Web application management

Diagnosis dilemma

Few will argue that the Internet doesn't make life a lot easier, unless of course you're the one tasked with maintaining the very complex Web applications that provide these services.

Businesses are jumping on the inherent benefits of serving customers, partners, and employees with Web applications, sending IT departments scrambling to build new applications and reap the cost savings associated with having the Web do what once required a faction of employees. However, the management and maintenance part of the Web application equation has not been adequately addressed - until now.

A large number of startups and established vendors recently rolled out new sets of tools and services that give IT shops a fighting chance in the war to keep a Web application running and performing flawlessly around the clock. The market and technologies alike are still in the embryonic stage, but they may need to grow up fast - a tsunami of new Web applications and Web services lurks on the horizon.

Corey Ferengul, a vice president of Meta Group, estimates that about 70 per cent of Web applications are still in development and that enterprises will start rolling them out within the next 12 months. Ferengul adds that the need for Web application management and monitoring tools will hit quickly: "It's happening more and more now that people realise management is important. People are saying: 'We need tools now'." he says.

Finding, fixing, and avoiding

Architected in a multitiered fashion, Web apps are extremely complex and thus inherently have numerous points of failure.

A typical Web application is composed of an application on the back end (such as a CRM application), a database, a Web server, an application server, and of course various operating systems. Coupled with business requirements that mandate around-the-clock availability, it makes Web application management a critical piece of the business puzzle - and a top priority on a the to-do list.

Grown out of the more static world of Web site performance monitoring and various back-end tools, today's tools are ill-equipped to tackle the multitiered and dynamic nature of Web applications, analysts say. "Web application management is not being done well today," Ferengul says. "But the tools are getting there."

Getting there, according to analysts, means addressing not only application performance and availability, but also giving IT departments the ability to identify a problem in real time and show staffers what piece of the infrastructure caused the problem.

"Identifying the cause of an application error can sometimes take five days to three months," notes Tim Knudsen, director of marketing at TeaLeaf Technology. "Businesses are relying on their application's availability. Nobody can afford such downtime."

TeaLeaf's IntegriTea software, introduced in February, seeks to capture in real time every Web transaction, as well as the content the Web application published in response to the request. The idea, Knudsen says, is to give IT managers the ability to reconstruct a transaction in order to more quickly identify what caused an error, slowed performance, or even caused application failure.

Bob Averill, an e-business analyst with Applied Micro Circuits Corp, an optical component semiconductor company, knows about the importance of speed in Web application management. Averill selected Altaworks' Panorama solution to meet an immediate need: identifying the root cause of a problem in his single Web-based application that was in preproduction. The application is an extranet application that customers can access to download product specifications about particular semiconductor products.

Prior to Altaworks, Averill says he would have to hunt down his entire staff, including his database administrator, network administrator, and his server and systems people, and task each to look for the cause of an application slowdown.

"I had to keep everybody on a fire drill alert state," Averill says. "I needed something to pinpoint the problem in real time."

Now, he has a good idea of the problem from the start and can task only the worker in the particular problem area, rather than bothering his whole staff. Still, Averill says that even after everything is put together problems are bound to emerge.

"You fix one thing and that causes stress on something else," Averill says. "But we still need [human] expertise in here once you get the answer to the problem."

Looking for the right combination

The most common approach to Web application management is to use agents that ferret their way through a network and collect data from the individual components that make up the tiered application. For example, Altaworks has developed a set of adapters that is deployed via software, then plugs into and talks to the various components natively through their specific APIs. The company's Panorama software also boasts a set of correlation tools, a feature analysts consider important as Web applications proliferate.

Bill Gassman, an analyst at Gartner, sees a growing need for correlation tools that not only monitor all the pieces that make up the Web application infrastructure, but also correlate the collected data to give enterprises an idea of how the problem occurred - something even vendors admit is difficult to do today.

"In today's environment a single solution can't give you everything you need," explains Michael Baglietto, senior product manager at Keynote Systems. "People are trying to integrate diverse tools into a common pane of glass, and that is difficult."

To address this, Baglietto says Keynote is working with a group of partners that addresses different aspects of Web application monitoring. However, the company is hinting at a new strategy that is geared not to provide the cliched "end-to-end solution" but rather "an end-to-n end points solution", Baglietto says. The "n" refers to any number of machines that may be in communication with one another as Web services proliferate. With Web services linking the systems, Keynote believes it will be able to monitor applications at the points in which the various components aggregate.

Philip Copeland, managing director of Avoka Technologies - Keynote's distributor in Australia, said Data Pulse was launched here in July. He said the service enables organisations to integrate performance data into their own systems for real-time problem-solving.

He said Avoka rolled out Keynote's Transaction Perspective version 4 last week, the main feature of which is improved diagnostic information to let IT staff know what the problem is and how to fix it.

Also available, Copeland said, is Load Pro - which companies can use to pretest Web sites when planning, say, a media campaign that would direct heavy traffic to a site - and Test Perspective, to self-test Internet loads and stresses when incremental changes are planned to a site.

Web services, however, seem poised to change everything vendors and customers know about Web application management. The new architecture will require tools built specifically to address Web services. Customers will have to consider throwing out their jumble of tools for a single infrastructure - something they are reluctant to do due to the cost of new solutions and large investments in existing tools, vendors say.

Harry Nicholos, assistant director for Unix and Web services at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, also sees the advantage of more in-depth management and monitoring tools. Nicholos uses Resonate's Commander 2.0 to get a better idea of how his Web applications are performing.

"My expertise is distributed among different roles. My people don't think of things in terms of services," Nicholos explains. "I needed to codify my expertise."

With Commander, Nicholos says he is able to learn more than whether an application is "up or down" and can drill deep into the application at all levels. But as he rolls out Web services - "We're doing XML stuff now and are just starting to look into SOAP [Simple Object Access Protocol]," he says - Nicholos foresees a need for even greater depth in Web application management due to their multiple layers.

Although most Web app management vendors can claim only 20 or fewer customers, many of the customers seem satisfied. However, it is clear the solutions are not perfect.

Adept at identifying the cause of an error, or at least the source of an error, today's tools are unable to assist in fixing the error - as well as being very expensive and requiring replacement of existing management tools. The key will be figuring out how to manage the emerging technologies that will change the face of application development and deployment.

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