How to put IT in the user's seat

Want to find out how your business applications are performing? Put yourself in the user's seat.

Want to find out how your business applications are performing? Put yourself in the user's seat.

IT organizations increasingly are adding user monitoring to their arsenal of application performance management tools. By measuring the user experience, enterprises can see how an application traversing the network ultimately behaves on the user machine -- and IT pros can go into troubleshooting mode if conditions start to degrade.

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User monitoring tools work to capture what happens on client machines and keep tabs on metrics such as application response time, errors, and other session information. The tools come in all shapes and sizes: Some are focused on externally facing applications, others are geared for on-premise application users. Some are hardware, some are software. Vendors in this area include specialists such as Aternity, Coradiant and Knoa Software, as well as larger vendors such as IBM, HP and CA that are incorporating user monitoring features into their application management portfolios.

The main drivers for deployment are to cut back on user complaints about application responsiveness and application usability and to reduce disruptions to key business processes, according to new data from Aberdeen Group.

Enterprises that do it best -- those that Aberdeen deems "best in class" when it comes to user experience monitoring and management -- tout significant benefits. They've been able to uncover 53 per cent of application issues before receiving a complaint, and realize a 48 per cent improvement in the mean time to repair application performance issues, according to Aberdeen's research. In addition, best-in-class companies noted a 42 per cent increase in visibility into critical business transactions and a 15 per cent decrease in the number of  user complaints about application performance.

Companies with user insight also benefit from the chance to use the data to build applications that are easier to use and require fewer resources to support, according to Jeffrey Hill, a research analyst with Aberdeen's Technology Practice and author of the new report.

"The rationale is simple: monitoring allows IT to spot potential issues before they turn into problems and before they affect  users, customers and business processes," Hill says. "Understanding the user experience -- how users use applications in their daily work -- provides insight into application complexity and usability that traditional metrics don't provide."

Academic initiative

Northwestern University turned to user monitoring technology to capture performance and availability data related to its portfolio of Web applications. The Evanston, Illinois, university wanted to create a single, campus-wide view of Web services in real time. It settled on Coradiant's TrueSight technology and developed a capacity and availability service monitoring dashboard application to bring all the data into a central location.

The goal was to not only keep IT teams informed of potential performance problems but also bring users into the loop, including students, faculty and other university business units, says Dana Nielsen, director of monitoring and management systems in the Northwestern University Information Technology department.

The applications monitored by the Coradiant technology include Northwestern's student information system, course management system, human resources, financial management, e-mail, portal and library systems.

"We wanted to expand visibility into the enterprise applications that were being managed and maintained by the central university IT organization," says Wendy Woodward, Northwestern's director of technology support services in information technology. "To do that, this integrated tool provided a secure, inclusive, easy-to-use interface and display mechanism so that we could easily incorporate graphs and information for faculty, staff and students who may want to see the real-time status of a university system."

The university doesn't provide round-the-clock tech support for users, but by having information about the status of Web applications available online, users can find out for themselves if there's an outage.

"By making information readily available on the Web, in a 24/7 manner, we're improving the services that we're delivering to our customers," Woodward says.

Users appreciate the visibility and transparency, she adds. "We have dramatically improved our ability to respond to any issues, be proactive about them before the phone rings, because we're monitoring from various locations across our expansive campus," Woodward says.

Northwestern keeps track of application usage and performance metrics, including latency, volume of application requests, session information and errors. Different dashboards serve multiple kinds of users. IT support staff can use the data and tool to identify application performance problems, for instance. Application developers and system administrators can view the data to identify problems in their respective domains. Business units can use the data to aid in resource planning, for instance to determine if a new application will require a hardware upgrade. "It has definitely helped with budget and planning efforts," Nielsen says.

In addition, the data enables IT to track application usage and availability statistics over time, which is reported to senior university leaders, Nielsen says.

In the big picture, Nielsen says one of the most rewarding aspects of the Coradiant deployment is that the project was a joint effort by the central IT organization along with the business units, faculty and staff at Northwestern. "It was a project that the whole university embraced," Nielsen says.

Woodward agrees. "What we've learned is that any time you can aggregate data and easily display it, either to your technical support staff or to your external audience, you're able to reduce the time to repair and identify problems more quickly," she says. "We have definitely seen an improvement in our ability to diagnose and respond to issues as they arise as a result of implementing this tool."

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Ann Bednarz

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