Military expands use of app performance tools

The U.S. military’s unified transportation unit is expanding a deployment of network management tools and robotic PCs that monitor end-user experiences on the global system used to make sure that troops, weapons and supplies arrive on time and in the right places.

The U.S. Transportation Command (Transcom) has for more than a year been using 24 PCs that function as automated probes in an effort to detect performance problems affecting users at its 1,100-worker headquarters, which is located at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. Now, the unit is beginning to roll out the technology for use on the transportation systems run by the U.S. Air Force, Army and Navy.

Frank Barncord, a civil servant who is team leader of Transcom’s service-assurance section, declined to disclose details about the wider deployment plans. But he said that Transcom is expanding the use of the automated probes to the various military branches under its command because the technology has been so helpful in improving performance.

IT managers at government agencies as well as big companies typically wait for end users to report application problems to a help desk, which then forwards the reports to systems administrators for investigation. But Transcom, which has 152,000 personnel globally, “has been able to identify service failures ahead of system failures,” Barncord said. “We don’t want customers to tell us when something is wrong, and (now) we know it before they know it.”

The robotic PCs are equipped with Houston-based BMC Software Inc.’s Patrol End-to-End Response Timer software, which starts at US$5,000 per system, plus a set of custom reporting tools. The PCs are programmed to periodically run different applications and measure how much time it takes to access databases, internal Web pages and other computing resources.

Barncord said Transcom built a prototype of the system two years ago, after launching in 1999 a project involving the use of eight other BMC Patrol products to manage different parts of the command’s network, such as its Unix and Microsoft Exchange servers.

The initial installation of the Patrol tools came after Transcom officials received reports from internal users of “major problems” with access to the network that supports the military’s global transportation needs, Barncord noted. For example, data warehouse applications sometimes would require minutes or hours to access, when they should have taken seconds.

After the first phases of the management software rollout, Transcom recorded an increase of 239 percent in the average time between system failures, according to Barncord. But that still wasn’t good enough to improve the end-user experience, so the command turned to the robotic PCs. The deployment began several months after the prototype system was demoed in September 2001.

Doug Story, a lead contractor at NCI Information Systems Inc. in McLean, Va., who is working with Transcom, said the PCs can alert systems administrators to performance problems that might otherwise go undetected. About two months ago, the PCs detected slow user response times on a variety of applications, which were traced two days later to a proxy server that had been improperly rebooted, Story said.

And six months ago, when end users were moved to a fail-over site, the PCs found slow response times, even though network monitoring tools showed that everything was running properly. Eventually, a database administrator stepped forward and said a database hadn’t been defragmented in a while, Story said.

Transcom is about to begin a thorough study of the effectiveness of BMC’s tools. But Lt. Col. Scott Ross, a spokesman for the command, said the software has helped Transcom perform much more efficiently in Iraq and Afghanistan than it was able to do during the Persian Gulf war in 1991, when supplies showed up mysteriously and became an “iron mountain” of materials.

Jean-Pierre Garbani, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., said Transcom’s use of robots to measure end-user performance is advanced compared with most organizations, except for some large financial services firms. But Garbani added that corporate network managers should do similar measurements, “because applications have grown so complex that nobody has a good picture of how an application works.”

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