The performance and availability of the company’s applications are critical to maintaining uninterrupted business processes, and even small performance issues can entail rather costly consequences. For example, in customer-facing solutions, slow system response is very likely to influence SEO and conversion rate negatively and consequently result in hindered revenue and even damaged brand loyalty. According to the Akamai research, a 100-millisecond delay in website load time can hurt conversion rates by 7 percent.
Modern applications – large, often distributed and asynchronous – are especially vulnerable to failures and slowdowns and thus require a notably holistic approach to their health and availability maintenance. As there exists little guidance for helping companies in ensuring thorough care of the application performance in large IT environments, we present the following application performance management 101.
As an application management provider, we’ve often seen misinterpreting of the relatively new concept “application performance management.” Mostly, people mistake it for application monitoring and use the terms interchangeably, but application monitoring is only a way to reveal in details how the system behaves over time. Despite all of its substantive input, pure monitoring is not enough for the needs and requirements of complex modern applications and is only a supportive activity for performance management. Application performancemanagement is a much wider term that comprises, apart from monitoring, problem resolution, problem prevention, and continuous application improvement.
The good about proper application performance doesn’t end with improved conversion rates and investing in brand loyalty. The benefits of application performance management in practice for the organization include:
Increased business efficiency
Properly administered application performance management makes badly performing business applications a thing of the past. In particular, it helps to deal with delays in overloaded processes, downtimes, and disruptions that can significantly hinder employees’ performance and almost double the time required for this or that task.
Reduced application TCO
Minimized costs for further improvements. Application changes become less expensive due to the ability to identify and solve code integration problems before an application goes in production.
Lowered support costs. The data received in the course of application performance management improves the efficiency of the support staff. Support engineers can address performance and availability issues faster and solve more problems over time.
Well-planned cloud capacity. The reduced time of request processing will hardly make a big difference to your users, but it can add up to your spending significantly. Continuous application performance management will let you estimate your optimal needs in cloud capacity and come up with more effective computing resource utilization or the introduction of dynamic consumption for the clouds.
SLA monitoring and reporting
Application performance management data helps to bring transparency into collaboration with third-party vendors (be a SaaS provider or a provider of application development and management outsourcing services) and ensure that the quality of service is maintained at the level your business expects. Application performance metrics can be turned into such KPIs as average page load time, the number of services unavailability cases, and more.
Application performance management starts with anomaly detection and localization. For that, the responsible team applies a wide set of techniques.
Application component monitoring
Component monitoring implies tracking performance metrics and availability of all application tiers and components – servers, OS, services, integration components, third-party APIs, databases.
Business transaction monitoring
Business transaction monitoring involves tracking critical business transactions across the entire application infrastructure. By that, we mean ensuring the transactions are complete, their timing is acceptable, as well as identifying weak points in the request’s journey. Transaction health monitoring is particularly relevant for complex distributed transactions across internal or external systems when the message loss is crucial.
Real user monitoring
Real user monitoring (as Google Analytics) is a passive collection of data about the performance of the application services that clients can access directly. It allows getting insights about real traffic and errors on the server and in the frontend, identifying the most popular sets of functionality and differences in performance when the application is accessed from different devices, browsers or parts of the world.
For synthetic monitoring, developers create special scripts that systematically simulate user actions in the application. This allows for finding flaws in the application work before real users are affected.
Metrics can only tell that something is wrong. To indicate the real source of a problem, we turn to logs. The application performance management team can either manually scroll log data or use specific tools for log analysis (as Logstash, Graylog, Logmatic, Splunk). To keep the log processing effective and allow for advanced log analysis methods, it’s a good practice to require developers to keep the logs structured, properly described and follow standards, e.g., ISO 8601 for date and time info.
The tools used for application performance management can be roughly grouped into several segments, each having favorable and unfavorable aspects for a certain monitoring case. Two of the key differences are the origin of the tools and the way they are implemented.
Custom or off-the-shelf tools
You can either choose from the variety available on the market (AppDynamics, Stackify, Dynatrace, etc.) or use homegrown software. The latter is increasingly popular among the companies with complex and developed IT infrastructures who know exactly where their performance soft points are and want to tackle them in a more targeted way.
Agent-based or agentless tools
Agent-based tools imply that a part of the tool is installed directly on the server or service and collects insider data. It provides more detailed info about how software performs but may require the tangible number of server resources and slow down the component performance.
