Get what you need from your Web management platform

Web development expert hands out best practices advice

By Beth Schultz

Thomas Powell, founder of Web development firm PINT and a Network World tester, has been monkeying around with Web applications since the commercial 'Net's formative days. Over the years, he's accumulated tons of experience building Web applications and making sure their performance stays up to snuff. Here he provides some of his best-practices advice for dealing with Web site application and performance management.

1. When you're monitoring for performance, make sure you're truly seeing your application from a real user's perspective.
Unfortunately, most Web site owners today are in a state of "blissful ignorance" when it comes to understanding how their applications are performing, Powell says. This is especially the case at companies with public-facing Web sites.

"On public-facing Web sites, there really is a sense of 'Oh, we're doing it right because I see it all right.' … But they don't see it through the eyes of the people who are out on the 'Net. They might try, but they'll have a lot of monitoring systems and a full-blown NOC, so that's always from their perspective. They're not seeing it from the user perspective," he says.

When users experience a problem with a Web application, they rarely take the time to alert a company that something is amiss on its site, and the performance management tools available today mostly only provide one piece of the picture. Depending on the type of Web application and performance management tool in use, a company might have great information on how fast packets are traveling end to end, or how many page views a user generated while on the site. But really, those things don't amount to much because they're not telling you what the user is experiencing.

As an example, Powell recounts being called in to help one company figure out why users were experiencing performance problems with a new Flash animation program. The company was monitoring file-transfer speeds across the WAN, and the packets were flying across broadband links. But the company wasn't accounting for this reality: In some cases, those broadband links attached to older systems with CPUs that got bogged down in processing the animation.

The fix was easy enough, he says. Now when the application installs, it profiles the user system, determines what it can handle, and adjusts itself to deliver just the right amount of "richness."

"These types of problems are all solvable," Powell emphasizes. "But first people have to acknowledge that it doesn't matter what they see – it only matters what the user sees."

2. Get your network and Web application development teams on the same page, so to speak.
Enterprises need to engender a cross-understanding between the Web application development and network teams in order to address the performance management challenge adequately, Powell says. To get to the root of a problem quickly – or better yet, to identity and fix a problem before it crops up for users – you can't have the people responsible for network monitoring doing their thing over in one corner and the developers checking application status in another corner. This gets back to understanding the user. "Users don't see an infrastructure piece and an application piece. They just see it as a whole system."

Web application and performance management vendors like Coradiant and Tealeaf Technology are on the track with their efforts to provide a more holistic view through their tools. But they face a big challenge in having to knock down the application developer/network administrator divide, he says. If the application team receives a performance alert, it needs to be able to find out what's happening on the network or in the servers, and vice versa.

"You have to train your developers to be network- and security-aware. That's the reality of it," he says.

3. Figure out exactly what it is you're trying to determine about your Web site before you select a management tool.
Remember, there are no magic microscopes out there, Powell says. "People are looking for a box or software that's like a burglar alarm. It'll give you an alert and do stuff, but it doesn't tell you the questions you need to be asking …. If you're not asking the right questions, the technology doesn't matter."

So a company needs to figure out what information it needs in order to do the job well. "If you're a CEO with an e-commerce site or a person who runs an HR site internally, you have a problem, a concern, a worry. 'Why aren't they putting more stuff in my cart? Why aren't they filling out the résumé form? Why do people complain about the form?' These are the questions you want answered; design or find the technologies and tools to answer them."

And sometimes, what you need might turn out to be a simple 40-line JavaScript, a management appliance, an application monitoring service – or a combination.

4. Make it easy for users to let you know when they're having problems on your site.
"You've seen sites that simply ask, 'How do you feel about this page?' and ask you to rate it. That's great," Powell says. "Most sites don't allow people to complain easily enough. Maybe you can click to open an e-mail but you can't vote instantly."

Too often, companies use page views as a measure of success, he adds. Just because a site visitor generates a lot of page view doesn't mean the person is interested. "That person could be frustrated, spinning around in circles looking at the same thing over and over [but never finding what they need." And in such a case, "that person does not like you. But how would you know that? You have to provide an easy way for them to tell you."

5. Always remember, your job is never done.
One certainty about Web application and performance management is that the process is ongoing. Keep asking the right questions, Powell says, and you'll keep discovering things you otherwise wouldn't have.

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