SolarWinds SQL Sentry review: The big SQL Server picture

SolarWinds SQL Sentry has all the tools you need to go from reactive to proactive database monitoring

The SolarWinds SQL data page

IT Pro Verdict


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    Easy deployment

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    Host and database monitoring

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    Incredible levels of performance metrics

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    Smart deadlock analysis

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    Good value


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    Steep learning curve

Microsoft's SQL Server is easily one of the world's most popular databases but as with any other solution, it needs to be constantly monitored to stay ahead of performance issues and ensure they don't impact on the delivery of critical services. Database administrators can use the activity monitor and data collector tools built into Microsoft's SQL Server Management Studio (SSMS) but the former isn't overly informative and can be resource hungry while the latter isn't particularly easy to use either.

Businesses are spoilt for choice with third-party database monitoring tools but those that want one that focuses purely on SQL Server without any extra baggage will find SolarWinds SQL Sentry fits the bill nicely. It goes much further than providing full visibility of on-premises database estates; it can keep a close eye on Azure SQL Database and SQL Server Analysis Services plus SQL Server on Amazon RDS and EC2 as well.

Virtualisation gets plenty of attention as SQL Sentry monitors and reports on Windows Hyper-V and VMware systems hosting SQL Server. This allows it to provide a full picture of all databases and associated host systems to help troubleshoot, fix problems and optimise performance.

SolarWinds SQL Sentry review: Deployment

Pricing for SQL Sentry starts at £1,100 exc VAT per year for each monitored instance with volume discounts available. You can also purchase a perpetual license for £2,120 and we were advised that the yearly maintenance renewal fees for this are £465 per instance.

We found SQL Sentry easy enough to deploy and installed it in 30 minutes on a Windows Server 2019 Hyper-V VM. Note that it requires a separately purchased SQL Server database for storing all performance, diagnostics and reporting data but for testing in our lab, we loaded Microsoft's free SQL Server 2019 Express.

SQL Sentry runs a quick on-boarding routine where we pointed it at our SQL Express instance and ran through setting up secure access to its web portal. The SQL Sentry client app is where most of the action takes place and after adding the details of the SQL Server hosts we wanted monitored, it checked the availability of Windows metrics such as CPU, memory, processes and storage activity and added them to the explorer menu in the left pane for easy access.

SolarWinds SQL Sentry review: The SQL Sentry Client

Database monitoring begins immediately and we were bowled over by the amount of information provided by the client app. Our test SQL Server database was hosted on a VMware VM and the client's dashboard view presented no less than 15 graphs.

Solar Winds SQL user interface

The left section focuses on the host with real-time graphs showing network, CPU, system memory and disk utilization. To the right are graphs for database activity, lookups, backup throughput, waits, memory usage, database I/O and much more.

It's a busy interface but the upper ribbon menu can be used to pause the auto-refresh and swap from real-time views to specific time periods so you can easily look back and inspect earlier events. Drag the mouse across an area of interest in one graph, and SQL Sentry highlights the relevant areas in all the others for quick event correlation.

The dashboard view is accompanied by tabs across the top for quick access to views such as host processes, disk activity and space usage, the top SQL queries, query plans and their history, SQL Server blocking analysis and deadlocks. We particularly liked the disk activity view as it provides a colour coded row of icons across the top for each database accompanied by active traffic paths so you can see which ones are being used the most.

If you have problems diagnosing complex database deadlocks, you'll love SQL Sentry as it provides an Outlook-style calendar showing when they occurred along with facilities to drill down deeper. Use the smart playback service and you can view the sequence of events for the selected deadlock, the successful and unsuccessful lock requests and code rollbacks along with the affected host, application, database and statement.

SolarWinds SQL Sentry review: The web portal

The SQL Sentry web portal is equally informative and opens with a dashboard overview of all monitored databases and Windows hosts, along with an overall health score and a list of all the latest alerts. Swap to a specific database server and the view changes to show all its alerts graded by severity with options to view them by tag such as CPU, memory and disk or by wait time.

Data visualisation page on Solar Winds SQL

The view provides the same wealth of performance metrics as provided by the client app along with tabs to view the top SQL queries, all blocking activity and deadlocks plus tempDB activity and session collections. The views can be set to custom date ranges and for deadlocks, you get the same detailed information as in the client app although not the playback feature.

The portal can present multiple custom dashboards where you choose which host and database performance metrics you want displayed. Each dashboard can show the latest action in real-time or you can pause the live data feed and swap to a custom date range.

SolarWinds SQL Sentry review: Verdict

Administrators engaged in a daily fire-fight trying to keep their SQL Server databases at peak performance will find SolarWinds SQL Sentry provides everything needed to ensure they run like well-oiled machines. Both the client app and web portal provide a staggering amount of information about host and database performance and the smart deadlock analysis service is a standout feature.

The sheer range of features can present a steep learning curve but SolarWinds provides good online documentation and we found both consoles to be well designed and fairly easy to navigate. It scales easily across businesses of all sizes and SQL Server database estates and for what it offers, is well worth the asking price.


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