Agentless tools assess software state remotely. They are easier and faster to deploy but have a limited metric tracing coverage.
It’s not the tools that are critical in application performance management but the measures you take based on the data received from them. Mature performance management runs as follows:
Two stages from above deserve special mention. Alerting should address only the relevant stakeholders and concern only serious issues to be truly effective. Reporting about the detected problems, the way they were solved and the influence they had, shouldn’t be ignored. In the long term, proper reporting allows choosing a better application development path and coming up with the right decisions on the application evolution.
The main supporter of application performance management varies from company to company. This can be a responsibility of a performance engineer, a DevOps team, or a part of the responsibility for the technical support that is inherently accountable for application health and availability. A designated responsible person or a small group of stakeholders should own application performance management as a process within the company to ensure its efficiency, consistency and focused effort.
However, none of them can have full responsibility (and required skills) for the maintenance and management of the overall application performance as the sources of performance degradation can be spread across all software layers and components. They may reside in:
Spikes in traffic.
Slow web pages.
Overloaded transaction / incomplete transactions.
Tangled code structures.
Slow SQL queries / too many database queries.
Inefficient usage of an app’s memory.
Slow or unreliable third-party entities, failure of external HTTP web service calls.
And yet the list is not complete. Thus, for application performance management success, the first big step should be bringing together all stakeholders across the application life cycle. A full application performance management team require a part-time involvement of at least:
The major costs of application performance management reside in:
Review of the current IT infrastructure state. This will include such activities as a code health check, identification of primary candidates for application performance management and creation of a backlog, initial sizing of a future monitoring solution.
Monitoring tools development,purchase of product licenses (annual/monthly fees) and monitoring solution setup and maintenance.
A specifically assigned monitoring team. They’ll manage the monitoring solutions, interpret the monitoring metrics for the whole application management team as well as watch the database that stores them.
Where application performance management will have the greatest impact
If you want to experience the most significant improvements and get a larger ROI from application performance management investments:
Start with business-critical applications that directly influence the company’s revenue (critical business processes) or influence the availability of the company’s services for the clients. The examples of such applications include content management systems, customer and self-service portals, ecommerce solutions and order processing modules.
Cover high-loaded business transactions and external interfaces.
Lastly, let’s see what problems are associated with application performance management.
When opting for SaaS or PaaS, it’s very important to monitor response time, errors and availability of the cloud services (e.g., the cloud storage service). Though you can’t identify where exactly the problem is, the data collected can be used to formulate a request for a provider’s service desk and monitor SLA compliance.
Again, you don’t have access to the source code, so big changes to improve application performance are unavailable. However, application performance management is still worthwhile. At least, you’ll be able to quickly identify performance problems, detect flaws caused by recent customizations, scale up resources or optimize its database.
IoT, big data
The problem of application performance management for IoT and big data solutions is in the abundance of monitoring data. To mitigate the issue, make sure that only needed data is collected, gets combined into batches and longer intervals between transmissions are set.
By the end of 2020, Gartner predicts that 85% of all customer service interactions will start with self-service. In fact, many businesses are expecting to implement self-service portals within the next year.
But is self-service just a marketing hype? No. If digital self-service isn’t in the plan for improving customer experience, then business leaders will find themselves behind the curve.
Why Use a Self-Service Portal?
Self-service is the first step toward excellent digital customer experiences. Not only is self-service foundational for serving modern customer needs, but it is also key to decreasing cost-to-serve. Additionally, times of crisis expedite the need for digital and self-service capabilities in order to quickly meet the shifting needs of customers.
The benefits of successfully implementing a portal with self-service elements include:
Decrease in number of support calls. Customers can easily find the answers they are looking for online, thus lowering the number of calls coming in.
Decrease in response time. Since customers can quickly search and surface the information they need to, customer service reps can quickly handle more complicated interactions and questions instead of spending their time repeatedly answering the same questions.
Decrease in total support costs. Maintaining self-service channels is cheaper than managing live support channels.
Increase in total support volume handled. Self-service enables more customers to be served in a shorter time span.
Increase in traffic. Having self-service establishes brand credibility and trust, so customers will view the portal as a useful tool and visit more frequently.
Increase in customer satisfaction. By providing self-service, customers are able to select how they interact with the customers, thereby building an experience that they prefer.
