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Business managers, IT share application performance management burden

Application performance management (APM) tools have brought business managers into the realm of IT management, collaborating with IT counterparts to perform better.

If some guy in the marketing department is telling you how to do your job as an IT manager, it's likely that your company recently implemented application performance management tools (APM).

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As more companies rely on customer-facing applications to bring in revenue, line-of-business managers want to ensure that those applications perform as planned.

This is no easy task, for nontechnical staff or for an IT manager for that matter, since so many modern applications rely on a complex Web of geographically distributed users, virtual servers, and interdependent shared services.

When a service fails completely, it's comparatively easy to deal with an application problem. But user delays or slow performance when the application appears to be functioning can be a more insidious problem.

The old tactic of locking a bunch of siloed network, server and database experts in a war room to diagnose the issue with traditional monitoring software doesn't work anymore.

"A lot of applications rely on the messaging between the tiers; siloed tools just don't have visibility into that," according to Enterprise Management Associates analyst Julie Craig. "There are a lot more touch points between servers and databases, and visibility into those touch points break down."

The latest generation of application performance management (APM) tools seeks to fill that gap.

Defining application performance management
APM tools have been around for more than a decade. They began as agent-based monitoring nodes that set thresholds for resource consumption and latency issues on single-application servers. But thanks to the number of agents needed, that approach today would likely cripple the performance of the applications being monitored according to a recent Gartner Inc. report.

Instead, systems management vendors have taken various approaches to track application performance, including end-user experience monitoring, user-defined transaction profiling, application component and discovery modeling and application component deep-dive monitoring. These tools include Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Business Technology Optimization software, CA's Wily product, Compuware's Gomez and Vantage, among many others.

Business owners take control of app performance
APM tools can be pricey. Instead of tapping cash-strapped IT departments, business owners buy the software out of their own budgets.

It's not so much that IT is giving up the control, but business owners are grabbing control.
Julie Craig,
analystEnterprise Management Associates

"It's not so much that IT is giving up the control, but business owners are grabbing control -- or at least visibility. In the end, business managers are responsible for how much money those applications bring in," Craig said. "I've talked with some companies where the business owners did not feel that IT had a good enough handle on applications, and the business owners themselves are making investments in app management products."

With application owners taking initiative, IT departments face a double-edged sword: Tech-savvy end users can provide extra help, but also cause interdepartmental friction.

At Luxury Link LLC, a line-of-business manager works in lockstep with the IT department with good results. Andrew Hahn, the manager of online marketing for the Web-based travel business, and Richard Hastings, the senior director of technology and development, work together to monitor the user experience on the Luxury Link website.

Luxury Link uses the open source Nagios tool for server monitoring, and when there is a critical issue, systems administrators are aware of it. But the company also uses Gomez APM software from Compuware Corp. to monitor when the site is slow, but not down.

"We spend a lot of money getting users to our site and if the page loads slowly, it's money down the drain," Hahn said.

The marketing and IT departments collaborate well in this scenario because Hahn has tech chops (he used to be a developer) and because IT and marketing use the tool to monitor different things. Hastings uses Gomez to monitor the backbone network. "If we slow down by a second on a backbone, you can see it," Hastings said.

While Hahn uses the tool to monitor the "last mile," which mostly entails monitoring load times on third-party Java-based advertisements.

Application performance visibility has actually changed the culture at the company. "Every other week, we have a meeting between product, technology and marketing departments and two-thirds of the employees at our company are very much in tune with the load times from Gomez," Hahn said.

Greater application visibility improves IT operations
Matthew Groom, the director of performance and availability at LensCrafters said his company has used application performance management software to improve the relationship between IT and line-of-business managers.

"[APM software] has taken the emotion out of infrastructure monitoring and brought fact into it," Groom said. "Doing more domain fault isolation, it really allows you to direct resources to business services."

Groom uses Compuware's Vantage APM tools to monitor EyeMed Vision Care, LensCrafters' vision insurance wing.

Groom's job straddles IT operations and the application development departments. "We're embedded in the application area, because that's where the funding came from," he said. "The original funding and budget came when we had a serious service issue and didn't have the answers. We realized we needed more end-user software to figure out where the problems are. We installed and did continuous improvements over a series of months."

Greater visibility into applications has fostered a team attitude. "It's not just 'Those IT guys are screwing up again'; the business side is invested," Groom said. "It allows us to target our resources and have regular agreement about where the resources should be spent. If I can address an IT component that has a business impact, I can say, 'Give me $100,000.' They don't always like the dollar amount, but they understand the impact."

Steve Litras, a systems architect at Autodesk Inc. uses Splunk -- n IT-search engine that indexes data from applications, servers or network devices and is very useful for troubleshooting -- to monitor application performance and tracks online transactions throughout Autodesk's systems.

"We've been able to start providing customizable dashboards to the application owners," Litras said. "Marketers can look at an email blast and see that 15% have an invalid address. Before, they'd have to go through a Unix team to find that information. We're putting more application intelligence into business owners' hands."

Litras is a big fan of increasing application owner participation in IT operations. "Where the app owners actually run the app [and IT provides purely OS level and below management], they've been able to see things like SQL Server queries going awry, and outbound mail being gray-listed at certain destination sites," Litras said.

Application performance visibility is building a new trust relationship, according to Litras. "IT at Autodesk is just like IT in a lot of companies: long seen as more impediment than enabler. This is one of many efforts to change that perception," he said. "The negative impact is simply that when something goes wrong, the line of business sees it happen. As long as we're diligent in addressing issues, we can turn this into a positive."

When it comes to inviting line-of-business folks into the realm of IT operations, IT managers will be forced to accept the good and the bad. "At times providing business managers visibility tino IT information is an irritant," according to an executive for a leading worldwide mobile telecommunications company who asked to remain anonymous. "On the plus side, it's helped us up our game. And our transparency has improved our relationship with our customers," he said.

The telecom company uses HP's Business Availability Center and other APM tools. "We have our customers using the same data and metrics as ourselves," he said. "It allows us to speak in the same terms and talk about the same data, where in the past they might have been talking from a different perspective."

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