Zen and the art of ERP maintenance
Performance management tools can help keep enterprise software humming, but the job is getting trickier all the time
An enterprise resource planning (ERP) project done right can work wonders for an agency's back-office business procedures. It can lower operating and equipment costs by integrating diverse business processes and improve decision-making by yielding new insight into how the enterprise is running.
That promise continues to drive a strong market. Last year, market analyst Input estimated that the U.S. government's spending on ERP for fiscal 2004 was $5.6 billion, driven in large part by efforts to consolidate systems at the Homeland Security Department.
However, an ERP implementation can go wrong in many ways, which can be devastating given that large-scale deployments can cost up to $50 million. The software can be extremely complex, it's notoriously difficult to automate all of the business processes that need to be integrated, and maintaining the software after it has been deployed can be as tricky as the initial development.
One way to mitigate such problems is through the use of application performance management (APM) tools. Similar to the products that monitor performance and flag potential problems on networks, APM tools monitor the performance of ERP applications across the enterprise so managers can allocate resources and quickly fix problems to keep business applications humming.
With a price tag that can reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, APM tools can be hard to justify. However, the government's growing dependence on automated business processes and the increasingly complex nature of those systems could prompt agency officials to reconsider the cost/benefit analysis of such an investment.
Enterprise application performance "has been a problem for some time that has not been sufficiently addressed by service organizations, because everyone has considered systems-level problems as the more important ones to solve," said Josh Greenbaum, a principal with Enterprise Applications Consulting.
"But that bias toward systems and hardware is finally being replaced as organizations see the potential costs involved in applications tied to business operations not functioning properly," he said.
In the government marketplace, a new incentive for using such tools is the need to comply with regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and other mandates, said Paul Garver, vice president of public-sector business for Quest Software, which provides APM tools that work with products from Oracle, PeopleSoft, Siebel Systems and SAP. Performance management tools could allow information technology managers to demonstrate how enterprise software applications support regulated business processes.
Agencies also want to use the tools to find out how their ERP systems integrators are performing against the service-level agreements in their contracts. And integrators want to know how they're doing as well, Garver said.
What they do
In general, APM tools are expected to handle a few basic tasks:
- Monitor the performance of each application against set thresholds but also refine thresholds over time based on historical use data, because performance needs can change with such variables as the time of day.
- Monitor ERP applications in relation to the performance of supporting software, such as identity management or transaction authentication systems.
- Send alerts when performance is poor and suggest potential remedies based on adjustments to user activity, server workloads, cache utilization and others.
- Provide a way of modeling what-if scenarios to enable managers to predict the effect new software patches or equipment changes, for example, might have on application performance so they can prioritize resources for changing demands.
"Many critical applications are becoming Web-based, and whereas in the past you might look to the network and the quality of switches to determine resources [for critical applications], today everything looks like Port 80" Web traffic, said Sharon Trachtman, vice president of marketing for Radware, which makes monitoring and intelligent application switching products. "The challenge today is being able to guarantee bandwidth for critical
Capacity planning can get complex in an ERP environment, said Bob Madey, vice president of strategy and market management for IBM Tivoli, which offers the Monitoring for Applications product line.
Before making any changes to their environments, managers like to model what those changes will mean based on the existing architecture rather than some fictitious concept, he said. Given the increasingly complicated nature of typical ERP environments, it can be a challenging task.
"In a host environment, the application will be resident on a box somewhere, and if the box was kept up and running, then you could be pretty sure the application and business [were] still running," he said. "That's also the case in a client/
server architecture. But with an ERP [system], these are all composite applications, parts of which could be sitting anywhere."
That situation will become even more difficult as the distributed software components called Web services become more ubiquitous in the application stack. In this scenario, at least some application elements might reside outside the enterprise.
BMC Software's Patrol Performance Assurance tools, for example, tackle the problem by making performance analysis, capacity planning and predictive analysis functions "100 percent application-independent," said David Wagner, director of solutions marketing for capacity management and provision at BMC Software's Enterprise Performance Assurance solutions.
With BMC's approach, resources are allocated according to what it will take to deliver the application across the enterprise rather than focusing on the performance of the application itself. This more holistic method will take into account what's needed for Web services, he said.
Vendors must have a plan for dealing with Web services and service-oriented architectures (SOAs), said Paul Lipton, a product architect with software application and tools vendor Computer Associates International.
"In the old days, it was just enough to manage the SAP ERP environment," he said. "These days, SAP's NetWeaver [application development and management platform] is itself predicated on Web services, so ways to handle Web services and SOA management, which is a separate discipline, will also be required" of APM tools.
This growing complexity could be what puts APM tools on more IT managers' radar screens, said Enterprise Applications Consulting's Greenbaum.
"If they aren't able to manage the kind of composite applications that Web services deliver and how they can fail on you, then the overall efficiencies that people are expecting to get out of Web services will be unattainable," he said. "I think that's the one thing that will push them toward these tools."