Exact end-user info speeds problem resolution

Performance management tools are evolving to provide more detailed and powerful information. Find out how one works at Gelco Information Network, which relies heavily on its Web sites' 24x7 uptime for sucessful business transactions. SearchWindowsManageability got an inside look from one of Gelco's IT specialists.

Providing online expense reimbursement is Gelco Information Network's stock in trade. The Eden Prairie, MN-based company is well aware that customers who do financial transactions online are making a leap of faith. That trust can easily be trashed if a customer can't logon to service providers' sites 24x7. To make sure that Gelco Information Network's customers' faith remained rock solid, Gelco IT specialist Ryan Rager set out in search...

of best-of-breed Web application performance monitors.

Gelco's flagship product, ExpenseLink/Direct, is a Web application that handles expense management for 1,200 customers. ExpenseLink/Direct is used on about 10 Gelco Web sites, which run on a mixture of NT and Solaris operating systems.

Rager, Gelco's enterprise management specialist, knew that Web site performance issues are often the culprit when customers can't access sites. He decided a year ago that he wasn't getting enough information from the Ping technology used to monitor ExpenseLink/Direct's performance. Gelco "needed a robot," an automated monitor that would provide more information, he said. "We needed a solution that could logon to the application automatically at specific intervals and do predefined transactions and then log out."

What's next?

After doing some research, Rager narrowed his search down to three vendors offering transaction-based application management products: Freshwater Software of Boulder, CO, Sunnyvale, CA-based Mercury Interactive and another vendor Rager declined to identify. Each vendor gave Gelco products to evaluate. Rager's tests revealed that Freshwater's server monitoring product had no transaction-based solution. The third company's product was promising, but all the transactions would have to be hosted there rather than at Gelco. That would have given Gelco no control over the agents running on their network, said Rager. He found the right mix of features in the transaction- and user emulation-focused Topaz product from Mercury Interactive.

Topaz gives managers a user's view of the transactions occurring on a Web application. The manager can choose from several components designed to monitor and manage Web sites to create "a script that represents what a real user would be doing," explained Diane Hagglund, Mercury's product marketing director.

Rager deployed Topaz 3.0 in two days and had defined all the transactions to be monitored by Topaz in one week. He runs Topaz' ActiveAgent internal monitoring component on a Windows server, which controls 40 daily-run transactions every five minutes. Topaz Application Infrastructure Monitors (AIMs) monitor servers, network devices and other infrastructure components. To create a seamless management monitoring system, Rager integrated Topaz and multiple point-to-point solutions into Computer Associate's Unicenter TNG.

Initially, Rager did not run Topaz on a dedicated machine. He found, however, that the other components on the machine were interfering with Topaz's functionality. Putting Topaz on its own server was the only added, unanticipated cost in the implementation.

At first, Rager ran transactions every 15 minutes, but soon found that timeframe too broad to ensure optimal site performance. Now Topaz sends transactions every five minutes.

The response time of the database is tested by Topaz, too. Specific Web site response times demonstrate how quickly a database transaction is completed. If a response time exceeds a predetermined threshold, ActiveAgent will send an e-mail alert.

For example, Topaz logs into ExpenseLink/Direct each day, expenses a fake report and saves it to Gelco's back-end Oracle database. "It is just like one more user going into the system," Rager said. But this "user" provides essential information.

The biggest benefit to running Topaz, Rager said, is its change management functionality. "If a change has occurred, we know what the end-user is experiencing." If a login normally takes three seconds but now takes 15, for example, Topaz quickly alerts the Web manager and helps him solve the problem quickly.

Gelco recently updated to the most current version of Topaz, 3.5. In this version, the Topaz console, the central management point for the application, has an improved user interface, Rager said, making it easier to administer.

Using a performance management tool has boosted the reliability of Gelco's management infrastructure, Rager said. Today, about 75% of performance issues with Gelco's hosted sites are caused by the Internet or customer network bottlenecks. Most importantly, end-users are getting a faster, more reliable experience on Gelco's site. The win-win result: customers' faith in Gelco and Internet-based services has been rewarded.

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