Online banking is an extremely important aspect of LFCU's business. With more than $2 billion in assets under management, LFCU has 100,000 members, 40,000 of whom regularly use the organization's online banking services to conduct transactions. The online banking system processes 100,000 monetary transactions per month that are worth about $100 million. "The online banking channel is extremely important for us," said Thatcher. "It helps us provide convenient service and is more cost-effective compared to branches and call centers."
But while traditional systems management and monitoring tools can track performance of servers, databases and the network in the data center, Thatcher wanted to link end users' experience online with what data center staff can monitor. "If performance is slow for end users, we may not know why in the data center because the network and the database server are working fine," Thatcher said. "It was important for us to measure the actual performance as experienced by end users," he said.
Systems management meets end users
About three years ago, LFCU brought its online banking operations -- which were formerly housed at an application service provider -- back in-house. According to Thatcher, as its online banking operations grew, LFCU wanted to contain costs while adding new features: two goals that could best be accommodated by bringing operations in-house.
At that time, Thatcher knew that LFCU would have to effectively and accurately monitor end users' experience to maintain reliability of its online banking operations. The company homed in on key performance measurements to use, such as the time a page takes to load and the time a Web server responded to a user request.
Thatcher evaluated a number of tools and found that many performed what he calls "synthetic monitoring." Using a script, these tools essentially run facsimiles of transactions rather than the transactions themselves. "We wanted to know what was actually happening for the end user and where across our systems things were happening," Thatcher explained.
End-to-end monitoring and troubleshooting
Thatcher also wanted to monitor transactions end to end, from the time an end user logged on to LFCU's online banking Web page to the point when a transaction request hits a back-end database. He evaluated a number of tools, including one from Gomez Inc., but ultimately opted for TrueView from Symphoniq Corp., a provider of end-user monitoring tools based in Palo Alto, Calif.
TrueView relies on agents to monitor performance data on Web pages. When an end user loads a page, a performance-monitoring agent is contained within that page. (The agent is not a permanent fixture on an end user's PC; once an end user navigates away from a page, the agent disappears.) At LFCU's data center, the TrueView software is loaded onto the Web servers that serve up online banking pages. The back-end database system collects all the performance data and generates reports.
LFCU uses the tool in both test and production environments. For testing, Thatcher says that the software helps ensure that new code works properly before it's put into production and to validate the results of load testing.
But it's in production where the tool really helps LFCU maintain reliable service for customers.When LFCU experienced a few performance issues recently, TrueView proved its value, enabling data center staff to drill down and identify problems' root causes. "Because we can monitor a transaction end to end, we can look at all the various components and devices," Thatcher said. "We know if a problem is occurring at the Web server level, the application itself, the back-end database or something else out on the Internet that's not in our control."
Thatcher finds TrueView's ability to track and profile an entire transaction from a Web page to the back-end database particularly useful. If a transaction takes a total of five seconds, for example, LFCU can break that down further and determine that it took the Web server two seconds to load a page while the data spent three seconds in transit to the back-end database. "This level of detail is unique," he said. "And it really helps us to improve our troubleshooting."The SOA factor
Julie Craig, a senior analyst at Enterprise Management Associates, says that the prospect of monitoring end-user performance is a challenge for many companies. "Applications are becoming very complex," Craig said, "and by and large, a lot of the application management products on the market aren't keeping pace with SOA [service-oriented architecture], Web 2.0 and all the new kinds of technologies that are affecting applications." Monitoring application performance in a SOA environment is critical, Craig says. "Being able to track a transaction and application to its underlying infrastructure is particularly important for online operations," she said. "If you have a problem, you want to be able to find out where it is without resorting to manual processes." Many of the more traditional performance tools still require some degree of manual intervention, Craig added.
Craig said that there are a few other vendors that have technologies that do similar end-to-end end user performance monitoring as Symphoniq's TrueView, including AmberPoint Inc., CA (with its CA Wily product) and Compuware Corp. Other competitors include eG Innovations, ProactiveNet, and OpTier Ltd..
While Thatcher hasn't calculated the tool's ROI, "we know intuitively that it's giving us excellent information that saves us time," he said. The use of Symphoniq's has sold Thatcher on the need to deploy more automation to monitor the infrastructure, which comprises 100 Windows-based servers. "We don't have a uniform method of monitoring servers," he said, adding that he relies on low-level tools such as WhatsUp Gold from Ipswitch Inc., for network management. "We need to get better at trending and reporting for documenting our decisions for auditors," he said.
Indeed, Craig says that she would like to see Symphoniq add integration to such existing systems as a configuration management database (CMDB). While a CMDB is one way to trace transactions and applications to their underlying source level – something that Symphoniq does with its technology –integration with a CMDB can provide an added level of data analysis. If Symphoniq builds direct application programming interfaces into a CMDB, Craig says the resulting information could be useful for change tracking, auditing and doing trend analysis about growing the infrastructure.
In particular, Thatcher would like to have a more automated method of monitoring server capacity and performance. And when he gets the appropriate systems management tools, he envisions integrating them with Symphoniq. "The Symphoniq tool is specifically focused on online banking," he said. "When integrated with other monitoring tools, we'll have a more holistic view of our infrastructure."
Let us know what you think about the story email Megan Santosus, Features Writer .