Measuring end-to-end business performance with APM

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright August 14, 2016
Modern application performance management (APM) software focuses most on digital and mobile apps but must also measure business performance on the back-end

Arm holding screwdriver to digital schematic © Sergey Nivens –
The new wave of application performance management vendors are largely associated with modern digital and mobile applications. Use cases we've written about here on diginomica reflect that bias — online retail at John Lewis and Trainline or online betting with Paddy Power, for example.

But digital transformation should never be only about the engagement layer. Especially in more established enterprises — in industries such as retail, financial services and even the public sector — the back-end systems are just as crucial to delivering a timely, effective customer experience as the web and mobile apps that the end customer interacts with.

So at a recent event in London I took the opportunity to explore this angle with APM vendor New Relic. Patrick Lightbody, SVP product management confirms that the product is often expected to monitor back-end systems as well as the modern digital and mobile apps with which it's more popularly associated.

The natural gravitation is to get closer to the user experience, because that's where a lot of that context that's important to the business comes from. But, especially as those systems talk to each other, we do find that our customers inevitably — and pretty quickly — want to put New Relic on the back-end as well, so that they can connect the dots and see the full visibility of, 'Why was that customer experience poor?' and trace it down to which root service might have been the problem.

It's only when an organization keeps back-end systems isolated in a strict bimodal strategy that New Relic is confined to just one part of the IT estate, he explains.

Bimodal ... happens more often when they're not connected systems — there's a manual data entry system that's completely disconnected from the front-end experience. Then sometimes we might be seen as not that important to be put in there, because they actually don't care about that system that much. They just sort of trudge along and the front-end is what matters.

Dashboard picture

Many of the back-end systems in the enterprise have a web front-end and so are amenable to tracking in the same way as newer cloud-based products, says Silvio Accomando of Italian IT services provider Torre Informatica, a New Relic partner.

We are going to find a lot of web applications, not only in the cloud but also in the private network of the company, in the business applications. All the main ERP and CRM and other classic business applications [have] moved on from the classic form to the web area for a private audience.

This requires care to build an APM dashboard that brings together the right overall picture, he says.

One of the problems that we always try to match in this kind of classical business is to understand, in the case of dashboards, where to put focus on the infrastructure, on the utilization layer, on the servers, on the application itself, on the network and so on.

We try to use the same features, the same advantages of the platform, for the classic business — without forgetting the digital area, of course.

Ensuring a consistent user experience is just as important inside the organization, he says. If internal users can't find information or get results as quickly as customers and partners, then it creates a disconnect in the service experience. In a recent project by Torre Informatica, a bathroom equipment business needed a product configurator that would be used by its salespeople, by designers at its fulfilment partners, and by the end customer. Presenting each with a different user interface would have led to unnecessary confusion and delays in delivering what the customer wanted, he says.

The way that the configurator should check if all the components are correctly chosen from the list was the same process for all the different users. You cannot right now give your internal user the complete different approach.

Legacy struggles

It's often easier for smaller businesses to leapfrog their way to more consistent application interfaces than established businesses that have to work within the constraints of existing systems. Where businesses are still operating mainframe systems in their back-end it can often take several years to achieve the desired outcome, says Lightbody.

It gets hard when one system was written in Cobol and the other system gets written in node. Reconciling those two worlds gets very difficult.

A pretty common pattern is to surround [the mainframe application] with a web service interface — even if it goes down to the old command-line interactions — let all the other things that depend on it shift to the web service interface, it might take two or three years, but now you've got a more modern interface. Then they go and write a bit-for-bit replacement and you can swap it out. People are working towards that, but for large organizations it can years because you've got to get a lot of people to move.

Organizations with an extensive IT heritage face a heavy burden and need all the help they can get, says Lightbody.

Enterprise software I think has it the worst, because every customer in the world goes home and they use Gmail and Facebook and all this really high-end, consumer-grade software, and they come in and they expect the same experience on their work environment.

You mix all that up with the expectation of the customer and it's a recipe for a lot of stress, a lot of burn-out and a high demand for the information to iterate and succeed. There's a whole bunch of people in the industry that are really struggling to get through the day and so we think the most important thing we can do is empower those people.

My take

This new generation of APM vendors are focused not just on system-level metrics but also on business outcomes — how quickly do customers get results? how many give up in frustration? what's the relationship between system performance and revenues? You can't answer those questions properly without gathering a complete picture of how the entire organization is performing. In a sense, it's not the performance of the application that they are measuring, so much as the performance of the business as a whole.