PowerShell with a Purpose Blog

Revisiting FastTrack Script Host

In September 2010, Ilooked at a product called FastTrack Scripting Host, and unfortunately didn't have a lot of great things to say about it. While I liked the product's general functionality, I felt that its claims - particularly being a "complete replacement for PowerShell" - were unwarranted and misleading. Recently, the company has revised their offering and its marketing, and asked me to take another look.

Caution: I know this is a bit long, but it's important stuff. At least, I think so. Bookmark and come back later, if you need to - and thanks.

The front page of the FastTrack home page bills the product as a "one-stop shop for scripting admins," saying it's a "scripting language designed specifically for systems administrators." It says that while, "Microsoft moves scripting more and more towards programming, FastTrack Scripting Host heads in the opposite direction." The product is positioned as a high-level scripting language which is presumably easier to use than a lower-level operation. This positioning is summed up as "one operation - one script line."

That's certainly a valuable proposition. After all, I know many administrators who don't want to become programmers. However, the assertion that Microsoft is moving more "towards programming" rubs me the wrong way. Microsoft, in my opinion, is enthusiastically trying to do the opposite. While PowerShell also has a scripting language embedded in it, it is - as I have said time and time again - not a scripting language itself. It's a command-line shell, which also strives to achieve one task - one command. True, we haven't arrived at that lofty goal yet, but Microsoft has given substantial evidence that they're firmly marching along that road. That said, if someone else can get us there faster - awesome!

Looking through the Web site, there's no doubt that FastTrack is probably easier to learn and use than PowerShell. The company has built in GUI components so you can make menus and the like for your scripts. The commands are indeed very task-focused. I would say that FastTrack will offer a pretty intuitive way of accomplishing quite a bit of administration in certain areas. The tool is well-suited for logon scripts (although you have to deploy the product to each workstation, which can be challenging in some environments). 

Irritatingly, the company's Web site mentions "31 awards" that the product has received. All of these, however, are "awards" issued by sites that do nothing more than list software available for download. They didn't review the product and actually issue a considered award - they just give you the graphic after listing your product in their directory. They're a way to get your software seen in more places. I have no problem with companies who use these directories to increase their exposure, but bragging about the award badges is disingenuous. Not a single "award" is from a reputable source such as Windows IT Pro, Redmond Magazine, PCWorld, CNet, and so on. The company's award page even brags about their "certificates" for being "spyware-free," also just a bunch of standard badges issued by download directories. Presenting these as legitimate awards and certifications is, frankly, a reprehensible business practice.

The company still posts a comparison chart that I find to be wildly inaccurate and misleading. It does not, for example, require "multiple script lines" to create, add, or delete registry keys and values with PowerShell. Not if you know what you're doing. I can move AD users, computers, and groups with one line in PowerShell. I can natively, graphically query for user input, despite what the chart said ("native" in my mind being any operation that doesn't require me to install a free or paid add-in). 

And here's my ultimate problem with the tool, which is the same as last time: Will this vendor always provide you with all the functionality that PowerShell provides? As Microsoft continues to extend PowerShell to SharePoint, Exchange, SQL Server, System Center, and other products, will FastTrack keep up? Will it offer commands for VMware, Citrix, Cisco, NetApp, and other third-parties, as PowerShell now does? In other words, will your needs be satisfied by what's in the FastTrack box, or will you eventually have to turn to something like PowerShell anyway? If FastTrack does 100% of what you need, consider buying it. If you'll have to turn to PowerShell anyway, then your investment would be better spent in learning PowerShell - since it has more potential, in my opinion, to truly become the one-stop-shop that you probably want.

In their e-mail to me, FastTrack's CEO stated that:

I personally believe that not many uses FSH for scripting stuff like Exchange tasks, but at client scripting for example, PS cannot match FSH. And from that (our) perspective, we do not see them as directly competitive products. They can live fine side-by-side in a corporation.

Okay, not many folks use FastTrack Scripting Host (FSH) for Exchange tasks because (a) the product doesn't really offer it and (b) PowerShell does. So FSH is being positioned primarily for client-side scripting. I disagree pretty emphatically about PowerShell's suitability for client-side scripting, but anyone reading this may have a different opinion. The CEO says that folks just "don't have time," and their product enables people to get things done fast. Well, there's certainly value in that. I suspect that, if those same folks had made a PowerShell investment, they'd be getting stuff done just as quickly without buying anything. So FastTrack has a shorter learning curve - tremendous value, there, of course. But it doesn't eliminate the need to learn something else for all of your needs.

He goes on to make some broad statements: "One script line saves you the cost of a backup solution; another one-liner saves you the cost of a basic management system, just to mention a few cost savers." Well, okay, but I don't think any company is actually going to be relying on FSH as a backup solution, or using it instead of a basic management system. I think most of us probably already have backup solutions in place, at least.

