Monitoring made easy

Now that the move from mainframe-centric to distributed computing is a fait accompli, the big-iron stalwarts who insisted that centralized management made mainframes the best solution may be having the last laugh.

Agencies that have jumped from mainframe to client/server architectures are finding it more difficult to monitor the performance of applications and devices on their networks.

Consequently, network and systems managers are seeking relief from application performance management tools, generally defined as commercial software packages that allow system administrators to monitor the performance that users are experiencing and receive advance warning of impending problems.Vendors and analysts said these tools can save time and money while increasing the productivity of users' operations. But they added that users should exercise caution when shopping for application performance management tools to ensure that they purchase the best products. While the best application performance management tools allow managers to be proactive in preventing performance problems, other products do little more than detect potential trouble spots.

"Nailing Jell-O to a Wall"

Application performance management has created a buzz in the marketplace, and customers will find that nearly every vendor claims to have products that fit within that market segment. "The definition [of application performance management] is so amorphous, it is like nailing Jell-O to a wall," said Paul Mason, vice president of infrastructure and software research for International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass.

The most common definition describes these tools as programs for reconfiguring systems to monitor users' performance and for allowing administrators to address problems and reduce or eliminate performance bottlenecks.

"Those tools allow agencies to pinpoint exactly where the performance bottleneck is," said Gary Mitchell, director of the federal and aerospace group for McLean, Va.-based Candle Corp., which provides application performance management tools to the Agriculture Department's National Finance Center. "They allow agencies to be proactive, to set thresholds and to alert someone [when performance declines]."

Mitchell said application performance management tools should let users adjust the numerous variables that can affect performance on a distributed system. "On a mainframe, you could change the priority of an application [to change its performance]," he said. "On distributed systems, you may need to change the network configuration to provide extra bandwidth. You can reduce the priorities of some jobs to increase the priorities of other applications on the server."

Ideally, an application performance management tool will not only alert administrators to problems but also head them off, said David Freund, vice president of marketing for Datametrics Systems Corp., Fairfax, Va. Users should seek out trend analysis tools that predict when and where bottlenecks are likely to occur, he said. Some products offer advice, suggesting parameter changes or hardware upgrades to prevent trouble, he added.

Much of the confusion about the definition of application performance management is the result of the myriad of specialized performance management tools available. There are tools for network management, storage management, server management, client management and application management.

Users may have trouble sorting true application performance managers from network management products and other tools with similar features. Complicating the picture is the proliferation of application performance monitors, which can tell network administrators when a problem occurs but cannot do anything to solve it.

"Monitoring is a piece of the puzzle, but that is not proactive," said Steve Joyce, chief technology officer for Ganymede Software Inc., Research Triangle Park, N.C. Ganymede counts the Defense Department, Student Loan Marketing Association and Federal National Mortgage Association among its federal customers for application performance management tools.

Geoff Stilley, vice president of federal sales and marketing for Computer Associates International Inc., said his company moved from focusing on network management tools that provide alerts to tools that can analyze a distributed system at the application level. He said his company's application performance tools are used at DOD, NASA and the State Department.

Elsewhere, BMC Software Inc., manufacturer of the popular Patrol application performance management tool, this month finalized its $900 million merger with Boole & Babbage Inc. BMC officials said they have accomplished their first priority of integrating Patrol with Boole's Command/Post enterprise manager, giving administrators a better view of performance throughout the enterprise.

"What we've done is connected [Patrol] to Command/Post so that it's transparent," said Kathy Ollivier, a federal sales manager for the combined companies. She said the integrated product will eliminate the need for separate consoles to monitor performance throughout the organization.

Matt Guessetto, a network engineer at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, said his agency uses network sniffers and application performance management tools from Network Associates Inc. to address challenges such as slow performance, timeouts, device detection failures and even complete failures.

"We need tools to empower our staff to identify the cause of the problem, to clarify if the network is accepting packets and transporting them to their destinations," Guessetto said. "If the network is malfunctioning, we need to isolate the problem. In many circumstances, the problems may result from desktop configuration problems or from groups loading 'chatty' applications that are not suitable for organizational use."

