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 applications."

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."

Performance: A matter of perspective

When it comes to defining the main variables of "performance" in application performance management, opinions vary.

Mercury Interactive's view is that it's all about the user and business perspective and not about the performance of routers or servers, said Rajesh Radhakrishnan, the company's senior director of product marketing.

"It may be that [on the management tool's dashboard] the servers are all green and the database is up and running and so on, but the user is still experiencing a problem," he said. "Organizations may have spent a lot of time managing the [information technology] infrastructure, but users and applications don't experience infrastructure."

It's all about business technology optimization, or what Radhakrishnan calls the "layer of alignment" between IT management and the business side of an organization. "The goal of our [performance management] tools is to ensure that applications deliver the business value that's needed," he said.

But that doesn't mean you can forget the more traditional aspects of performance management, said David Wagner, director of solutions marketing for capacity management and provision at BMC Software.

"You do have a [distribution] of accountability throughout an organization, and there are whole different sets of stakeholders that care about performance," Wagner said. "The head of IT still needs to know what is the cheapest way to get fast enough performance."

— Brian Robinson

Manage performance from the get-go

Application performance management products are generally considered "bolt on" tools that are brought in to manage an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system once it has been deployed. But in many ways, that may be too late to take full advantage of them.

ERP systems need to be built with manageability in mind from the start, said Bob Madey, vice president of strategy and market management at IBM Tivoli.

"If you have problems in deploying any application and you don't have information about where those problems are happening, then you'll have trouble with any [ERP] deployment," he said. "So these tools really should be built in from the start."

Many troubled ERP implementations could have been avoided this way, said Josh Greenbaum, a principal at Enterprise Applications Consulting.

"One of the top three reasons for failures in ERP is that these application performance issues haven't been dealt with upfront," he said. "If you want to do a good ERP implementation, you need to have these kinds of performance management tools baked into the thing from the beginning."

— Brian Robinson


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