Can your apps handle an 1,800 percent spike in traffic?

As Super Bowl XLVI approached this year, Cars.com was facing a thorny issue. For the third year in a row it was running a big-budget ad during the game. In 2010 and 2011 the high-profile ads drew huge numbers of car shoppers to its site--a definite win--but the spike also slowed performance to a crawl. This year, armed with new application performance management (APM) tools, Cars.com CTO Kayne Grau and enterprise architect Jim Houska knew things would be different.

"The first two years we did our Super Bowl campaign, we had very significant performance issues," Grau explains. "Not only the day of the game, but following."

2012 was no exception in terms of surging traffic, but this year the team managed to provide an optimal user experience for those visitors despite their huge numbers.

APM Helps Cars.com Deal with Traffic Spikes

"Immediately following the commercial, we saw roughly an 1,800% spike in page views," Houska says. "As that started to die down, we were running approximately 40% above our normal peak workload for about three weeks."

And Cars.com is no slouch when it comes to traffic. The site averages more than 10 million car shoppers a month. However, unlike past years, this year Cars.com was able to handle the increase in traffic without a hitch.

"The first two years we did our Super Bowl campaign were very, very manual," Grau says. "This year, I felt confident going into the Super Bowl. We had the right tools."

Houska adds, "It's essentially like flying blind and then suddenly having eagle-eye vision. It's very exciting to have that kind of visibility that you never had before."

The difference was that two weeks before Super Bowl XLVI, Cars.com deployed Compuware dynaTrace for its continuous, real-time APM. Grau's team had been testing it for six weeks prior to deployment.

"For the most part, from the time we chose the product to the time we were running it in production was about a month," Houska says. "We were getting value out of the product before we even purchased it just in the visibility we gained through the POC [proof of concept]."

Grau adds, "The stuff we were seeing in the trial and the POC, we saw the immediate business benefit. We knew the gaps the tool was exposing in our applications were huge."

Houska notes the APM tool allowed the team to proactively identify and address performance bottlenecks prior to the Super Bowl. He says it has aided with capacity planning by providing visibility into transaction volume and response time in applications, giving the team the ability to properly size capacity based on upcoming business issues. Additionally, developers are able to gauge performance up front in the development process, taking that onus away from QA teams and allowing them to focus on other issues.

CIOs Uncertain They Can Meet Performance Demands

Cars.com is not alone in its desire to gain better visibility into the performance of its applications. A recent survey of IT executives by research firm Quocirca found that 82% of CIOs expect their business customers and users to demand better performance-faster page loads, checkout, etc.-from their websites and applications in 2012. And 43% of CIOs are not confident that they will be able to deliver.

"The research results were very clear: application performance is the primary concern of the survey respondents amongst the various issues they were asked about, and the majority accepted that measures must be taken over the next 12 months to address this and improve the end user experience," says Bob Tarzey, analyst and director at Quocirca.

"Ultimately, all IT delivery is about application delivery," Tarzey adds. "If the performance of applications that serve a business and its employees, partners and customers is sub-optimal, then so is that business' competitiveness. Although application delivery is complex, it is possible to get a holistic view of the transaction performance and the user experience, but only if an APM system is in place that is capable of achieving this."

Mapping APM Metrics to Business Metrics

The Quocirca report notes that businesses are struggling to map application performance to their business goals, and nearly 80% of CIOs are worried that the metrics they do collect on application performance don't map to business metrics. This, Quocirca says, points to a need for an APM system that allows organizations to combine a wide range of statistics in real-time about how well applications are meeting the requirements of lines of business alongside statistics on pure performance.

"What's happened in the last five years is that applications have gone from being the interesting thing that rode on our most important infrastructure to being the center point of IT," says John Van Siclen, general manager of Compuware APM. "It's the connection between the business and IT. The network isn't really a connection between business and IT; servers aren't really either. How an application gets performance from the eyes of your users matters to the business owners who are funding the apps. How we do our banking, book our travel, even manage our kids' education, everything is via Internet transactions. These applications are no longer the step child to the real business. It is the real business."

Where software architects focused on component health in the past, Van Siclen says they must now think of things as transactions: from a click in a browser all the way through the cloud to the data source and back again. Today's APM needs to sit inside an app and light up the whole path a transaction takes.

Applications Must Take User-Centric View

"Today's complex, dynamic applications start with a user perspective, not an old style data-center-first view," Van Siclen says. "Rather than simply react to problems after they have impacted users, new generation APM is designed to optimize the speed of key transactions, proactively fix issues before they impact users and dramatically reduce the time it takes to get new features and functions to market."

Before implementing Compuware dynaTrace, Grau says Cars.com's monitoring system was basically his boss.

"He'd stop by my desk or call me and say, "Hey, the website is having issues,"" Grau says. "He'd always know before I did. It got pretty frustrating."

Now, Grau says, he always knows what is going on with the organization's applications and his team is able to proactively fix issues before they become noticeable to users.

Thor Olavsrud is a senior writer for CIO.com. Follow him @ThorOlavsrud.

Read more about applications in CIO's Applications Drilldown.

This story, "Can your apps handle an 1,800 percent spike in traffic?" was originally published by CIO.

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