ISA: IBM's Latest Best-Kept Secret

IBM i (OS/400, i5/OS)
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So Tell Us Already!

All right, I will! ISA stands for IBM Support Assistant, an ambitious Eclipse-based software package that sits on your desktop and provides at least two distinct purposes that I've been able to make work and a third one that I haven't.


The ISA is a free product that you download from this page and install on your desktop (you need an IBM user ID and password for the download site, but ever since IBM finally managed to make a single user ID and password work for everything, this is no longer a problem). The latest version of ISA is available for both Windows and Linux, while older versions also exist for AIX, HP-UX, and Solaris.


ISA is a relatively complex and sophisticated bit of software, and I'm driving while blind here trying to get the thing installed and running. I haven't found much documentation besides the README just yet, so I'm probably not doing things quite the way the poor developers expected. That being the case, I ran into a few glitches and even used brute force at one or two points to force my way through. But now that I seem to have gotten things running, I can pass what I've learned on to you.


You'll need some space on your hard drive. This is a PC package. More precisely, it's an Eclipse-based package, which means that in order to install itself, the product will typically install a Java Virtual Machine (JVM) to run the application. In this case, installing ISA requires about 180MB or so because of the JVM.


Figure 1: Here, I'm using the HTTP download method, although Download Director works just fine.  (Click images to enlarge.)

In Figure 1, I show downloading the basic Windows installation using standard HTTP download protocol. This works fine. Once done, you must unzip the package into a temporary directory and then run the installation procedure, setupwin32.exe.



Figure 2: Note that I did not install the Electronic Service Agent (ESA).


I did this and followed the default instructions, which installed the application in a folder named C:Program FilesIBMISA and ESA. You can choose to install ISA, the Electronic Service Agent (ESA), or both. Despite the similar names, ESA is far different animal from ISA; ESA is intended to phone home to IBM for help and supposedly will make it easier to diagnose problems. However, I decided not to install it until I know it better and trust it. (Note: I did try a couple of things with ESA and was relatively unsuccessful; I'll write about that more another day.)

Time to Run

At this point, it was time to run the tool, and I have to say that I ran into a few bumps in the road here. First off, the batch file didn't run. It was late, and I didn't have the patience to try to figure out exactly what was going wrong; the batch file was doing some pretty heavy processing, and I basically just stripped most of it out. My final batch file, startisajp.cmd, looked like this:


:: startisa.cmd - Start isa application






:: Determine the location of the Windows commands we


:: will be invoking


set WinPath=%SystemRoot%system32




echo ======= Start isav3.exe >> workspace.metadata.log


echo %date% %time% >> workspace.metadata.log


start /b isav3.exe %* -vm jreinjavaw.exe -vmargs -Xj9 -Xmx256m -Xbootclasspath/a:./loggerboot.jar;./properties -Disa.home=. -Dautopd.instance.area=./workspace


goto End






Once I got past that particular hurdle, things went more smoothly. I saw a splash screen as shown in Figure 3 and then an initial screen like the one in Figure 4.



Figure 3: This is the ISA splash screen; it tells you ISA is an Eclipse-based tool.




Figure 4: This is the initial screen for ISA.


It might not be entirely clear, but ISA is actually running in a chromeless browser. As far as I can tell, the tool starts a JVM, which finds an open port, starts listening on it, and then launches a browser window to communicate with that JVM. You can even see the URL in the status line at the bottom of Figure 4. If you right-click on the ISA window shown, you will get an option for View Source, which will in turn show the HTML that the tool uses to provide the user interface.


Please note that you may see a warning message that says nothing is installed yet (not shown in Figure 4). That's because ISA follows the Eclipse philosophy and is initially installed as just a framework. It is then up to you to install the appropriate "plug-ins" to provide the functionality that you need. That's the job of the Updater function, which is what my cursor is pointing to in Figure 4.

Updating the Support Assistant

What happens next is that you need to identify all the bits and pieces of IBM software that you use. Each piece has its own plug-in, which is then installed into the framework, enabling other features.


Let me be absolutely clear here: I am not an expert in this tool. I stumbled upon it and have been moonlighting with it during my free time, and what I actually know about it is probably far less than what I don't know. However, I have managed to glean a few pieces of information. First, a little terminology: The ISA product works by having you, the user, plug "features" into the framework. In addition to a couple of basic features—such as the ISA product itself and the language pack—the types of features include "products" and "tools." Products are IBM hardware and software that you use in your shop. When you "install" a plug-in for a product, what happens is that the framework enables ways for you to get more information about that product. For example, enabling System i opens up a number of cool information sites (more on that momentarily).


Another plug-in category is "tool." When you plug a tool in, it enables new functionality, although the functionality depends on which product you have installed. Am I confusing you yet? Actually, it's not that bad. I found a tool that allows me to analyze a JVM dump. Well, in and of itself, a JVM dump is pretty useless unless you are running some Java software. So when the only product I had installed was System i (which seems to refer primarily to the System i hardware), the JVM dump tool didn't do anything. However, once I installed the product plug-ins for WebSphere Application Server (Versions 6.0 and 6.1), suddenly the JVM dump became more important.


