FAQ: Business activity monitoring

This latest take on business performance analysis carves a new niche in usefulness

As agencies move more of their core business processes to a fast-paced online environment, managers want monitoring tools that let them spot problems quickly so they can fix them before clients start complaining.

A new type of software called business activity monitoring (BAM) pulls performance data in real time from multiple computer systems to instantly assess the health of important business operations and all the technology components supporting them.

By letting agency officials view the status of their infrastructure and define the relationship of those systems to agency operations, BAM helps them formulate response plans that minimize costs, downtime and inefficiency.

It may be easy to comprehend the basics of BAM, but it is not so simple to distinguish BAM from a related trio of technologies — business intelligence (BI), business process monitoring (BPM) and business service management (BSM).

Similarly, a half-dozen vendors hawking products that typically fall in other categories could make a solid case that their offerings meet at least some of BAM’s real-time objectives. Solution providers also muddy the waters for potential BAM adopters with claims that their larger solutions include BAM capabilities.

“The definition of BAM is indeed in the eye of the beholder,” said Bill Gassman, research director at Gartner. The following questions and answers should shed some light.

What are the hallmarks of a BAM system?
In a nutshell, BAM is the ability to take real-time performance data feeds from different systems and turn those into alerts displayed on a user interface that is presented as a dashboard of operations, Gassman said.

“Where BAM becomes valuable is in its ability to detect a funny pattern or something that is not normal,” he said.

Moreover, a BAM application can combine real-time reporting with context gleaned from analysis of historical data and present it all in terms of what it means to the business side of the house, said Matt Green, senior director of BAM product management at Software AG.

“BAM is focused on the real-time monitoring, measurement and analysis of the events associated with a specific business process or enterprise operation,” Green said. “These can be both business and IT metrics.”

How can agencies best use BAM?
Some agencies need rapid-fire alerts on information technology events, such as malfunctioning servers or network links. Increasingly, they need those alerts delivered with historical data that can indicate trends and provide direction for immediate and subsequent decisions.

“Instead of just monitoring systems, we also wanted to determine, for the lines of business those systems support, what would happen if an important e-mail server or a critical node went down,” said Rex Peralta, enterprise architect with the Director of Information Management office at the Army’s Fort Carson in Colorado.

“Although we are still refining our reports and displays, we’ve taken a dashboard approach that gives managers information on a high level.”

Ohio’s Bureau of Workers Compensation is contemplating BAM adoption, said Jeff Adkins, integration architect at the bureau. “We want to get a handle on where we have opportunities for improvement in our business processes and determine how we are achieving our strategic goals,” he said.

Specifically, the Ohio agency is hunting for a BAM or BAM-like solution that would provide alerts and metrics in categories such as the internal management of partners and supply chain, agency compliance with certain policies, and the potential impact of natural events, such as tornadoes on operations. The goal is to improve situational awareness, Adkins said.

The Internal Revenue Service is just one of Software AG’s government customers incorporating BAM. “The IRS is using our technology to move toward a service-oriented architecture. As part of this process, they will be able to more closely monitor operations,” Green said.

Software AG —largely through its acquisition of WebMethods — has tailored its product offerings to reflect its two distinct categories of BAM applications.

“Our BAM solutions include ‘Optimize for Infrastructure,’ which is an IT management platform for monitoring enterprise systems with a specific focus on improving reliability, predictability and performance,” Green said. “Our ‘Optimize for Process’ solution also monitors and measures the flow of operational data as a means for ensuring and improving the execution of specific business processes.”

Is there any way to tell the difference between BAM and related technologies?
BAM’s inclusion of real-time feeds of information is the factor that distinguishes it from related technologies, especially BI, Gassman said.

“BI vendors have traditionally refused to speak in terms of real time, and honestly, their customers have not wanted real-time BI,” he said. “Usually, BI is associated with financial applications and numbers, and those numbers need to be finalized to be useful.”

However, even the lines between BAM and BI are blurring because some vendors are embracing so-called operational BI, in which analytical data is less static, thus opening the door for the addition of BAM or BAM-like functionality.
“The BAM market is so diffused and so difficult to measure,” Gassman said.

 “There are only a few pure-play vendors. The rest are either giving it away or bundling it with other products. In addition, some vendors are using BI or IT operations products to build low-end BAM applications.”

