VisualCron Task Automation
VisualCron Automation Software, but who is it for? Admins, programmers, analysts, developers or all of the above? Today we answer that question and find out if VisualCron is worth your time.(Hint* it is.) Below is the statement you will find on their website at website.
VisualCron is an automation, integration and task scheduling tool for Windows
VisualCron advertises a considerable number of features and abilities, too many to cover in this review. We examine core features that admins and programmers will find useful and touch on capabilities that developers might find interesting. Most importantly, we will explore this software’s ability to automate tasks. We ask the question, what makes it better than the free task scheduler already included in Windows. The reported features are as follows.
- No programming skills neccesary
- Customer driven development
- Flow and Error Handling
- Price tag for everyone
- Easy to use interface
- Fast and Accurate Support
- Interact with anything
- tasks for everything
- extended logging
- programming interface
No Programming Skills Necessary & Customer Driven Development
I am a programmer and have a fondness for everything VisualCron does; my admin co-worker does not care for it. So, why does this occur? He has abandoned tasks that he did not immediately understand and deemed it not worth his time to figure out. He does use the product still, but not as intensively as I do. My coworker has many things he does manually while I automate away all my tasks. To the untrained eye, he appears to be doing more then I. An assertion made by non-technical workers. We still have people on typewriters here! VisualCron allows you to define a task by arranging many small functions in a specific order. For example, Check for the FTP file, download it, pass it to the primary system for loading. Tasks get much more complicated than that, but that is the core design of every task.
Bluntly put, the better you are at programming, the more efficiently you will use VisualCron. A good admin can still do great things with VisualCron and should not be scared away by that statement. A programmer will be able to skip some setups in their scripts/programs and chain actions faster, an advantage for sure. When you rely entirely on VisualCron, you run into more gaps when trying to solve complex problems. For example, we needed to generate directories for every client and store reports in each folder. The primary database had over 1000 clients. Getting VisualCron to loop through SQL generated data, creating folders and zipping reports to save space is much easier to accomplish in a programmatic script then lining up VisualCron tasks. However, doable either way. Just expect the latter to take longer.
Customer Driven Development
I have been using VisualCron for three years; I once went to support to complain about their PowerShell implementation. In this complaint, I criticized VisualCron’s PowerShell environment because I had some scripts crashing. VisualCron changes the PowerShell execution environment, to demonstrate, look at the write-host method below. I complained that VisualCron would not allow me to activate office objects in the background such as excel spreadsheets with PowerShell using standard Microsoft API calls. Guess what happened in the next update? I now could, maybe a coincidence or perhaps that customer-driven support they mentioned. Given this, I would have to agree with their assertion on this feature. Of course, some would argue that it should not have been a problem in the first place. However, I still give them credit for being quick on the ball with their fix. Remember, VisualCron is no small feat, it interacts with many different technologies.
Flow and Error Handling
Flow and error handling in VisualCron is a crucial component that simplifies work for everyone involved. When you establish a task, you can define VisualCron’s behavior in the event of a task error. You can skip error handling in scripts and just let VisualCron handle the appropriate action such as an email, generated report, etc. Error handling is done very well in VisualCron and provides a faster exit for safely accomplishing tasks. You can establish standard error emails, script actions, or anything else you want allowing you to skip error catching in the actual scripts. However, if you want to be extra safe, you can error-catch in the script and let VisualCron error-catch. This additional error-catching strengthens your overall chance of catching a critical error. It is win-win whatever stance you take on error catching. Once you have a notification set up, you just select that response in job flow.
VisualCron does indeed have an excellent price when compared to competitors. It is the only product inspected that did not require a consultant. I briefly looked into Automate and one other provider, the name I can not remember. Both cost thousands more and required talking to consultants. That was three years ago and perhaps they have changed their positioning, but at the time, they both priced higher by a considerable margin. My company purchased a VisualCron license at the time for about $300.00; it seems the price is now at $450.00. That price is still much lower than both the previous competitors I looked at three years ago. You will not find a reliable automation product for less, if you do, I want to know about it. The features need to be comparable, sorry, free-byte task scheduler is not equivalent.
The Magic Bullet?
I have known IT staff that appear to be searching for that “magic bullet”. A product or solution that will be turned on and all the problems will magically dissipate as the miracle software does its job. This product simply does not exist, no matter how much that sales consultant wants you to believe. The reason is because every company has distinct problems with distinct solution patterns unique to the company and the individuals involved. I work with multiple companies and no one performs file communication the same way. What does this ultimately mean? No software will successfully predict how to solve your specific problems. In my experience I have come to find that while everyone is doing the same thing differently, they are all doing it the right way. Simply put, predicting someones solution to a common problem is actually pretty difficult.
