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Monitoring the Big Picture: A Modern Approach for Web Application Monitoring

Most Web businesses believe that their web application monitoring efforts are sufficient. Here's why most of them are wrong.


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By Leon Fayer

Monitoring is a critical, but misunderstood, component of a successful web strategy. A web business with any level of sophistication is already performing some level of monitoring to ensure that their site is up and running. Most of these firms strongly believe that their current monitoring efforts are sufficient to run their businesses successfully. However, most of them are wrong.

The complexity of today’s web applications have gone far and beyond the capabilities of “traditional” monitoring tools and approaches. Keeping tabs on simple metrics such as hits, uptime and page load speeds, is not enough to provide a complete picture of application performance, nor is it sufficient to troubleshoot the increasingly complex technical and business issues that can affect web application performance. While major technical issues such as web outages have obvious impact on business performance, more subtle technical issues may have even larger impact despite the appearance of successful operations on the surface. For example, a coding error may prevent a small percentage of web application users from completing a purchase. Unless this error is noted and reported by users or identified through monitoring efforts, it may persist for months, leading to a more substantial loss of revenue than would occur from a widespread, but short, outage.



Although business and technical issues are intertwined in web businesses, monitoring efforts are frequently isolated and uncoordinated. Focused on their own objectives, administrators, developers and business personnel rely on different metrics and tools to assess the success of a web application’s operations. The situation is reminiscent of the parable of the blind men and the elephant: upon encountering an elephant, each man touches one part in an attempt to understand the elephant as a whole. Needless to say, the man touching the elephant’s trunk extrapolates a very different creature than the man touching the leg or the man feeling the tusk. Each perspective may be correct, but unless mapped together, the team supporting the web application has difficulty visualizing the elephant they must jointly manage.

This article makes the case for taking a broader, deeper and more coordinated approach to monitoring. Its goal is to provide technical and business managers a greater understanding of the role and importance of monitoring in managing their web businesses. It will illustrate how a holistic, multi-disciplinary monitoring program can solve complex issues that cross business and technical boundaries and drive real improvements in business performance.  

What Is Web Application Monitoring?

For the purposes of this article, we define monitoring as the set of tools, processes and disciplines that collect, detect, diagnose and report on the performance of web applications and their environments. Monitoring provides fault detection and alerting, as well as trend analysis for postmortem studies and long-term planning.

Currently, most organizations separate their efforts into two broad categories:

Technical Monitoring – Which ensures web systems are up, running and performing well, and collecting data for capacity planning and other technical strategies. Usually performed by systems engineers, administrators and managers within operations units and overseen by the VP of Technology or CTO.

Business Monitoring – Which ensures business processes are functioning as expected and the underlying applications are meeting business objectives. Usually performed by individuals such as business analysts, marketers and product managers within business units and overseen by the CEO, CMO and other senior business executives.

As the remainder of this paper will illustrate, merging technical and business monitoring efforts delivers significant synergies, enabling organizations to obtain a cohesive view of how their web applications affect their business. Thus, monitoring goes beyond simply reporting on the state of your systems to provide insight into the state of your business.

7 Reasons Web Application Monitoring Is Important

Monitoring matters. It is the best way to know that your web applications--and the business processes they support--are continuing to operate as intended. Focusing on the word, “continuing” is critical. Unexpected issues will arise: software breaks, hardware fails, performance lags, third-party applications go down. An application that was working perfectly a few moments ago may be costing your company business a few moments later. Whatever the reason, the results impact your customers and affect your business.

Monitoring is more than overseeing uptime and page load rates. A broad and effective monitoring program increases control, reduces risk, speeds issue resolution and, ultimately, improves business performance.

Software Is Never Perfect

Despite the best efforts of its designers, architects, developers and testers, application software is never entirely bug free or predictable. Requirements can be missed or misinterpreted; errors can be introduced during design and coding; and application users may use the software in unexpected ways. Potential impacts on a web application’s ability to achieve its business objectives can range from minor to catastrophic. Even when properly performed, testing is unlikely to catch all defects; 100% testing is impossible for complex applications operating in complex environments and in most cases, testing efforts are constrained by time, resources and budget. While catastrophic errors are quickly apparent, monitoring provides valuable insight for identifying more subtle issues and minimizing their business impact.

Things Change

Applications, their environments and users are constantly changing. System and environment modifications can affect performance, create bottlenecks or compromise previously functioning application components. Application enhancements can have unanticipated impacts on customer web behaviors. Evolving customer technology preferences result in a slow decline in the use of certain web application features. A new marketing strategy causes an unexpected change in buying patterns, shifting transaction flow and volumes. Change may be inevitable, but without a baseline for comparison, it can be hard to assess and react properly to its impact.

You Don’t Control Your Entire Environment

Customers judge your business by your website user experience. But that experience depends heavily on the third parties your site relies on for data, functionality, advertising, networking, computing capacity and a myriad of other services. That experience may also be impacted by hackers and other malicious third parties. Third parties may be beyond your control, but your site’s users consider them your issue. Monitoring can provide crucial notice of third-party issues as well as insights on how to decrease future issue impact.

Proactive Is Better Than Reactive

Monitoring gives you the ability to identify and address potential issues before they impact your business. The worst and mostly costly way to discover an issue is to have it found and reported by your customers/users. At that stage, the issue is already impacting your business and brand reputation and your organization has to scramble to make corrections as quickly as possible. In contrast, monitoring current performance and activity levels against baseline trends provides advance notice that an issue is likely to occur, thereby enabling your organization proactively to avoid business impact entirely by taking the necessary preventative steps.

Some Situations Can Only be Identified Through Monitoring

Monitoring is the only method for identifying web site issues that are revealed by deviations from expected baselines or through trend analysis. Obvious examples include monitoring network and storage use against available capacity and tracking performance attributes, such as web page loading speed. However, monitoring can catch more subtle and complex issues, especially if multiple metrics are collected and compared. For example, a software error that affects only a small percentage of web site users may only become obvious when analyzing changes in historical usage patterns.

Monitoring Produces Invaluable Information to Assist Troubleshooting

Given the complex, dynamic nature of today’s websites, having as much information as possible is critical for effective troubleshooting. For instance, if revenue for a web marketed product declines by 10% over a given month, is it a performance issue (such as slow load times leading to higher abandonment), technical issue (a linkage issue that leads fewer prospects to the product), marketing issue (a change in the product’s descriptive text made it slightly less attractive) or simply seasonal variation in buying patterns? Investigating each of these possibilities individually would be time-consuming, effort intensive and potentially wasteful. However, efforts could be easily directed to the most likely candidates by comparing multiple business and technical metrics using a monitoring dashboard.

Monitoring Improves Business Performance

The most important reason for an effective monitoring program is to improve business performance. The ability to quickly identify and react to issues and opportunities presented during web site operations helps companies get and keep customers, boost revenue and build brand reputation. It minimizes negative impacts by enabling faster correction when issues occur and maximizes opportunities by providing information to guide planning (such as capacity requirements for entering new markets) and strategy development (such as identifying which marketing campaigns and presentation methods are most effective).

About the Author

Leon Fayer is Vice President, Business Development for OmniTI. His expertise lies in both web application development and production deployment, including designing effective CMS with varied roles and permissions. Prior to joining OmniTI, Leon worked on projects for enterprise level clients, and the Federal government―including the White House--leading teams through a series of CMS implementations. Leon was one of the architects behind what is now IBM’s premier enterprise content management platform, and has led teams through the architecture, design and development of CMS, CRM and workflow systems for very large entertainment, media and sports event clients. He can be contacted at leon@omniti.com.



   
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