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Review: AtWatch

AtWatch is a hosted monitoring service that (according to their web site) was acquired in 2001 by the company InternetSeer.  In fact, I believe that @watch (as their logo is written), provides all of the higher-end services for InternetSeer.  The service they provide seems to have at least four locations and some dedicated network lines, including one they announced in July that is situated in Germany.  In signing up for a testing account, it only lets you add one URL to crawl, but this will hopefully give some sense of what they can do.

To begin, I signed up for their 14 Day Free Trial account.  This asked for the (one) URL to monitor, the timezone in which I reside, which greographical area I want to be crawling from (the choices were California,  Pennsylvana, New York or Germany) and the usual name, email, and password info I would need to log in.

That's cool.  One caveat for later is that it seems to want you to log in using your assigned account number as the username, rather than something more traditional like your email address.  If you forget it, their 'forgot it' page allows to to enter your email address in able to have the account number emailed back to you.

When it brings you to the Account Administration page, you should see the URL you chose.  There won't be any reports or pretty graphs to look at just this minute, you will have to wait at least a day.  The Trial Account only does a check once each 20 minutes, so basically, don't expect any interesting data until the next day, unless your test site is already crashing.

They do have a 'snapshot' feature that allows you to generate a checksum of the front page of your test URL, and in a minute we can see how to enable this 'Hacker Alert' (i.e. the page has changed.  Go ahead and click on the camera icon next to your URL, and we can play with it a little.

Clicking the 'Edit' link directly next to the URL on the Administration Page should allow you to begin playing around with the advanced features of @watch.  The Service Level and Availability Interval are not configurable in trial mode, but several other things are.

You can choose not to receive daily, monthly or weekly email reports with simple summaries of what went on during that period of time.   But does that simply mean that you are not going to be emailed links to these statistical reports, or that they are not going to be available to you even when you are there?  I am unsure, and will investigate.

You can modify basic information on the URL (including changing the URL to something else if you want), and add a name and a URL of your ISP.

Alert Options are always the most fun and variable parts of these systems, and @watch is simple without being too basic.  You are allowed a Primary and a Secondary contact, whose information you enter in the 'Contact Info' section of the site.  Anyway, back in the Alert Options section, I will set my primary alert contact to get email and a page if something goes wrong, and then email and a page if a problem resolves itself.  If a problem is detected more than a certain number of times in a row, it will be 'Escalated'.  I can then set up my secondary alert contact to receive an email and a page on an escalated item.

According to their documentation, they would normally check twice (although I am uncertain if this means twice through the Availability Interval, or if they initiate a second check immediately).  My guess is the former, since there is a specific 'Immediate Alerts' checkbox that starts alerting immediately after the first error is detected.

Then there are 'Watch Options'.  You can ask it to verify that a particular string of characters (or two sets) are present in the first 1k of the HTML.  This might be a way to determine if a dynamic job running on your site (near the top) is correctly returning the proper text.  They also have a URL Image Check, that makes sure each image referenced on the test URL is not breaking.  The 'Hacker Check' compares a checksum of the URL's HTML to a previously taken 'Snapshot', and alerts you if they do not match.  This feature is only useful for checking static pages, since dynamic pages resulting in slowly changing content over time should trigger an alert.  The 'URL Image Check' and 'Hacker Check' are only available with their highest level of service.

Their final Watch Option is the 'Site Content Check', available with their highest and mid-level service plans.  This tool will crawl through a limited section of your site, searching for and telling you about broken links to a maximum depth of 4 levels, or 3000 links, whichever comes first.  They do check to make sure that links to outside pages respond, but @watch does not traverse them itself.  Since you can't do it on demand, and it wouldn't finish larger sites, this is really just a quality control measure, to make sure your top level pages aren't embarassing you with formerly-working links.

The periodic reports themselves (daily or weekly were the only ones I saw during my two week trial) were simple enough.  They show you a graph of response times for DNS lookups and retrieving the first 1k of the page, and the low, high, and average times for these statistics.  If you had any alerts during that time period, you would see those too, showing the date and time, the alert condition and how many times it occurred, a little text detail about what it meant, and how many alerts (and escalated alerts) were sent.

Alerts also generally send emails.  This email would include the time of the alert and its severity, specific descriptions of what is not working, how long the system has been in this condition, and a network traceroute, which could give your network folks an idea of whether it is a routing problem, rather than a software problem.

@watch has some features I did not test, namely having alerts Faxed to me, or having them sent to me through an email to SMS gateway.  They also seem to have the ability to log in to password protected sites, track cookies your site is sending, etc.  My test site did none of that, but I assume it works as well as the rest, which is to say, pretty well.

All in all, this system is focused specifically on website uptime, and seems to have the features a webmaster with a lot of pages to look after. The user interface was pretty easy to use, although I wish that the page where you enter your Primary and Secondary Alert Contacts was integrated somewhere on the 'Alert Options' page, since I can see some confusion arising there.   The prices seem a little steep to me, but then, I am cheap.