One of the most important ways to ensure the health of an application is application performance monitoring. Running an application without APM software is like driving a car without any gauges. You can do it, but you never know when something unfortunate is happening -- or is about to happen. Although this is a relatively simplistic view of APM, it highlights the basic principle behind the technology: It's all about the data it collects.
What is APM and why is it important?
APM software collects metrics about every facet of an application's infrastructure, enabling you to identify problems before they happen or more easily diagnose them afterwards. But, beyond simply monitoring the health of your application infrastructure, APM tools provide a fair amount of additional value to both the engineering and business sides of an organization.
Like a Swiss Army knife, APM software offers many features. Although the overall goal is to provide insight into the architecture behind an application, it often provides additional tools to better identify where, when and why an application is performing the way it is. This capability can come in the form of automated alerting, multienvironment tracking, version control integration and even AI functionality. These additional features, while not the core product offering, can provide much-needed context and clarity to the metrics.
When it comes to application performance, there's always room for improvement. Although APM tools monitor the performance of a given application by definition, the direct benefits of that performance monitoring are insight into both production-level performance and application performance metrics in other environments. This insight makes identifying discrepancies across multiple application environments significantly easier, while also providing a mechanism for diagnosing performance issues without affecting production stability.
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From an engineering perspective, there is nothing more stressful than diagnosing hard-to-find issues in a production environment. One wrong step can cause an outage -- and a bunch of angry customers.
APM tools mitigate these issues by providing direct insight into any errors that are occurring. Rather than having to reproduce an error in a live production environment, you can instead review the metrics that the platform collects to get a better understanding of the circumstances that caused the issue in the first place and then recreate it in a controlled environment.
Compliance with service-level agreements (SLAs) isn't only challenging; it's critical. Although there are well-documented methods for keeping track of SLA compliance, you can use APM tools to generate reports that accurately demonstrate compliance, in addition to the metrics and reports that they already provide.
Rather than using a proprietary or overly specific tool set for generating SLA reports, using APM software ensures that the data you're using to report SLA compliance is the same data that other parts of the organization use to conduct their own operations. This not only reduces tool sprawl, but it also increases confidence in the data by committing to a data collection standard for the entire company.
Customer experience monitoring
Although application performance monitoring often focuses on the technical side of performance, remember that the end user is the ultimate judge of what performance matters. After all, shaving a tenth of a second off of a background job might feel good, but as long as the application takes a full minute to load, the end user isn't going to be particularly impressed.
Optimizing performance without the user in mind is a mistake that can lead to a bad development strategy.
Luckily, APM tools can help improve customer experience by providing insight into the sales funnel, identifying technical issues that might interfere with scalability and measuring customer experience in a quantitative way.
Track business-relevant metrics
In addition to tracking customer-relevant metrics, APM tools can also be used to track business-relevant metrics. With the right level of integration and customization, APM software can segregate metrics that are directly relevant to the business from those that are directly relevant to the engineering department. These tools don't always lend themselves to KPI tracking, but data about the application infrastructure can provide nontechnical metrics that might be useful.
Benefits of application performance monitoring
As important as APM is to the success of a product, there are some tangible benefits to the business that should be highlighted. From increased productivity to happier customers, a properly utilized application performance monitoring tool can take the business to the next level by clearly reducing risk and increasing returns.
1. Reduced time to recovery
One of the most immediate benefits of introducing an APM tool into your workflow is a faster recovery time from outages and other critical incidents. Mean time to recovery (MTTR) is a valuable metric, as it identifies just how much risk each new release or significant infrastructure change introduces.
The lower the MTTR, the lower the risk.
Because a well-utilized APM tool can help identify problems early and often, it's inherently less likely that recovery is necessary at all. Rather than reacting to an incident, active measurement of critical metrics makes it possible to proactively mitigate one.
2. Rapid defect diagnosis
Not all issues result in downtime. Many defects and other software bugs can harm UX without causing an outright outage. When fully integrated into the application infrastructure, APM eliminates the "hunt and peck" method of diagnosing issues and helps zero in on the exact root cause.
The easier it is to diagnose defects of all complexities, the more time developers can spend on building new features. This not only helps create a more stable and performant application, but it also bolsters innovation, fuels product growth and reduces customer churn.
3. Increased engineering productivity
Much of the focus on application performance monitors is placed on the health and monitoring of production environments, but there is a strong case to be made for incorporating them into preproduction environments as well.
Although development and staging environments don't reach anywhere near the same level of traffic that production environments do, having APM integrated can help identify lower-hanging fruit that might otherwise be missed by standard unit and integration tests. This additional information can help prevent defects before they even occur, which ultimately reduces ticket rework.
From exception handling to system performance, the more information that the development and test teams have at their disposal, the more finely tuned the product can become before ever being exposed to a customer.
4. Lowered cost of goods
A poorly architected application can get expensive quickly. Although there are productivity and stability benefits that can be gained from an APM tool, the increased insight into the application's performance can be used to tune the underlying infrastructure to ensure that just the right amount of resources is being utilized to power it.
This can come in the form of different CPU and memory requirements or even more efficient code design, but the end result is the same: an opportunity to reduce the amount of money that it takes to keep the application up and running.
5. Customer satisfaction
Every benefit of using an application performance monitoring tool leads to one thing: customer satisfaction. Whether one is used to identify and cut unnecessary spending, improve the stability of the product or just release more features more efficiently, the end result is a happier, more satisfied customer.
Choosing an APM platform
Not every project or organization requires an APM platform. For some, the number of features these tools provide is overkill. For others, it isn't focused enough. When deciding if an APM tool would be beneficial to your organization, ask the right questions. Here are some of the questions worth considering.
Does my organization need the features an APM platform provides?
Although APM platforms offer a large number of features, the core functionality can generally be broken down into two categories: monitoring and analysis. Monitoring is relatively straightforward, but the analytical features that most APM tools offer might not be useful.
Let's say, for example, that your application infrastructure is incredibly lightweight. The high level of analysis provided by commercial APM tools might require too much overhead, especially when compared to feature-light alternatives. On the flip side, if your application infrastructure rivals that of a large-scale cloud provider, such as AWS or Google, the analysis that commercial APM tools provide might not be specific enough to properly serve your organization.
Ultimately, the size of your application infrastructure plays a significant role in the type of APM you might want to use -- if at all. Heavily trafficked applications, for example, find more value in APM software that offers user-focused monitoring and analysis features, while complex applications that smaller organizations can build benefit from APM platforms that have significant root cause analysis features.
Would an APM platform be a cost-effective investment for my organization?
From an engineering perspective, there is nothing more valuable than data. And, when something goes wrong, that data is doubly important. Although an application can live without APM software, bug diagnosis is much more difficult without it.
APM tools aren't always cheap, but neither are engineers. If you provide tools that help your team focus more on building and maintaining a production-level application and less on diagnosing issues, the better off you are.
Although the long-term reduction in the cost of goods is an excellent way to measure the ROI of an API management platform, a more valuable metric is overall usage. The ROI here can be identified by measuring the change in user churn rate as optimizations to an application's speed and stability are made as a result of the analyses done by the platform.
Identifying and deploying improvements to an application's latency and responsiveness increase both the end-user satisfaction and the amount of time they spend using the application. Although the data itself is more difficult to collect without an APM tool, identifying the financial effect on the use of one can be done early and often.
Despite their benefits, APM tools aren't a perfect fit for every project, so you should carefully weigh this buying decision. Beyond simply looking at the feature-specific benefits, weigh the financial and temporal costs of adopting a platform.