You can download a free configuration of Lithium and test it for yourself. It doesn't include all the features that the professional and enterprise editions include, but it will give you a solid way to use and evaluate Lithium for your own needs and uses. Lithium's core, which includes the web console, runs on Mac OS X and Linux, and the Console applications run on Mac OS X and Windows.

Article courtesy of Datamation

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