A step beyond this capability is "what-if" scenario planning. Datametrics' ViewPoint Capacity Planner will let administrators experiment with the predicted outcome of changes, such as adding more memory or connecting more users to the system, Freund said.

While preventative maintenance features sound appealing, not all agencies want to spend time using them. "When we have a problem, we fire up the tools to solve the problem," said a user at an executive agency who did not want to be named. "You can get in quickly and pinpoint the problem."

Moving Off the Mainframe

Although performance management tools have existed for years in mainframe environments, agencies that made the switch to less expensive client/server systems realized the shortcomings in management tools for these systems. Any misgivings about switching were eradicated when the Year 2000 issue forced agencies to switch immediately.

Many agencies had custom-written, mainframe-based applications that would have been prohibitively expensive to rewrite for Year 2000 compliance, so they bought commercially available packaged applications that run on Unix, NetWare and Windows NT servers.

"When people looked at the cost of revising applications to make them Y2K-compliant, the decision to go to packaged applications was a no-brainer," said Graham Thompson, vice president of marketing for InCert Software Corp., Cambridge, Mass., whose customers include the National Security Agency, NASA and the Social Security Administration. "At NASA, we saw a fair number of application packages coming in to replace home-grown applications," he said.

The applications being managed are most often enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, such as for finance, payroll and human resources, from vendors such as SAP America Inc. and Oracle Corp. Electronic commerce is an increasingly important application for many customers.

Carefully measuring the sources of slowdowns in the system has resulted in some indictments of the applications themselves. "Nobody has ever pressed these companies to make their products more efficient," said Bill Gassman, research analyst for Gartner Group, Stamford, Conn.

But that may be changing because of performance management tools' need for ERP application vendors to put their products on a digital diet. "We've wrung about all we can out of the systems," Thompson said. "We are starting to see a return to the application code and vendors trying to optimize the logic."

Agencies should expect to save time and money with application performance management, and improved productivity should offset the price of the tools. Agencies can save money by forgoing additional hardware purchases that might be needed if systems did not run at maximum efficiency, Thompson said. "It is one of the easier cost justifications," he said. "You can show very easily that shaving 5 percent on performance will save money on hardware requirements."

Rowena Chuwate, a computer specialist at the Census Bureau, said the agency is saving money by using Compuware Corp. EcoTools application performance management software because the bureau can let less experienced technical staff respond to problems. "We see EcoTools as a solution to saving training time and development dollars," Chuwate said.

The EcoTools package helps diagnose application problems more quickly, reduce downtime and capture historical application data for future reference, she said.

In addition to savings, application performance management tools simply make system administrators look good. "A person may lose credibility" because of slow performance, said Barbara Harrison, director of product marketing for FirstSense Software Inc., Waltham, Mass. "They may lose their budget."

The potential benefits of these tools have led to a growing interest among users. IDC predicts that the U.S. market for these tools on distributed systems will increase from $774 million in 1997 to $1.1 billion this year.

Vendors said interest is growing in the federal market as users realize that performance loss can lead to dissatisfied U.S. taxpayers. "If those systems have a slow response time, or aren't even working, that has a big impact on service to the citizen," according to Candle's Mitchell.

And if citizens cannot get the information they need and get it quickly, they will pick up a telephone to get help from a live person, which is more expensive, said Peter Dunbeck, vice president of business development for NextPoint Networks Inc.

And eventually citizens will start complaining to elected officials, IDC's Mason said. "It will start to become a political issue if people can't get the information they need."

--Carney is a free-lance writer based in Herndon, Va. Margret Johnston contributed to this article.

***

At a Glance

STATUS: Agencies throughout government are using application performance management tools to monitor users' performance and to allow systems administrators to address problems proactively. The tools have allowed users to reduce downtime, make their operations more efficient and save money on training and hardware.

ISSUES: Because vendors apply the term "application performance management tool" to a myriad of devices with differing capabilities, customers should exercise caution to ensure they buy products that will meet their needs. Some products can detect problem areas, correct them and even predict the effects of changes to networks.

OUTLOOK: Excellent. Analysts predict the sales of application performance management tools on distributed systems will rise substantially this year. The success agencies have experienced with these tools suggests that their use will continue for years to come.

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