Examples of Effective Self-Service Portals
Leaders around the world recognize the benefit of delivering self-service not only to lower the cost of customer service operations, but also to provide an engaging experience with customers that empowers and serves them in the way they prefer. Here are a few examples of how businesses have been leveraging their modern self-service portals.
Decreasing Support Calls: EATEL EATEL, a US-based communications company that provides internet and phone services, built a responsive self-service customer portal to better support the needs of its residential and business customers. The launch of the new portal brought reduced customer service calls, improved accessibility through responsive design, decreased billing issues, and increased customer satisfaction. More than 50% of calls coming into the residential call center were payment related. The user-guided self-service account management portal simplified interactions reduced these calls by 30%. Business customers love the control that they now have over contacts, permissions and more from their own login instead of calling in with each request.
Empowering Customers: VMware As an industry leader in cloud infrastructure and IT solutions, VMware needed a user-friendly customer portal. Using Liferay, the new MyVMware is an integrated, account-based portal that allows customers to manage product license keys and support. Millions of users can search for information quicker, access self-service downloads and evaluations and enter multiple sites through a single account. The launch of the new portal has led to a decrease in the number of support calls and increase in satisfaction scores, due to enhanced usability and efficiency.
Providing Better Customer Experiences: Spire Spire, the fifth largest publicly traded gas utility in the U.S., needed to integrate its two separate online account management websites to a single platform solution to improve their customer service experience. The self-service portal they launched successfully integrates with existing ERP systems, two payment processing systems, and two mobile workforce management systems. It also displays gas usage charts, enables online bill payment, and provides self-service tools for enrolling in payment arrangements, such as paperless billing. The My Account site is easy to use and responsive for all devices. After receiving this positive feedback from customers, Spire plans to introduce cutting-edge features such as real-time technician tracking and smart device integration in the near future. These leaders are leveraging self-service to bring value to not only their customers but also to optimize their business operations.
Smoothly functioning customer support is particularly important for big companies that already have a solid reputation and don’t want to undermine it. At the same time, the larger the company is and the more clients and locations it has, the more challenging it is to make customer support run like a Swiss watch. Below, I describe some typical challenges that big enterprises experience with customer support and share tips to handle them.
Challenge 1 – Disjointed case management
Most problems with case management stem from an inefficient collaboration between customer support of different departments or branches. There is neither a unified case management hub with automated case assignment and case escalation processes nor visibility into the whole case management pipeline.
Tip – Consolidated case management with reliable software
You can coordinate disjointed case management with reliable customer support software. The customer support application will help divide a case life cycle into stages, starting from a customer’s inquiry to closing a case. Support team members will be able to track all the cases seeing how and when they are solved.
Challenge 2 – A lot of recurring issues
Customer support teams in enterprises are daily loaded with hundreds of incoming tickets from customers. A great number of these tickets are similar and quite easy to resolve, but by addressing them over and over again, agents delay tackling more challenging issues.
Tip – A knowledge base for customers’ self-support
Identify the most common issues your clients experience with your products or services and prepare comprehensive and easy-to-digest materials for customers’ self-support. Creating a knowledge base for clients will reduce the number of repetitive questions your agents receive and save their time for resolving more advanced technical problems. Furthermore, it will boost the satisfaction level of the customers who prefer solving issues independently instead of contacting the support team.
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Challenge 3 – Lack of consistency across multiple communication channels
For the convenience of their customers, enterprises offer support through multiple communication channels – from phone to social media. But the more communication channels a company uses, the more management difficulties it faces.
Tip – Consolidated communication channels
Customer service software enables funneling all your communication channels into one place. As a result, you can provide omni-channel communication convenient both to your customers and support agents. It will facilitate ticket assignment and escalation and help agents track and answer customers’ questions faster.
Challenge 4 – Unhappy customers take French leave
Clients dissatisfied with the level of support you provide tend to switch to a competitor rather than wait for you to take action and make amends. And even if you think everything goes smoothly with your customer support, chances are you are missing some flaws that make your customers leave with no explanation.
Tip – Feedback from customers
Let your customers speak up by asking them for feedback after an issue is resolved. I recommend you to conduct surveys to collect customer feedback. You can choose between short surveys that pop up on your website and help you target specific issues, or longer, traditional ones that include more questions.
