Just as consumers have seen widespread problems when using new data-intensive applications on smartphones, the same problem is also impacting the business world as corporate networks struggle to cope with new demands.

With this in mind Thierry Grenot, Executive Vice President, Ipanema Technologies, assesses the in and outs of application performance management and investigates why it can pay off to take APM on as part of a business strategy.

Driven by the increasing proliferation of bandwidth-intensive applications such as unified communication, video conferencing and collaboration software, as well as the trend towards cloud computing, networks are struggling to match the increasing demands placed on them.

A recent study titled ‘Killer Apps 2012’ analysed responses from 550 CIOs and IT decision-makers across Europe about application performance and the problems they face in ensuring users remain productive and that business apps deliver on their objectives.

It revealed worrying trends, with 82 per cent of respondents reporting speed and responsiveness issues within the last 12 months, and nearly half of respondents commenting that those types of problem are becoming more frequent. Perhaps more concerningly, respondents said it was business-critical applications such as enterprise (ERP / CRM), voice and collaboration applications that are the most likely to suffer from performance problems.

The survey also emphasised a distinct lack of awareness amongst those overseeing networked applications. Many of Europe’s businesses are ‘flying blind’, without adequate knowledge of exactly what is flowing over their networks. For example, 69 per cent of respondents are not aware of how much network bandwidth each application they use requires, and nearly one in three do not even know the number of applications running on their corporate network.

Perhaps most worryingly, measurement of application performance is also rudimentary, in many cases, with 55 per cent of respondents admitting that they rely on the ‘final line of defence’ (namely user complaints to the IT department) as their primary performance metric.

In other cases a plethora of competing network level technical indicators such as ‘jitter’ and ‘delay’ are in operation. What’s actually required is a simple, single key performance indicator (KPI) that provides an aggregate view on how well each application is performing, one that everyone in the company can understand and that can inform improvement.

‘On a scale of one to ten...’ is a classic prompt that has been used to measure just about everything: emotions, the success of a new film or employee performance during reviews. And why not? The scale is concise. It’s simple and succinct. It can capture complex data from a variety of sources into condensed, easily transferable and comprehensible numbers.

Now the ‘one to ten’ scale is helping classify how applications are performing across networks via the Application Quality Score (AQS) metric.

AQS provides some basic numbers with big repercussions - numbers that could help businesses build better relationships between IT staff and senior managers, streamline processes, improve customer relations, guide wise investments, minimise downtime and create some pretty interesting graphs.

What is AQS? And how can it help?

Today there is no standard indicator for application performance across networks - and with good reason: there are very few standard applications. AQS confronts this issue by operating as a composite indicator.

By combining a variety of sub-metrics (such as round trip time, server response time, transaction activity and transmission control protocol (TCP) retransmits) and unique ‘one-way’ network metrics (such as transit delay, loss and jitter), the ‘one to ten’ AQS score is a top-level view that reflects the application performance that remote users experience over the WAN.

How AQS can help improve application performance

AQS acts like a compass, pointing IT departments to where an issue lies and then allowing them to find a solution. Poor application performance can be the result of the network, the server or the application itself. By creating a metric, AQS indicates which of these areas, and where within these areas, an issue is to be found. For example, imagine the AQS indicates that the network is the cause of poor application performance.

IT staff would be able to delve deeper. They would be able to answer two related network questions: is the network itself experiencing a fault or is the network jammed with too much traffic from multiple applications? All this information is contained within the composite parts of the AQS metric.

From there, IT staff could go about finding a solution: if the low AQS score is due to of a faulty network, then the network provider would be responsible for improving it; if the score occurred because of too much traffic over a perfectly suitable network, the IT department would have to unblock the traffic jam. They may choose to do this by determining which applications are business-critical (such as ERP, CRM, videoconference, etc.) and prioritising them.

Applications like YouTube or Facebook may be deemed as non-critical, in which case a company may allow an AQS score of two or three. The same company may want an AQS score for critical applications, like SAP or VoIP, to be at nine or higher.

To keep with the previous example, if the low AQS score indicated the problem was a result of too much business-critical traffic, then companies would know they need to direct funds towards increasing bandwidth, and better still, they’d have the information to make the business case.

Why IT people need AQS metrics

Conveying IT information about applications to senior officials can often be challenging. KPI, spatial light modulator (SLM), service level agreement (SLA), WAN optimisation - these are all terms that managers and senior staff may not be familiar with.

AQS helps make the language of IT more approachable and even more visually stimulating, owing to the visual nature of dashboards. The metric of ‘one to 10’ is simple and easy to understand.

Without such measurements, it’s difficult to set application-related goals. Under such circumstances, when issues arise, tension between IT staff and management inevitably follows.

In contrast, when there is a metric, a clear indicator that simply and easily points to the heart of an issue, it’s much easier to positively respond to arising difficulties. IT staff have data and information they can provide to senior officials.

Additionally AQS improves user complaint handling. When people do complain, IT staff can see the information needed to help users, even if it is something as simple as being able to describe the problem and tell the customer when it will be fixed. Consider a non-IT example: an individual misses their train.

Not knowing when the next train is set to arrive may cause distress. Conversely, knowing how long the delay will be allows the individual to be proactive rather than reactive. Think of the AQS like a digital train board. Using the advanced information on application performance, IT departments can better serve users, and this is surely a common aim for all.