There are doubtless environments who are willing to spend $9.15 a seat (that's $4500 for 500 seats) so that their administrators can get things done quickly without having to learn PowerShell. Those organizations would do well to consider FastTrack, after ensuring that it will be able to meet their needs now and into the future. Although, I guess I'll still offer some caution: At $9.15 a seat, you also have to consider alternatives. For example, SAPIEN PrimalForms is $300 and offers a drag-and-drop way to produce an infinite variety of PowerShell scripts that create dialogs, graphical menus, and other GUI-based interfaces. That's the same price as only 33 FastTrack seats, with no run-time license requirement or deployment. As always, in a competitive space, do your due diligence and check out the competition.

I'll tell you another concern I have. Every minute (and dollar) you spend on FastTrack is a minute (and dollar) you're not spending on PowerShell. PowerShell is an investment you will have to make. Yes, it might take you longer - the first time - to figure out how to CRUD reg keys in PowerShell than in FastTrack. But that's investment time, meaning you get the time back. I completely acknowledge that this opinion isn't necessarily good for "solve the problem quickly," and some organizations need "quickly" more than they need "investment." I regard that as shortsighted, but I know it happens. It just pains me to see it happen. It's good that FastTrack is willing and able to capitalize on the "quickly vs. investment" mentality. I think most administrators would rather invest and learn; some companies would rather they just get the job done quickly. FastTrack's CEO acknowledges exactly this situation in his letter to me, and it suggests to me that FastTrack was designed with just that audience in mind (see his conclusion, below). 

In a lot of ways, FastTrack reminds me of a souped-up KiXtart. That's what we used to use for client-side scripting, and it was free. It was largely supplanted by VBScript which, although more complex to use and learn (and certainly more programmer-y than PowerShell), offered broader functionality. I guess that's the meme I'm going for here: History suggests that most smart admins will adopt a single solution that meets the maximum number of their needs as possible, even if that solution has a bit of a learning curve.

FastTrack's CEO concludes:

I would encourage you to take another look at http://www.fasttrackscript.com from the no-time angel. With that in mind, does FSH look better than PS on my resume? No. Is FSH in the best interest of my company? Of course. Said in another way – admins that think practical benefit hugely from this product. Lots can do both PS and FSH; one does not rule out the other, you need the right tools for the right task. 

It's still an argument I have trouble with. Again, it's something each administrator and company will have to look at on their own. But, if I can learn one thing that does what I need - or is on a path to doing so - why have two? I just disagree emphatically with some of the statements about what PowerShell can and cannot do that are on FastTrack's Web site. I'm glad the company agrees that they're not trying to replace PowerShell (in which case, I wish they'd remove the horrible comparison chart from their site). I'm glad that they're trying to offer value in a specific area, which is client-side scripting. That being the case, I encourage you to take a look at the product, to see if it's a fit for your needs.

However, take that look with a big grain of salt. Be aware that many of the company's claims on their Web site range from inaccurate to outright falsehood. They're engaging in some deceptive practices (the "awards" specifically, the comparison chart in part) that make me look askance at everything they've put online. When I see a lot of fiction and falsehood, even the bits that are true become suspect. I hope the company cleans up its act (and its Web site) a bit in this regard. If they truly have a valuable product for a specific audience, there's no reason to engage in all the tomfoolery.

I kind of wish FastTrack was a set of commands built around PowerShell. My heavens, what an enthusiastic recommendation I'd make then. PowerShell makes GUI bits too hard? Fine - give me a wrapper that makes it easier. It's too hard to edit registry ACLs? Fine - write me a wrapper command that does it. I wouldn't need to deploy anything, then, and I'd get the ease-of-use they're promoting while still investing in Microsoft's own go-forward roadmap. Selling me a library of wrapped-around-PowerShell time-savers would be of tremendous technical and business value, would encourage and build on PowerShell investment, and would always give you the option of using PowerShell commands directly if an "accelerator" command wasn't available to do what you needed. If I had the time, I'd launch a business to sell just that!

I want to be clear in that I don't see FastTrack as a bad product - I'm just less enthusiastic than its creators about how good a fit it is in modern organizations. Much of what I see FastTrack claiming as its primary value are things I've seen hundreds of administrators easily put together on their own, for free, in PowerShell. That's largely what's driving my opinion, here: FastTrack makes it appear as if accomplishing these things in PowerShell is a massive time-burden; my in-the-trenches experience watching real administrators suggests otherwise.

As with any opinion, yours may differ and your mileage may vary. Drop a comment, or hit me on Twitter @concentrateddon: Would you adopt a solution like this to co-exist with PowerShell? What specific business needs would this meet for you? I'd truly love to know - your comments help shape my opinion. 
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