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Next frontier: managing performance of virtualized apps

In the world of virtualization, application performance management still has some maturing to do.

IT organizations that decide to virtualize multi-tier, production applications tend to go slow. But implementing performance management software gave one firm what it needed to rev up its efforts, enabling the company to virtualize nearly all its applications in about a year.

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Gateway EDI, a health claims processing firm in St. Louis, began virtualizing its environment onto VMware ESX last year. The effort included its homegrown GEDI application, a multi-tier behemoth that includes a transmission system, a processing system, and a customer service front end built on Microsoft SQL Server. Today, the company has about 80 production virtual machines (VMs), 50 in test and development, and 100 virtual desktops, said Erik Olson, a systems architect at the firm.

"We're about 90% virtualized," Olson said. "There are a couple of domain controllers that we haven't gotten around to virtualizing yet."

About eight months into its virtualization drive, Gateway EDI installed the performance management software BlueStripe FactFinder, which measures end-to-end response time of applications running in virtual and physical environments.

FactFinder's appeal was that it "simultaneously displays the state of all the machines, and helps us find which one is the slow one," Olson said. "The information is certainly available [from other sources], but BlueStripe drops it all into one screen so we can chase down where the hitch points are."

The tool is especially useful with intermittent problems. Before implementing BlueStripe, "We'd get a transient problem, and it would go away before we could find it." Now, when someone reports an issue, engineers point the BlueStripe "collectors," or agents, at the suspect servers, "and it becomes very obvious very quickly where the problem is."

At first, Gateway EDI engineers spent a lot of time in BlueStripe. Now, they use it about once a week. "It's getting less now as we find problems and fix them," Olson said.

Focus on response time
The ability to report on application performance in a virtualized environment is no mean feat, and BlueStripe is good at it, said Bernd Harzog, an analyst at the Virtualization Practice.

"BlueStripe represents the next-generation performance management vendor for both virtual and physical environments," he said. "It's the only vendor that can tell you about the response time of an application, no matter where it is or how it's constructed," he said.

BlueStripe FactFinder does that with an installable agent that intercepts network packets as they move across the system, and links them back to the original process, Harzog said. With that information, FactFinder can report on total response time for an end user and hop-by-hop response time.

The ability to report on application performance in a virtualized environment is no mean feat.

VMware's own application performance monitoring tool, AppSpeed, also monitors response time, but instead of installing an agent, it listens to network traffic traveling over a virtual switch, limiting the range of applications whose performance it can track to those communicating via known network protocols.

But compared with most application performance monitoring tools, the focus on response time of BlueStripe and VMware AppSpeed is the right approach, said Harzog. Traditional performance management software tends to rely on measuring resource utilization, which breaks down in highly consolidated, dynamic, virtualized environments, he said.

"Just because you said that you guarantee CPU or memory doesn't mean that the application is performing well. For that, you have to measure response time," Harzog said. Overreliance on measuring of physical resources like CPU and memory "is an issue that [traditional performance management vendors] are going to have to address," Harzog said.

Fortisphere enters the fray
The list of virtualization management vendors tackling performance monitoring has grown. Today, virtualization management vendor Fortisphere said it has entered the performance management fray with vRadar, an add-on to its Virtual Service Manager (VSM) product that provides a graphical mapping of applications and underlying network, server and virtualization resources.

VRadar tracks the application executables that talk to one another and at which frequency, and determines which one are "friends" and what constitutes a relationship, said Dave Capuano, Fortisphere chief product officer.

That level of relationship mapping is a mainstay of traditional IT environments, said Siki Giunta, Fortisphere's CEO, but is almost unheard of in virtual environments.

"Relationship mapping is standard in [configuration management databases] and is the lynchpin of ITIL [the IT Infrastructure Library] … but in the virtualization world, we are backwards by many years," she said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Alex Barrett, News Director.

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