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OpTier CoreFirst gives Blue Cross Blue Shield transaction-level visibility

Implementing OpTier CoreFirst 3.0 enabled Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota to troubleshoot application performance problems.

Tracking application performance issues at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota's call center was a major headache...

until it deployed CoreFirst, transaction management software from New York-based OpTier.

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BCBS Minnesota is one of the 39 independent, community-based BCBS health insurance companies that collectively provide health-care coverage to more than 102 million Americans.

At BCBS Minnesota's busy call center, some segments of the company's business customers reported performance problems, while others experienced none, said David Thomas, the senior director of technology support for BCBS. Finding the root of these random application snafus proved time-consuming and difficult, he said.

"If only a handful of people have issues and the majority are fine … then we needed to do a lot more digging into what could be the source of the problem. With that in mind, we started to look for a tool that would allow us to track all transactions and trace them back to the originating user ID," Thomas said.

Finding the right management tool
For the Minnesota division of BCBS, all of the data lives in a data center in Eagan, Minn., which Thomas described as a typical midsized shop consisting of about 300 Unix servers, 300 Intel-based Hewlett-Packard Co. rack servers and a couple of mainframes. They support Web portals for customers and providers, with Oracle databases on the back end, and run Sun Solaris.

We did a proof of concept with OpTier ... sort of a bake-off.
David Thomas,
senior director of technology supportBlue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota

Thomas needed a tool that would isolate issues at the transaction level, and evaluated seven different business management transaction products as part of a request-for-proposal process, including BMC Software and IBM. "All of the products provided response-time metrics for application performance, but many of them did this through a sampling process and did not look at all transactions," Thomas said.

In 2006, "We did a proof of concept with OpTier and IBM tools for tracking transactions -- sort of a bake-off," Thomas said. "At the time, IBM hadn't quite integrated their tools, so we struggled to get the tools to work together."

OpTier's CoreFirst software was easier to integrate into the existing data center infrastructure and provided the results quickly, he said. He chose OpTier and, ironically enough, integrated it into his IBM Tivoli Access Manager (TAM) environment, where a lot of BCBS's Web traffic flows through and through which CoreFirst sends alerts to the Tivoli console, Thomas said.

Some management tools are known to be overcomplicated, especially when it comes to reporting, but Thomas said CoreFirst is fairly simple to use.

"From an ease-of-use perspective, we haven't had any issues. … It requires some very basic training on using the tools – it is fairly easy for us to see where things aren't behaving well," Thomas said. "It points us in the right direction to problems, and my folks can then dig in and correct the issues."

Thomas also uses CoreFirst to scan applications before they go live. "We run things through our test environment and use the tool to find issues before sending it to production," he said.

Released on Sept. 8., the new version of CoreFirst, 3.0 is now undergoing testing. Enhancements to CoreFirst 3.0 include complete visibility into transaction, a better transaction monitoring interface, enhanced reporting that identifies chatty transactions that affect latency and scalability, and that compares tier activity during particular time frames.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, News Writer.

And check out our data center blogs: Server Farming, Mainframe Propellerhead, and Data Center Facilities Pro

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