Web site warranty

When it comes to gauging Web application performance, timing is everything to Steve Herrington.

As database systems and Web integration manager at American Automobile Association (AAA) Missouri, Herrington needs to know why, where and when application performance goes bad. In the past, Herrington and his staff would scramble to aggregate performance metrics collected from different servers and then pour through the logs to try to find the event or alarms that ultimately would lead back to the exact time when an application started to degrade.

“We didn’t really have a lot of monitoring capabilities that could pinpoint what went wrong down to a specific time across different servers,” Herrington says. Because the AAA Missouri Web site serves 1.1 million AAA members in Arkansas, Missouri, Louisiana, Mississippi, southern Illinois, southern Indiana and eastern Kansas, he needed to guarantee high availability and fast-responding applications.

“We start getting into the loss of potential business when the site is even down 15 or 20 minutes,” Herrington says.

Herrington decided late last year that he needed help from software that would pinpoint and correlate the exact time that application performance started to degrade across Web, application and database servers. He found Altaworks Corp., and the company’s Web application performance management software seemed to fit the bill. Herrington also evaluated Wily Technology’s IntroScope software, but he says the company didn’t offer the time-based features he needed.

Altaworks designed its performance management software, Panorama (now in Version 2.1), to time-synchronize alarms and events across servers. Panorama uses software agents installed on Web, application and database servers to collect performance metrics such as, in AAA Missouri’s case, Enterprise JavaBeans’ response times, servlet availability, Java Database Connectivity database open and active connections.

The metrics collected on each server are sent to a server running Panorama’s correlation software only when a predefined performance threshold isn’t met. The correlation engine then compares the time each alarm occurred on all the servers supporting the Web application infrastructure. Network and Web site managers such as Herrington then log on to a workstation, using a Web-based interface, to learn the most likely root cause, or source, of the application performance slowdown or failure.

Upon installation, Altaworks’ Panorama discovers the elements in an e-business network. The software then learns the normal behaviour of each element that supports Web applications, such as Web, database and application servers. Panorama sets thresholds based on how the application performs under different loads at peak or low-traffic times. Network and Web site managers also can customize the thresholds to alert them of any specific conditions known to their environment.

Jasmine Noel, principal analyst at JNoel Associates, says poor performing applications can cause problems across departments in an enterprise network environment. With applications touching databases, Web servers, switches and end users, network managers are challenged to pinpoint the source of problems. To alleviate those problems for corporate users, small vendors such as Altaworks, Wily, Dirig and Precise designed software that includes correlation features, Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition support and transaction monitoring, among others.

“Because they initially designed the software to monitor Web and other applications, the vendors do manage to pack a lot of different features into one product at a reasonable price,” Noel says. “The bigger guys typically sold those features in separate products and are still struggling to deliver the same capabilities in an affordable tool.”

While big management vendors such as Computer Associates, HP and IBM Tivoli might still be improving upon their products, they do have one thing start-ups such as Altaworks need: name recognition. Noel says application management software from the smaller players addresses many customer needs, but without proven financial stability in today’s economy the companies could fold or be acquired.

“It’s a tough market to be in because you have to prove you will be around for the next five years at least,” Noel says.

While the Altaworks’ Panorama software is still in its early production deployment at AAA Missouri (the product has been running for about two months), Herrington hasn’t performed an return on investment (ROI) study and he could not disclose the amount his organization spent, but Panorama pricing starts at US$25,000 for six CPUs. Yet Herrington says Panorama already has changed how he solves performance problems.

“When something went wrong, we would query the server that went wild and try to compare its reaction to what normally happens. It was a very time-consuming process,” Herrington says. Panorama helps him be more proactive, he says. “Now the software will show us which server had a problem at a specific time so we don’t have to search through the logs and risk downtime.”