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The application runtime environment is as important as the app

To avoid cascading failures and never-ending troubleshooting, take the time to understand the software and hardware -- the runtime environment -- that keeps an app ticking.

Applications -- the vital workhorses of enterprises -- are just code without an application runtime environment.

A runtime environment can be incorporated seamlessly into the application, facilitated through separate software components and supported by hardware within the data center.

A runtime environment encompasses a range of platforms, frameworks and technologies. In basic terms, the application runtime environment is a configuration of hardware and software necessary for that application code to execute -- any operation or behavior that is not directly attributable to the work of the application. The application depends on the processor's instruction stack, disk and network I/O; the OS, such as Windows Server 2016 or Ubuntu; and the state of file and directory structures to operate properly, for example.

A false cognate from dev to ops

The application runtime environment, in IT operations, is synonymous with IT infrastructure. IT professionals support all of the hardware and software the business deploys to execute applications.

In software development, runtime environment is defined as the supporting code, tools or components that implement a programming language's execution. Nearly every compiled or interpreted programming language, such as C, C++, Visual Basic, .NET and Java, involves some sort of runtime environment. Runtime environments range from fully static environments (e.g., Fortran) to fully dynamic (e.g., Lisp) and stack-based environments (e.g., C and C++).

Because the idea of a runtime environment is usually applied to software development, it's important to distinguish it from other developer environments. For example, a build environment generally includes the means to compile or prepare an executable image that would use or be placed into an application runtime environment. Build environments, such as the compiler, typically have a runtime environment so that developers can test the build. By comparison, the development environment contains the entire suite of tools to write, build and test code, including code editors and debuggers, along with the build and test tools, such as compilers and an application runtime environment.

Runtime state vs. runtime engine

Whenever a program operates, it is considered to be in a runtime state, wherein it uses the underlying software and hardware elements of the application runtime environment, such as the IT infrastructure. Some management tools, such as Hewlett Packard Enterprise Server Automation 10.5x, provide system status and reporting through a runtime state window. This setup shows administrators real-time information about the managed server, including network connectivity, users and running processes. In this case, the runtime state refers to hardware -- the managed server -- rather than a software application; IT professionals must understand that the term can apply to either.

In contrast, a runtime engine is software that must run on a computer for an application to execute successfully. The runtime engine typically provides a foundation of routines and functions that the application requires as it performs tasks. The engine might translate the application into machine language when it executes.

Any break in dependencies can cause a runtime error, necessitating troubleshooting and remediation.

IT professionals can also technically call the OS a runtime engine because of its rich set of features and functionality that applications consume. For example, the OS has a disk and file interface, as well as GUI resources that applications use. In actual practice, however, the OS is categorized as part of the infrastructure -- the runtime environment, from an operations point of view -- rather than a runtime engine.

Examples of runtime engines include Java VMs, which Java programs require to run. Visual Basic programs also cannot execute natively, using a runtime engine to translate the code into machine language. Similarly, Microsoft's .NET platform uses a common language runtime engine to compile .NET applications into machine language.

Application runtime environments have limitations

Runtime environment problems are typically due to damaged, missing or incompatible components. Any break in dependencies can cause a runtime error, necessitating troubleshooting and remediation.

When runtime environment means the broader IT infrastructure that supports an application, runtime trouble is possible anywhere along the infrastructure stack, such as the servers, networking, storage, hypervisor, OSes, middleware and further up the stack. An IT administrator draws upon comprehensive expertise to review logs and assess systems management tool information to narrow down and correct the problem.

Issues with specific software dependencies often are traced to software compatibility problems or incorrect configurations. For example, Apache OpenOffice relies on Java and, intrinsically, its runtime environment to process formulas -- a reasonably narrow set of tasks for a single office productivity application. But software updates and upgrades can break the dependencies that allow such functionality, crashing OpenOffice because it cannot find or use the Java application runtime environment.

Software-based runtime environments are based on these relationships at a granular level, and problems are multiplied when one fix breaks other dependencies and precipitates additional problems.

Due diligence is key to protect all software relationships. Investigate system requirements and dependencies carefully before you attempt software updates or upgrades, and always back up systems and software before an update. This enables administrators to roll back the system to an earlier working state until permanent corrective action is identified.

Applications don't run in a vacuum. A carefully established runtime environment, composed of hardware and other software, supports enterprise applications. But runtime environments are also crucial for compiled and interpreted software, which depend on runtime engines to provide resources and functionality. This creates delicate dependencies within the computer that administrators must understand and protect -- or risk troubleshooting.

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This was last published in November 2017

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