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Application Performance Management: the unsung servant of productivity gains worth millions

by Bram Kainth


Read the article on Government Computing


Bram Kainth, Islington Council's director of public realm explains how that long-time Cinderella of IT solutions, Application Performance Management (APM), is stemming productivity losses across a variety of departments, and in the process aligning IT with local government strategy at a council that directly employs more than 4,000 people


Time is money


As a Service Director, I've hundreds of people whose job is to deliver council services and keep traffic flowing in and out of the City and West End, as well as logging highway repairs, managing parks and much more, often on mobile devices - so making sure our IT systems are working effectively is vital. Meanwhile residents are being encouraged - indeed increasingly expecting - to be able to engage with us digitally rather than visiting or calling us about broken paving stones, trees, parking fines and the like. When important systems and applications misbehave or even slow down intermittently, productivity losses quickly mount up.


The 21st-century digital communication channel shift that we are experiencing, is placing our computer applications and legacy systems under increasing pressure, pressure which 'software as a service' (SaaS) hasn't really altered. Legacy or SaaS, Service Level Agreements that focus on server availability are no use to me - in the world of today, a world where server 'up time' is virtually a given, for a SLA to have any relevance then what truly matters is usability.


Back in 2012 I'd had plenty of anecdotal reports that a business system used by the 160 staff in Parking Services, who work from sites across England (yes, that's despite us being a London council), was running slowly sometimes, but no-one in Parking Services or IT had visibility of, or metrics for, what was actually going on. Unsurprisingly then the slowness, and its harmful knock-on effect on our business efficiency, was continuing.


Visibility on application usability


So I bought in some assessments and dashboards supplied by the APM consultancy Quadnet, which then enabled my IT colleagues to see what had previously been hidden, and to fix what had previously gone unfixed - sometimes before my users were even aware of the issue, and often before they'd raised a ticket with the helpdesk. Now I feel that IT is truly aligned with, rather than fighting their corner against, the real business of running a council. And for the first time, my IT people felt valuable, and I no longer felt stuck in a quicksand of impenetrable jargon.


The costs involved in the assessments and fixing were, indeed still are (as we retain Quadnet to continue monitoring and managing our important applications), really quite tiny when compared with the efficiency in service delivery that their expertise is generating.


Business systems need nurturing, yet wherever I looked I found people ostensibly responsible for a computer application, yet actually not able to manage it at all. They had no visibility, and no measurement systems. And of course the technologies are baffling to people like me. At meeting after meeting I was presented with jargon about DNS, Networks, Databases and the like. All I wanted was for my staff to have working tools for their jobs, and that if the tool was broken for it to be promptly fixed.


Getting the right technical team to deliver


It's often difficult for my people to know which technical team is best suited to fix an issue, as the IT department is organised into self-contained specialist 'silos' such as Applications, Network, and Database. Specifically, Quadnet were able to help identify the right team for fixing an issue. In one instance the DNS configuration was incorrect, clearly a networking issue which was then handed to the appropriate team to resolve. In another instance the supplier WAN lines had become slow, and by pinpointing the exact time this occurred, the supplier was able to fix the issue. They also worked with our in-house programmers, showing them the various Database Queries that were impacting the user experience.


Root Cause, with actionable information


Quadnet's approach was to make sure that the business and technical teams were working from reliable information so all people involved could make the right decisions. They created the information by a mixture of monitoring technologies correlating how staff were experiencing the application with technical metrics like Bandwidth from networks, server load Server teams etc. And other times using much more complicated technologies that would tap into the network and even trace entire transaction from a single user in real time.


We found lots of different issues. One was a DNS configuration which the network team were able to resolve. It was not straightforward, as the application was running across three sites, and although data-entry staff were complaining about slow processing speed, the bandwidth was actually always more than sufficient, and I'm told that decreased throughput on a line does not always generate slower transactions speed.


As many changes are being made on the business systems at the same time when our Business Intelligence system was being developed internally. Again we noticed users were complaining. We traced the transactions to the exact queries that were causing excessive database loads. So this allowed the development team to be held responsible, it also gave them the information to solve the problem quickly.


Holding suppliers to account


It was also discovered that the application became slow at a particular time, midnight to be precise. Quadnet cross-matched that information with the leased line performance that they were also monitoring, and quickly saw that the leased line had a drop in service at exactly the same time. So we were able to open a firm but meaningful dialogue with Virgin, our network provider, who fixed the problem, and in so doing gave us our productivity back.


The right thing to do


My Head of Parking told me afterward the first assessment and fix that the value of time saved in his business area was in the order of £300,000 a year. Now that is actually an efficiency number, a productivity saving based on the cost of people sitting around waiting for screens to refresh and suchlike, not money I can necessarily go and get back from my Financial Director. Nevertheless making staff more productive was the right thing to do, without question. Indeed I've since asked Quadnet to monitor, to find the root cause and to help us fix, the performance of our applications on an on-going basis - not only in Parking Services but in Highways and in Waste Management too. I shall apply Application Performance Management to future business systems I am responsible for, as the value is plain to see.


Public Realm is the label given to cover the borough's smaller roads (including street lighting, pavements and traffic engineering and its 130 parks, playgrounds and open public spaces.



Bram Kainth is Islington Council's director of public realm


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