Today's average business application typically runs in a virtual machine, with several branches that go off the application server and out to a completely different application for a particular function or piece of data.
In some cases, that branching operation may not even be on premises. As cloud computing takes hold, the scenario of going out of the network to obtain what your application needs will become more commonplace, leading to more headaches for the struggling art of application performance monitoring.
It's always been difficult to see what's going on inside the application. At the same time, doing so has become more crucial as applications become one of the main ways that customers interact with companies they wish to do business with.
The modern application performance management (APM) system requires an ability to see an application and its dependencies, compile statistics on normal operations, perform real-time analysis to detect anomalies, and do diagnostics to determine what can be done to correct what's gone wrong. No systems perform all functions perfectly, despite bringing some new strengths to the process.
One of the lesser-known APM systems, OpNet, in Bethesda, Md., has a product line that corresponds to several of these steps, including AppResponse Xpert for monitoring the end user experience, network and application; AppTransaction Xpert for "deep transaction performance analysis and prediction," according to its descriptor on the OpNet (now part of Riverbed) website; and AppMapper Xpert for mapping an application's parts and dependencies.
[InformationWeek's Art Wittmann argues APM suffers because vendors haven't kept up. See What's Killing APM?]
Covering the bases is one thing. Getting the end-user experience down cold, so that the IT administrator has an idea what the user is seeing as an application runs, remains a challenge. CA Technologies, with deep experience in dependent legacy systems, has also moved onto this ground with its own Internet monitoring from "77 points of presence," said Dave Cramer, CA's VP of product management.
Dummy transactions that mimic real ones can be launched from those 77 points of presence and response times monitored. If a customer is running an application in the cloud, CA's points of presence offer response times between that application and points of presence in 40 countries around the world. Cramer said CA is still building out its independent monitoring network and adds 6-7 more points per quarter.
The granddaddy of independent monitoring networks, however, is probably that of the largest pure-play application performance management vendor, Compuware. It springs from Compuware's Gomez acquisition and includes 150,000 points of presence in 168 countries. The computers at these points can launch dummy transactions and record response times, assembling a picture of cloud vendor, ISP and Internet performance that can tell a business much about what's going on with its application.
An ongoing problem, nevertheless, of seeing what the end user sees is caused by the frequent changes in browsers. Once dominated by Microsoft Explorer and Netscape Navigator, the field now includes Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox, as well as Apple's Safari, open source Opera and several other entrants.
"Firefox and Chrome change multiple times a quarter. Application monitoring needs to recognize how browser displays differ. There's a cascading set of changes and drivers" that the application performance management system must keep up with, John Van Siclen, general manager of the APM business unit at Compuware. One of the advantages of implementing such a system is that it relieves the enterprise from tracking all the browser changes, he said. APM provides enough background intelligence "to survive this wave of complexity," at least in Compuware's case, said Van Siclen.