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. That's left 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 hasn't been adequately addressed -- until now.

A large number of start-ups and established vendors recently rolled out new sets of tools and services that give IT folks a fighting chance in the battle to keep Web applications 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, an analyst at Meta Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn., estimates that approximately 70% 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 realize management is important. People are saying, 'We need tools now.'" he says.

Finding, fixing and avoiding

Architected in a multitiered fashion, Web applications 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 customer relationship management application), a database, a Web server, an application server and various operating systems. Coupled with business requirements that mandate round-the-clock availability, it makes Web application management a critical piece of the business puzzle -- and a top priority on a chief technology officer's 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 not only addressing 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," says Tim Knudsen, director of marketing at TeaLeaf Technology Inc. in San Francisco. "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 at Applied Micro Circuits Corp., a San Diego-based optical component semiconductor company, knows about the importance of speed in Web application management. Averill selected Panorama, an application from Altaworks Corp. in Nashua, N.H., to meet an immediate need: identifying the root cause of a problem in his single Web-based application that was in preproduction. Panorama is an extranet application that customers can access to download product specifications about particular semiconductor products.

Prior to installing the Altaworks product, Averill says, he needed to have staffers, including his database administrator, network administrator, and his server and systems people, 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 needs to turn only to 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's deployed via software, then plugs into and talks to the various components natively through their specific application programming interfaces. The company's Panorama software also boasts a set of correlation tools, a feature that analysts consider important as Web applications proliferate.

Bill Gassman, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., says he 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 Inc. in San Mateo, Calif. "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 at providing the cliched "end-to-end solution," but rather at offering "an end-to-n endpoints 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.

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 because of the cost of new tools and the large investments they've already made 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 Commander 2.0 from Resonate Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif., to get a better idea of how his Web applications are performing.

With Commander, Nicholos says he's able to learn more than whether an application is "up or down" and can drill deep into the software 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 application management vendors can claim only 20 or fewer customers, many of the customers seem satisfied. However, it's clear the solutions aren't perfect.

While 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. They're very expensive and require 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.

"I believe applications management will be significantly impacted as Web services and automatic provisioning roll out," says Dawn Meyerriecks, chief technology officer at the U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency. "As we begin employing UDDI [Universal Description, Discovery, and Integration] and related technologies to discover data and services in the runtime environment, diagnosing performance problems, connections failures, etc., will become that much more challenging."

This story, "Diagnosis Dilemma" was originally published by InfoWorld.


Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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