Anyway, I'll show you a couple more screen shots that will hopefully make this all a bit clearer. But before we can play with things, we need to install them.



Figure 5: This is my current setup, with several products and one tool installed.


When you initially bring up the Update Manager page, the first thing to do is to click on the Installed Plug-ins tab. This doesn't actually do much for you, but if you've installed it correctly, you will see two entries: the Language Pack and the IBM Support Assistant itself. There will be no products and no tools. Next, you click on New Plug-ins, which will allow you to install plug-ins.



Figure 6: This page allows you to select products and tools to install.


Figure 6 shows the screen after I've selected a couple of JDKs and the System i products. You can also select tools, although I'm not going to spend time on tools today. To get more information about one of the features, you click on it, and an icon will appear to the left of the feature (identifying it as a product or a tool), and a whole panel of information will appear in the Additional Information box on the right.



Figure 7: Hit the "I agree" button to accept the licenses and bring up the downloads.



Figure 8: Typically, you'll have to restart the workbench after installing plug-ins.


A word of warning: ISA is sometimes a bit slow. Not only that, it doesn't work and play well with others at all. In a number of places, the tool seems to be doing some sort of complex quantum physics calculations, because the workstation becomes entirely unresponsive. This is only exacerbated when you have to go over the network, which is required when scanning for or installing updates or new plug-ins. In fact, the ISA server is quite balky right now, and the ISA forums show a number of complaints about that issue. Unfortunately, the communications portion of the tool isn't particularly robust, and network issues often cause fatal errors. Hopefully, that will get worked out as the tool sees more use.


(Note: I did some testing last night, and the server seemed much more responsive. I don't know if it was a temporary glitch or a congestion problem, but the failures related to network response seem to have cleared up.)

On to the Show

OK, now that we've done all this, what's the use? Why did I bother?


Well, at least until I understand tools and ESA a bit better, what you've essentially done is install a really nice help system. The system has two components: a subject-matter drill-down that you can drive yourself, and a powerful search engine capability. We're running out of room in this article, so I can show you only a couple of pictures of the system in action, but I think you'll be impressed.



Figure 9: This is the Product Information tab.


First, let's use the Product Information part of the tool. Click on Product Information, and all of the products you have installed will appear on the left. Click on one of those products, and the Product Information box will fill with links to other information. Click on one to bring up a browser to that specific page. The amount of information here is staggering. Those who have long complained about the opacity of the IBM Web site and the difficulty of finding anything should be absolutely thrilled with this new interface.


Somebody went to a lot of trouble to organize all of these pieces. Most of the things you knew about and are always trying to remember are right here, along with a lot of things you might not have realized existed. For example, my cursor in Figure 9 is pointing to the entry page for problem solving, which leads to everything from PTF cover letters to SRC (System References Code) listings to Fix Central. I can never remember this, and every time I bookmark it, it seems to change. Instead, here is everything in one neat package. And dare I hope that I could refresh this, and whenever a link changes, this tool will automatically reflect that change? I don't know that for sure, but I'm going to try to find out.


OK, last but not least, the search capabilities.



Figure 10: All your search capabilities are in one happy little interface.


I've never seen anything quite like this, although I think there was an inkling of it in the old WDSC Version 6 developerWorks search. This new system, though, dwarfs that original idea. Here you can specify a search term and then search anywhere in IBM. It even has a meta-search capability to go out to Google and perform a search there.


You can limit your search by the individual products you've selected or by the areas you wish to search, such as developerWorks or IBM newsgroups and forums. Unfortunately, the newsgroups and forums search feature seems broken; I hope that's fixed soon because it will be an invaluable additional resource.


However, what is already there is sufficient to get you started in a lot of cases. I don't know exactly how exhaustive the indexing is; I find it hard to believe that IBM managed to somehow index all of their documents into some sort of internally accessible index. But you never know. As you can see from Figure 10, simply entering RAID-5 got a lot of hits, many in places I wouldn't have thought.


Figure 11: Interesting! The ClearCase documentation includes some RAID considerations.


For example, it seems that the ClearCase tool has some specific information on the use of RAID for its repository. One of the very cool things about these sorts of meta-search capabilities is that they will sometimes uncover relationships or issues that might not have occurred to you. This integrated search capability in the ISA seems to have a lot of potential as an information aggregator.

Summary of My First Take

This is cool. It's not soup yet; some bugs need to be ironed out, and the whole idea of an Internet-based information server still has some high-level issues to be addressed. The installation, the network connectivity, even the standard batch file—all need some work before I consider this bulletproof enough to release on the unsuspecting public.


But still, someone has managed to distill the plethora of documentation that has been lost in the various sub-sites within IBM and then make that available within a single coherent interface. It may not be perfect, but it's quite a powerful initial effort, and I'm looking forward to seeing more.


And this isn't even all the tool has to offer! ISA's full capabilities remain to be seen, but already some really cool possibilities are surfacing. I wish there were more tools for the System i, but maybe down the road either IBM will provide some, or, now that we have a common framework, some enterprising folks will find the time to provide such tools to the community.