Response Networks takes on 'brownouts'

Touting what it calls a new approach to application monitoring, Response Networks Inc. last month started shipping a product designed to diagnose the causes of "brownouts," or slowdowns in application performance.

VeriServ measures application performance based on how quickly an application responds to an end user's commands, rather than on how quickly it runs on the server. The company believes this approach provides a more reliable measure of applications in a distributed environment, where performance may be affected by factors beyond the server.

VeriServ enables organizations to obtain a real-time "service view" of performance, said Bob Taylor, chief technology officer at Response Networks, Alexandria, Va.

VeriServ supports the development of what Response Networks calls a "verified service-level agreement." Increasingly used in organizations where organizations pay their MIS departments for information technology services, service-level agreements establish performance metrics MIS must meet to fulfill the contract. But metrics are difficult to verify in a distributed computing environment unless the management tool measures performance at the end-user level, as assumed by most service-level agreements, according to the company.

The VeriServ system uses "agents," or small software modules, to monitor the response time of hardware and software components along the path of an application, yielding a quantifiable measure of its performance and pinpointing trouble spots.

Systems based on the widely used Simple Network Management Protocol also monitor the behavior of individual network devices, but they "don't tell you what the impact on the end user will be," Taylor said.

For example, although a switch may have gone down, the network may have routed around the problem.

For real-time monitoring, the software provides color-coded screens to indicate stages of degradation. A wider view of application performance is offered by graphical reporting of response time and throughput. The software also provides a "derived metric" indicating how close one is to achieving optimal performance levels. Pricing starts at $10,000.

Among the agencies testing the product are the State Department, the FBI and the Department of Veterans Affairs, said Ivan Shefrin, company president and chief information officer. The federal market is a "key area" for Response Networks, accounting for 15 percent of its current accounts.

The federal government has highly distributed, "very complex environments" making them difficult to manage, Shefrin said. "In that environment, you need a remote technology deployed to tell you what's going on."

Response Networks also announced a Customer Advisory Board, including federal integrator Science Applications International Corp., Qwest Communications International Inc. and Scientific-Atlanta Inc.

"Looking at applications [and] how services traverse a network— rather than at latency from one point to another"— is a new thing, said Steve Solberg, an associate analyst with Giga Information Group Inc., Cambridge, Mass.

Looking at application response time from the user's point of view is also new, he said. VeriServ supports "cross-boundary monitoring" for outsourcing, supply chains and extranets, according to Response Networks.

IT organizations need tools to measure users' application performance "or they'll find themselves replaced by outsourcers," Solberg said. Previously, tools would "monitor from an individual element's perspective" looking at a router, hub or application server in isolation.

Users, however, need to understand that the technology is young and unproven, Solberg said. It is also limited at the moment to Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol-based applications, such as File Transfer Protocol, Telnet and POP3, he said.

But Response Networks' software also might be used with enterprise resource planning applications from SAP America Inc., Oracle Corp., PeopleSoft Inc. and others, said Rob Strechay, senior network analyst with Strategic Networks, Boston. VeriServ helps with any such network applications because "you want to know where the problems are before the users call," Strechay said.

Brownouts are attracting attention because of the improving "fault management" technology of individual network components, said John McConnell, a principal of McConnell Associates, Boulder, Colo.

But fault management is "basically a binary proposition," saying only whether a device is up or down, McConnell said. Customers now want "analog" information on the quality, rather than just the availability, of services, which Response Networks is trying to provide.

Adams is a free-lance writer based in Alexandria, Va.

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