Q&A: Managing Application Performance

We examine how application performance management (APM) has changed, discuss effective APM approaches, and recommend IT investments and training to help you deal with increasingly complex applications and environments.

Application performance management can be a complex undertaking, especially with so many game-changing technologies such as the cloud and virtualization. We examine how it's changed, effective APM approaches, and what IT investments and training you need to deal with increasingly complex applications and environments with Steve Tack, chief technology officer of Compuware.

Enterprise Strategies: Where does management of critical applications lie on an IT manager's to-do list?

Steve Tack: Application performance management (APM) is rising to the top of IT managers' priorities as a result of APM becoming a CIO-level initiative.

APM continues to gain more attention at the executive level due to the relationship between application performance and business performance. Simply put, improving application performance lowers costs and increases revenue. Consider that conversion rates increase 74 percent when page load times decrease from eight to two seconds; or that the average Web shopper expects pages to load in two seconds or less, with up to 40 percent abandoning sites after three seconds. APM is a way to provide a quick and visible return on business results.

This trend is substantiated by Gartner in their most recent Magic Quadrant for Application Performance Monitoring. Gartner notes that in 2011, $2 billion was spent on APM licenses, a 15 percent yearly increase. This is five times the 2.9 percent increase in 2011 overall worldwide IT spending according to the analyst firm's Magic Quadrant for Application Performance Monitoring report from September of last year.

Is delivering an application to internal audiences completely different from delivering your application over the Internet to external audiences?

It's not. The lines of demarcation between internal and external audiences have become extremely blurry. Mobile workforces, internal and external Web applications, and multi-sourced environments present many of the same challenges for internal- and external-facing applications. We live in a world where numerous elements converge for the first time in the form of the end-user experience.

Consider an online retail application comprising numerous functionalities derived from within the data center as well as third-party services beyond the firewall, such as a shopping cart, preference engine, and ad networks. Today, the average Web site connects to more than eight domains before ultimately being served to the end user. Serving a Web site or application means making sure all these pieces assemble in a way that yields the best possible service to the end user, whether internal or external to the company. Applications delivered to internal audiences have many of the same challenges as applications delivered to external audiences, including these complex delivery chains.

What are the key ways APM technology has changed in the past few years?

APM has evolved to focus less on the performance of individual infrastructure components and more about understanding the ultimate outcome -- the end-user experience. To deliver a strong application experience to an end user, there are many pieces and parts that must all come together and work well -- both in terms of infrastructure and application components. APM is, therefore, changing from a component-oriented mindset to an end-user experience mindset. If you don't approach APM in this way, there can be enormous complexity and lack of clarity as to the meaning of events at the component level.

Put another way, let's say one of your application servers goes down. What's the business impact? Is it more serious or less serious than another incident, and how should you prioritize your efforts? The only way to answer this question is to understand which end users are being impacted and what is the nature of that impact. The quality of service delivered to end users places the performance of the infrastructure and application components in a business-relevant context.

What constitutes an effective approach to APM today?

An effective approach to APM requires best practices focused on continual improvement of the end-user experience. This includes many ingredients to be successful, including executive sponsorship, process integration throughout the performance life cycle, and resource allocation. Some organizations have found it helpful to build a Performance Center of Excellence comprising key players from the applications and operations teams within the IT organization.

Another critical piece is to establish key performance indicators that are viewed in real-time and tracked on a consistent basis. A consolidated view centered on the end-user experience helps organizations quantify actual performance, pinpoint the source of problems quickly when they occur for effective resolution, and identify areas for ongoing optimization.

What are some best practices for isolating and fixing problems quickly?

In terms of best practices, managing application performance from the end-user perspective becomes even more powerful when combined with advanced diagnostics spanning the "Last Mile" (the end user's browser), all the way back to the "First Mile" (the data center, including code-level issues and infrastructure). Once a performance problem has been identified for a particular segment of end users, deep-dive diagnostics allow organizations to precisely pinpoint the source of problems without confusion or delay.

However, the most efficient way to address problems is to prevent poorly performing applications from reaching production. Development teams and test centers need to embed a performance practice strategically into engineering as a best practice.

What does it take to do this? How much IT investment and training is needed to deal with increasingly complex applications and environments? Can IT departments facing doing-more-with-less budgets actually afford new solutions?

Introducing end-user experience-centric processes doesn't have to be disruptive or expensive, nor does it need to entail a lot of training. Today, SaaS-based offerings are available in a pay-as-you-go model and give organizations a quick, easy bird's eye view into how applications are performing for key end-user segments. As Gartner's Magic Quadrant for Application Performance Monitoring proves, IT departments are affording these solutions because the potential revenue impact of poor application performance is often far more costly.

What are your major predictions for APM?

We believe the continued adoption of disruptive technologies like cloud computing and mobility will continue to drive the evolution of APM where the end-user experience is the primary metric.

For example, the adoption of public cloud services can prevent organizations from having visibility into the health of the overall application infrastructure; performance is inferred through measuring the experience of end users on the other side of the service. Likewise, the explosion in mobile browser/device types is adding to the volatility at the internet edge and the only way to know what is truly happening at that edge is to understand the end-user experience.

Cloud computing and mobility are just two examples of technologies that enable agility, offer the potential to introduce new services, and provide innovative paths to connect with customers. Furthermore, organizations are grappling with big data analytics, social strategies, and many other trends. These technologies can create new business opportunities but they also raise the bar for delivering high-quality services and necessitate a new approach to APM.

What tools or services does Compuware offer for APM?

Compuware offers a full complement of end-user monitoring solutions, from subscription services to a multiprotocol passive appliance, and the ability to monitor phones and tablet devices in real time. To this list, Compuware has now added dynaTrace, which brings always on, end-to-end transaction tracing and monitoring to complement the Compuware Gomez platform, which includes Gomez SaaS products and on-premises products (formerly branded "Vantage").

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