Keeping IT operations humming smoothly at a defense contractor and serving up medical records for thousands of doctors are different challenges. But they are two use cases for the behind-the-scenes tools used to monitor the performance of these IT processes: application performance management (APM) systems that use data from IT systems to assess IT operations, both for improved efficiency and to meet external demands such as compliance.
Built on traditional service performance management systems, APM tools provide a broader, cross-domain look at IT performance issues—speeds and feeds—and business outcomes, notes industry analyst, Dennis Drogseth, a vice president at Enterprise Management Associates. Because many applications “have become more cross-domain aware” in terms of sharing information about application performance, user experience and service level governance, IT tools in the system management layer are growing more sophisticated, Drogseth noted in a recent Data Informed article. For example, according to Drogseth, one of the biggest management challenges IT faces is change management.
That’s exactly the problem faced in 2012 by VSE Corporation. Founded in 1959 as Value Engineering Company, today VSE, which is subject to Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) and Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) compliance requirements, is a broadly diversified company focused on creating, sustaining, and improving the systems, equipment, and processes of government. Last year, VSE planned to move offices and build a new, fully virtualized data center, a process that required the company to verify that all servers were deployed accurately and consistently, and no data was lost as its servers were being virtualized and copied to the new data center. With no automated tool to verify deployment and consistency, VSE faced a major risk for environment stability as well as a labor-intensive cost.
Dave Chivers, vice president and CIO of VSE, says that with such a major change, the missing piece was a means for validating system transitions and ensuring that nothing got lost in the process—with required audits and controls in place.
Chivers was approached by a company called Evolven, whose executives convinced him that their IT Operations Analytics product, which focuses on monitoring and managing change and configuration issues, could help. At that point, VSE had four engineers running a predominantly Windows-based infrastructure that included a petabyte of storage capacity, 300 servers supporting an organization of 3,000 users that needs 24/7 availability.
As VSE moved to 100 percent virtualization, Chivers says Evolven helped “prove we were in a 100 percent identical condition to our operation before the move and before the transition,” he explains.
“We had one dynamic link library (DLL) that didn’t transition properly and Evolven helped identify the problem immediately – something my engineers told me would have required at least five hours of their time otherwise,” explains Chivers.
Chivers says the Evolven product, which is agent based, was simple to install and “fairly automatic once it was running.” He says it required minimal server resources. Most crucial was the fact that he was able to retire two or three system management tools and save time by replacing them with a single tool that had more capability and greater automation.
For Chivers, the ultimate validation of Evolven was when compliance auditors wanted proof that a particular file had not been changed. Previously, according to Chivers, that would have been a difficult and time-consuming process. However, Evolven provided the answer in minutes. Chivers says Evolven produced a comparison report that showed the state of the system ( dates that files were last modified, added and deleted) and the current state of the system as of that day. “With the comparison report I was able to confirm to the auditor that nothing had change on the system in the last year from when it was audited by them,” he says. Specifically, the requirement was to provide evidence that within the configuration control management (CCM) process VSE has, that it was still accurate, and that there was no need to modify the information on this system verifying the integrity of the data.
Monitoring Performance at a Medical Records Portal
APM is an analytics niche with a broad range of IT use cases. VSE used a tool to validate its IT data center infrastructure changes were implemented correctly. The experience of Practice Fusion, an online portal for electronic medical records provides another example.
Practice Fusion was looking to address IT management challenges, monitoring and measuring issues such as infrastructure performance, user experience, and service level governance.
John Hluboky, vice president of technical operations at Practice Fusion, says the company evaluated multiple application performance management (APM) tools including HP Application Performance Management and Quest Foglight, before eventually settling on ExtraHop’s Application Delivery Assurance system.
Launched in 2008, Practice Fusion provides medical records services to 150,000 health care providers. Hluboky says his company’s rapid growth and business model – it provides services for free to physicians – meant the company had to be able to scale rapidly on a tight budget. (Practice Fusion earns money from its free medical record application by serving relevant advertisements, such as co-pay coupons for patients, and has won praise electronic prescription, scheduling, charting, and billing features as well as for its laboratory function, which links physicians to data from more than 100 medical lab companies.)
“We really started to take off in terms of growth about two years ago and at that time a decision was made to invest in infrastructure and move from a private Rackspace deployment to a co-location data center,” explains Hluboky.
Critical to maintaining service-level agreements with customers was better performance and availability monitoring, Hluboky says. In the past, Practice Fusion was able to get a glimpse of what was happening across his infrastructure using device-specific tools but wanted more, and began looking at APM tools. Eventually, he settled on ExtraHop because, he explains, it is lightweight and “able to work as a passive network appliance that can monitor almost every aspect of operations.”
According to Hluboky, deploying the ExtraHop system, which is appliance-based, was very straightforward. As a company handling medical data, a specific advantage of the ExtraHop system is that it does not store packets that might hold personal information.
“In terms of monitoring, if something is rogue or if something is performing outside of its expected communication pathway, [the system] will flag it,” he says.
In the same vein, Hluboky says he sees ExtraHop as part of an industry-wide trend toward fuller integration of the entire technology stack. “Getting fully automated deployment to speed delivery and ensure that testing is automated is a hot topic these days,” he says.
Other benefits of ExtraHop included better visibility across tiers, proactive problem resolution, as well as real-time SSL decryption.
Looking to the future, Hluboky says he is considering moving his SaaS platform to a public or private cloud where additional servers can be spun up as needed. However, he notes, he will still need to be concerned about code deployment and system vulnerabilities so he says his company will continue to require monitoring capability like that provided by ExtraHop.
And, as analyst Drogseth points out, for IT decision makers, the current APM market offers many different products like ExtraHop, each offering a slightly different wrinkle in terms of focus and features – so it is possible to find a tool that meets a range of needs. In the long run, he sees an evolution toward what his company calls advanced performance analytics. This emerging product category will, he predicts, provide real-time or near real-time “big data” to IT operations, architects, service managers and even applications developers and other stakeholders. And it will provide a broad, cross-domain look at not only speeds and feeds but also at business outcomes.
Alan R. Earls is a business and technology writer based near Boston.
Home page photo of VSE Corp. headquarters.
Correction, June 11, 2013: The original version of this story has been updated to reflect a correction. In discussing ExtraHop’s technology, John Hluboky of Practice Fusion referred to its working as “a passive network appliance,” not “a passive network analyst” as originally reported.