Three of the remaining BAM pure-play vendors are Systar, Syndera and Axway. Although pure-play vendors are few in number, industry executives strive to make clear distinctions between BAM and related technologies. For instance, Craig Olson, vice president of product marketing at Systar, said BAM, BI and BPM only overlap at the fringes. He blamed the confusion on the buzz surrounding BAM concepts.

“BI can be seen as a strategic tool to detect trends and support business decisions,” Olson said. “BPM can be seen as a tactical tool to observe and measure the performance of a business process.

In contrast, BAM is a tactical tool to analyze and manage an end-to-end business activity that might extend beyond a single business process. This would involve short-term strategic insight into trends and outcomes that support operational decisions and improve business performance.”

Is it best to wait for comprehensive solutions that include BAM?
An agency’s decision about when to deploy BAM will depend on its needs. However, the technology is in a state of tremendous flux. Software AG has snapped up WebMethods, and Oracle is forging into BAM territory, largely through its purchase of Siebel. Cognos recently purchased Celequest and is moving into BAM territory, as is Tibco, Gassman said. 

BAM capabilities will increasingly become part of bundled systems, Gassman predicted, who used an automobile-maker analogy. “These companies will say that customers don’t buy a Delco radio, they buy a GM car,” he said. “Their BAM products come with the rest of the system.”

Another factor that might come into play is the growing price diversification in the market. An agency could usually expect to spend about $50,000 to $100,000 for a BAM solution, and some tied in to high-transaction volume, mission-critical systems could hit $300,000, Gassman said. Now there are some BAM options that cost as little as $20,000.

For those not willing to spend six figures on a BAM tool, Microsoft offers some fundamental BAM capabilities in its BizTalk Server 2006. “The Microsoft BAM infrastructure and Microsoft BI infrastructure share the same repository, the SQL Server.

As a result, customers can gather intelligence about events within a process as they occur in real-time and then enable an information worker or decision-maker to view that information in a variety of ways,” said Steve Sloan, senior product manager at Microsoft’s Connected Systems Division.

Although each agency’s needs are different, such entry-level options might appeal at least for the moment. “Many people can meet simple BAM requirements using BizTalk, and for a lot of people, that might be enough right now,” Gassman said. “The BAM market is not exactly exploding, mostly because this is yet another product, and for many IT shops, there simply is no budget.”

McAdams is a freelance writer based in Vienna, Va.
BAM by any other nameFor most agencies, results are what count, not names for product categories coined by market analysts.

The Director of Information Management (DOIM) staff at the Army’s Fort Carson in Colorado, needed to accomplish two goals. First, information technology staff members needed a better way to view the status of systems. “We also needed [business activity monitoring] as a tool to let the business side know how IT is supporting the bottom line,” said Rex Peralta, DOIM enterprise architect.

Peralta’s organization accomplished both goals with a product that falls in the business service management (BSM) category. “Fort Carson is currently using our BSM solution to manage their Exchange e-mail from a business service perspective, rather than just as an application,” said Dave Warlick, BSM sales specialist at Quest Software.

Quest’s Foglight BSM dashboard provides immediate information on IT failures and correlates those events with root causes. However, DOIM staff members are taking the application a step further.

“Although we started off with just system monitoring, we quickly saw that we needed to link that monitoring to what is important to the business side of our operations,” Peralta said.

Just how far DOIM staff members take the application and the type of metrics generated and communicated among IT staff and business managers will determine whether Fort Carson gets into the realm of a BAM-like system, said Bill Gassman, research director at Gartner.

“Looking to see if an e-mail server is up would not be business-related, unless this was tied to something like penalties that the outage would generate for missing service-level agreement,” Gassman said.

Semantics are secondary as far as DOIM’s efforts are concerned, Peralta said. “BAM is new to me as far as the terminology,” he said. “We are just working to figure out how we can serve the business side better, and BAM gives us the start of a vocabulary to do that.”

— Jennifer McAdams
FCW quick studyHere are the fast facts on business activity monitoring tools.

What it Is
  • BAM tools collect and analyze real-time performance data and some historical data from the computer systems that support specific business processes.
  • An analysis layer of rules helps evaluate performance anomalies and draw conclusions.
  • Performance metrics and status alerts are presented to managers in a dashboard-style display.
  • BAM can be a stand-alone tool or incorporated into other business management software.
Benefits
  • Managers can use BAM to view the status of their computer infrastructure and how it relates to business operations, thus helping them formulate response plans to problems that minimize costs, system downtime and inefficiency.
Cost
  • From $20,000 for an entry-level BAM system to $300,000 or more for a large enterprise system. 
— Jennifer McAdams

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