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Improving end-user experience

By Bernd Harzog
March 19, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Do you find that despite the small fortune you have spent on products to manage your servers, networks and applications, your business constituencies still complain about the performance, usability and availability of key business applications?

If so, it might be time to expand your performance management horizons to include the end-user experience. Traditional monitoring and management tools focus on factors that impact but are blind to the actual end-user experience. While they are excellent at measuring application availability, they provide no insight into real application performance from the perspective of the end user. And what is that perspective? As far as end users are concerned, an application is "not performing" whenever it does not work as expected — when it’s slow, when it’s continually spitting out error messages or when the user interface is so counterintuitive the only option is to create a work-around.

A focus on the end user is the key to driving adoption and efficient and effective use of your critical business applications. This process starts with deciding on your approach. There are three basic types of end-user experience management products: scripted synthetic agents, passive network appliances and passive client agents.

Scripted synthetic monitoring

Scripted synthetic monitoring works by installing an agent on a PC to monitor a client-side application. The agent executes a script that emulates the actions of a user. The script can do anything that a real user can do, and you can have a script do things that you would not expect a real user to do. A script could run through 100 key transactions at 5:00 every morning and verify that the system is working before the real users show up.

Despite the flexibility of synthetic agents, there are some downsides. First, someone has to develop and maintain all of those scripts. The time and effort required to maintain (and test) these scripts means that this approach is best suited to verifying the most important transactions in the most important applications. Also, the synthetic transactions create a maintenance task to reverse the effects of the transaction. But, most critically, while the synthetic transaction measures the performance delivered to the scripting engine, it doesn’t measure the actual end-user experience. So, at best, it is a proxy for the end-user experience.

Passive network appliances

Network appliances that measure end-user experience attach to the same switch that supports the appliances used to balance the load for your Web servers. Since they attach to a mirror or spanned port on the switch, these appliances are able to see all of the Web traffic that flows in and out of each switch. Custom hardware and some very sophisticated software crack into the Web and network protocols and allow you to see any transaction that you define to the appliance. Most of these appliances focus upon the Web layer of an application system, and therefore focus upon HTTP/HTTPS. All of these products allow you to see how many transactions of interest are occurring. You can see the response times of those transactions, any errors that show up in the HTTP protocol stream, and the path that your users are taking through your Web-based applications.

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