Go for advanced enterprise customer support for a solid reputation
Big businesses put their reputation first, and customer support largely determines a company’s image. The tips described above will help enterprises tackle customer support challenges and, as a result, grow a base of happy and loyal customers.
A growing business is undoubtedly a great joy for your company and a huge envy for your competitors. However, there is the other side of the coin. When a business scales up, previously stated purposes and benchmarks become irrelevant. The components of the business strategy (including IT roadmap) need to be revised and changed to suit the new business situation.
There is no universal way to build a 100%-efficient IT plan, especially in a dynamic business environment, but there are several common aspects that growing companies should keep in mind when developing an IT strategy.
Business processes rely on huge volumes of diverse data: communication with customers and business partners, financial records, employee details, internal documents, customers’ purchasing behavior and more. The more your business grows, the harder it is to ensure that corporate IT solutions work together and their functionality is sufficient to cover internal IT needs.
Spreading to new locations is a sound intention of any ambitious business. Today, globalization makes it much easier than it was decades ago. Yet, geographical expansion entails the necessity to revise and change a company’s internal operations, including those related to IT. New offices must be integrated with the corporate network. IT support is likely to become 24/7 if it’s not yet.
New products and services
Diversifying products and services is a serious step forward. Still, it inevitably drives the need to revise your IT strategy. For example, a company will need to modify internal databases, update the channels for customer interaction (add functionality to customer websites and apps) and resort to new effective IT tools for marketing and online sales, as well as diversify the methods for collecting information about customer tastes and preferences.
Mergers and acquisitions
Enterprises often buy other companies to enter a new market, get competitive advantages or broaden the range of products and services. Growing companies also merge to join forces. But joining organizations often use different IT solutions, which must be integrated and tuned to fit new common business objectives.
IT leaders’ stumbling blocks
When you know about potential difficulties connected to business growth, it may seem that IT strategy development is quite simple: a company outlines the goals for business development and implements appropriate IT solutions to support these goals. However, the real situation is more complicated due to a number of circumstances.
Lack of time to prepare for the changes
A strategy is developed in advance to achieve certain objectives. However, a growing business uncorks surprises at every step, and business leaders often have to modify their goals and priorities on the fly. The same is expected from IT leadership: they should react promptly and adapt to changes quickly. A serious hurdle: winning decisions are not always on the surface, and it takes time to get them and develop into digestible ideas.
Potential and real changes always lead to a certain level of uncertainty (or, better to say, an uncertain level of uncertainty). You cannot predict how exactly new products will behave on the market, how the customer will react to them, and what your competitors will do. You can hardly avoid at least some degree of chaos. The purpose here is to identify it and minimize its influence on business processes if possible.
Resistance to change
An IT strategy for a growing business should be a bit ahead of the times. It supports the current state of affairs and at the same time allows IT leaders to look into the future to some degree. But it may be difficult for IT teams in non-IT industries to follow latest tendencies. Some leaders (both business and IT) are even eager to focus on current operations and get really stuck to their IT strategies.
There is some sense in this approach: why should I change anything if it works as is? Why invest additional effort and money in unpredictable things? This approach might work with a little luck. But following it, companies ignore the options of development and run the risk of floundering an outdated IT agenda. Growth and changes can be painful, but nothing is more painful than staying stuck to the agenda that doesn’t work anymore or gives you only a half of possible benefits and, to some extent, retains business growth.
Key areas for IT leaders
The role of IT leadership is to help the organization maximize its competitive advantage with an effective IT strategy that supports or even creates that advantage.
Focus on strong sides
A good strategy is based on your business strengths and those aspects where you can get the most benefits. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the strong sides of your business and give them additional digital support (instead of improving weaknesses).
Find new opportunities and threats
As your business grows, you are likely to uncover new opportunities. At the same time, it’s important to be aware of the potential risks that come with new activities and take necessary steps to protect your business.
Enterprises are getting overloaded with data from various sources: customer service points, operational & transactional systems, media and more. A growing company can employ big data analytics to get meaningful insights from these data: to monitor market tendencies, understand competitor strategies, identify early signs of potential problems and reduce risks.
You may get new valuable ideas with IT consulting services. Of course, you cannot completely rely on the opinion of IT consultants as they don’t know the full picture of your business. However, they can share their experience and prompt to find priceless solutions to your corporate pains.