Easy To Use Interface
The interface provided in VisualCron allows you to group tasks and search various servers for a task by job status, name, group name, and many other fields. The interface permits a high amount of customization and allows you to group and name however you desire and search for any related data. Searching for tasks and relevant data is accessible and you can group and name however you wish. The task set up screens are easy to follow, and everything has a name and icon that is a good representation of what the function does. VisualCron does an excellent job of categorizing options and sorting it for you in appropriate menus. However, each task requires some knowledge of the process. For example, you are going to be confused by the crystal report options if you have never used a crystal report.
VisualCron adoption problems result from the complexity introduced by many choices when compared to software that has one purpose. The initial task list is about 31 items long, many of those having sub items. When you open a task for customization, you arrive at a screen with many options that relate to that job. Individuals new to IT or Administration can feel overwhelmed and conclude that the software is unnecessarily complicated. Modularization is critical here, find the task that applies to your situation and focus on that. VisualCron is built to handle a vast number of related and unrelated tasks; it is not made to handle one job specifically. This design reflects the available options which can be overwhelming to the uninitiated. As mentioned above, have no idea what crystal reports are? You might spend too much time trying to figure out something that you can not use.
Fast and Accurate Support
The customer service for VisualCron is on point when you need them. I also understand they will custom develop tasks for you if needed, I have never used this service so I can not comment on their custom development. My experience with other companies, however, shows that the quality of the product is not always reflective of the custom programming you receive (Some companies put the junior developers here). When I did need support, it was fast and to the point. They are not going to teach you how to create SQL queries or how to program a PowerShell script. I mention this because I have seen customers expect this, an indication of how fresh they are in the field. If the product is not executing a task correctly, they will let you know you did not set it up correctly or that they will fix it soon.
Are you considering an implementation of VisualCron on your network? Updates are released every other month as they expand on capability or fix bugs. I did have one negative experience while applying updates. An update about two years ago caused the program to lose the ability to correctly execute some PowerShell scripts, requiring an immediate rollback which delayed because previous versions were not readily available. Also, occasionally, when the GUI prompts for an update, and you leave the menu up too long, it hard locks in place causing the need for a process kill command. This problem does not affect the VisualCron engine, and tasks continue to run while you do this. VisualCron does need a fast rollback option to immediately rollback to a previous version, a good idea given the complex nature of the software. A rollback option would help alleviate update problems with a quick way backward.
Tasks and Interaction with Everything
VisualCron offers many tasks, many of these have sub tasks. VisualCron can interact with excel, crystal reports, databases, websites and everything in between. Some tasks are easier to use than others depending on the technology. It is much easier to set up an FTP file process chain compared to a web navigation macro. I have used many different components of VisualCron, and it is the first thing I think of when I want to automate something. One task example includes a SQL query to extract data from an IBM DB2 database, PowerShell to check for errors, write a file, push file contents to an excel file, and finally email the results. I have not had any problems with the various tasks included in VisualCron, and I have never felt something obvious was missing.
Extended Logging and API
VisualCron has a lot of logging options related both to the core program and all the tasks you create. If a task fails for any reason, the error catches and saves in the tasks output pane. With the use of VisualCron variables, you can do whatever you like with the output, email it, write it to a file, or save it for later. No complaints about the level of logging and what it permits you to do with it. VisualCron also has an API, something I have never used. However, a review of the documentation reveals that you can accomplish automatic job creation and it appears anything you could instantiate through the interface; you could do so as well through the .net framework. A lovely addition to take extra control if necessary, also for checking job status’s or restarting failed tasks.
VisualCron is an excellent product for quick automation and provides a solid foundation. While the GUI part of the application has crashed, I have never had the core engine crash. Task execution has never been interrupted by program instability in the three years I have been using the product. VisualCron provides many options aimed to please both administrators, shell script writers, and programmers alike. Automation is made more accessible by turning it into an icon chain akin to Lego blocks building a functional structure. If you have an interest in automating tasks, have familiarity with basic programming and queries, you will find a lot of value. Anyone serious about IT who have seen themselves burdened by many repetitive, boring tasks has a lot to gain from a VisualCron implementation.
Who should Avoid
If you can not think of anything you would like to automate in the office, naturally this product is not for you. In fact, why are you reading this? The next person who should avoid this product. If you have a non-technical old-school boss who bases work value on how much sound you’re making on the keyboard, you might want to think twice. Finally, if you’re that IT guy who doesn’t like the job and you are looking for a magic bullet that will just make things work, this is not it. You will still have to think through the processes you are setting up while learning how to use the product. The closest thing to a magic bullet you will find is a consultant, or at least they’ll tell you that.