In a fast-growing business, decisions may throw the company in different directions. Many ad hoc decisions are taken, many ideas appear to be not so profitable as it was expected and remain unsupported. All that leaves IT components in a chaotic state and reduces their effectiveness.
IT infrastructure never becomes organized without intervention. Entropy management aims at small corrections to keep IT components on track rather than letting things run on their own until there is a much larger breakdown or problem. Enterprise architecture should possess a certain degree of flexibility to be ready for the changes when they are needed.
Align IT and business
A good IT strategy is developed to support a business strategy. This approach assumes that business goals are stated before it comes to serious IT planning. However, in a growing enterprise, top management is likely to modify business goals to jump at new opportunities or abandon unproductive approaches.
When a business scales up, it’s important to be sure that the IT solutions keep up with business goals and modify the IT strategy if there are any discrepancies. Otherwise, there is a risk that IT leaves behind the business, and IT and business strategies become misaligned. It makes an IT roadmap less effective (if not harmful).
Be flexible in choosing vendors
A growing business may be interested in new IT solutions to effectively cover the increasing volume of internal operations (if legacy systems don’t cope with the task), provide digital support for new internal processes, enable better and faster services and more. Even if a company develops in-house or has an established chain of tried-and-true IT vendors, it can benefit a lot from new IT partnerships. The focus should be on selecting reliable software providers and minimizing the risks of new cooperation.
Collaboration with existing vendors may also change a lot when they offer new cooperation options, start doing more on their side or get integrated into the design process.
It’s important to evaluate what various vendors can offer and choose the best matches in terms of quality, time and costs of delivery.
Moving your IT environment to the cloud is a sequence of decisive steps on your way to the IT infrastructure’s scalability and security. Once you migrate successfully, you cut down on your IT expenditures as opposed to maintaining an on-premises infrastructure. However, a small business on the edge of migration faces the initial challenge of the right choice of a cloud vendor. To help you make an informed decision, I share the advantages of Microsoft Azure, one of the leading cloud providers.
Azure provides opportunities for scalable storage to meet the growing data and performance needs of a small business. Azure Blobs allows such scalable storing of unstructured data and can be powered with big data analytics capabilities when the need arises. And with another Azure Storage product, Azure Files, and the SMB protocol it supports, you can perform swift data migration to the cloud with no coding involved.
Azure-hosted apps can integrate with Microsoft’s SaaS tools to increase the productivity of your employees and provide advanced analytics. For example, you can embed SharePoint functionality in your Azure environment to build up task management or document processing workflows for your team or leverage the broad analytical capabilities of Power BI to get insights from your data stored in Azure.
With Azure, small businesses can get a maintenance-free cloud-hosted email server (Microsoft Exchange Online) synced with Azure Active Directory for backup and access management. With Exchange Online, you do not need to update your email servers manually to get the up-to-date functionality. You have antispam and antimalware protection already included together with the support of mailboxes up to 50 GB each and access to the email service from mobile devices. Doubt Azure is the Most Feasible Choice?
Azure features the globally spread Azure Content Delivery Network (CDN), which routes data streams to/from the geographically closest Azure servers, thus reducing response latency of your web resources. The edge servers of Azure CDN automatically scale up to handle traffic surges. On top of that, Azure CDN includes advanced analytics features to monitor traffic and user engagement.
Azure Backup makes snapshots – images of your system’s actual state – to restore the data and operability of your cloud services and apps as of the snapshot timestamp. With Azure, you can schedule backups and ensure the security of backup data with data encryption and multifactor authentication.
You can secure your Azure environment with advanced access management via Azure Active Directory and firewall services. Also, there’s Azure Security Center, which carries out continuous security monitoring across your Azure environment (manually deployed Log Analytics agent supports hybrid environments) and alerts you about misconfigurations and threats as well as about how to remediate them. Besides, Azure-based infrastructures support HIPAA compliance, which means that Azure services are recognized suitable for secure storage and processing of protected health information.
Azure offers free tools for lift-and-shift infrastructure migration and provides services (e.g., for IoT, AI, machine learning, and blockchain) for the facilitated rebuilding of your legacy apps for which such migration is inapplicable. Check our project of accounting software migration to Azure, to see how rebuilding legacy software with Azure services can ensure its smooth migration and enrich its functionality.