Manage Java apps for premium performance
- By Peter Bochner
Companies are turning to Java applications not only because they deliver
benefits in terms of performance and scalability, but because they also link
applications and services over multiple platforms and generations of technology,
from the creakiest legacy systems to the shiniest new Web services. And because
Java applications are closely tied to business processes, they can help maximize
But Java applications are complicated. As Valerie O'Connell, managing
director of enterprise systems management for Boston research firm Aberdeen
Group, put it, they ''have a truckload of moving parts.'' To see how a Java
application is behaving, an administrator must understand how all these moving
parts fit together.
And if a Java application is behaving badly, there are so many possible
causes -- the response time of an EJB, the availability of Java database
connections, a dawdling servlet, a JVM leaking memory or even the application
infrastructure itself -- that customers are ''no longer satisfied with a simple
availability-type metric,'' said Jim Byrd, a senior product manager with BMC
Corp., an enterprise management software company based in Houston. ''They need a
comprehensive understanding of what's happening inside the application and its
Unfortunately, Java applications often do behave badly. According to DD
Ganguly, a technology strategist in Computer Associates' Office of the CTO, the
inclusion of J2EE application servers in enterprise application architectures
took one set of complexities out of the picture -- messaging, clustering and
database connectivity -- but introduced ''a new set of technologies that we need
to learn and manage.'' The very complexity of these Java applications is
responsible for stressing their performance at a time when application
performance is more critical than ever.
As a result, traditional ''best practices don't cover a lot of the newer
situations out there'' related to Java, said Thomas Murphy, senior program
director for application delivery strategies at Meta Group in Stamford,
A new generation of management tools provides the visibility into Java
applications needed to diagnose a performance problem, and offers up possible
solutions. Unlike traditional test and load balancing solutions, these products
can diagnose application problems in the production phase as well as the QA
phase. But the makers of these products prescribe doing proactive management
before the application is rolled out. Once Java apps are scaled out to large
numbers of users, figuring out what is causing a problem is a ''major bitch,''
according to one observer.
That is because few of the tiers inside a J2EE application server environment
-- the main server, the operating system, the Web servers, the application
server and the database servers that feed data to the application server -- are
likely to be instrumented for performance measurement. Then there is the
enigmatic Java virtual machine itself, which allows Java applications to run
natively on any machine. ''JVM is like a black box,'' said Tom Mulvehill, senior
product marketing manager at Precise Software Solutions, Westwood, Mass. ''It's
hard to understand what's going on in there.''
''The big problem is being able to understand where the problem is,'' said Phil
Buckellew, product line manager for transaction performance in the Performance
and Availability Group at IBM Tivoli.
And the more tiers, the more time it takes to resolve a performance problem.
''In a large company, it takes a lot of pull and tug to make the changes of
uncovering and resolving problems,'' said Kevin Gallagher, vice president of
research and reporting at Newport Group Inc., a research firm in South Yarmouth,
Mass. Newport is about to release a study that puts the average time of
resolving a performance problem, from the time the trouble ticket is pulled, at
Providing the right level of management information without degrading the
performance of the system the app is running on is like walking a tightrope. The
challenge for management vendors is to strike a balance between collecting
useful information and not imparting a lot of overhead on the system the app is
running on. According to Precise's Mulvehill, using probes, debugging tools and
load balancing tools affects the application whose performance you are trying to
The trick is to collect the detailed information you need to monitor the
performance of your app in a way that does not affect overhead. One solution,
said Meta Group's Murphy, would be for the tools to let the customer do a rough
analysis; if the customer then sees a problem, instrument everything below that
At Fannie Mae
Firms cannot afford to wait for consumers to
report performance problems. That would be fatal for Nexstar Financial Corp.,
Creve Coeur, Mo., which, like most mortgage lenders, relies on online technology
to speed up the approval process. When a customer applies for a mortgage online,
Nexstar processes the information and sends it via a gateway to computers at
Fannie Mae, a source of financing for home mortgages, which then sends back the
findings needed to approve the mortgage.
Once mortgage lenders reach a certain size, they need more functionality than
packaged loan applications can provide, and so develop their own software to
communicate with the sites of underwriting engines such as Fannie Mae. Three
years ago, Nexstar contracted with EoTek, an Evergreen, Colo., Java development
house serving the mortgage industry, to develop a Java application that could
bridge Nexstar's online forms applications and data formats with the back-end
mortgage approval system operated by Fannie Mae.
The gateway's service levels were critical, but performance was slowed
because the Fannie Mae site employed a proprietary protocol. To determine how
many mortgage applications it could send through to Fannie Mae, and how fast it
could do so, Nexstar needed more visibility into how the distributed components
of its Java application were performing.
Because of all their moving parts, Java application performance usually needs
to be managed in real-time. ''In some industries you may not need to worry about
every second's worth of performance, but in a Web enterprise, if you don't
manage in real-time, you're going to miss a lot of changes,'' said Bob Ure,
director of marketing for Altaworks, a Nashua, N.H., developer of performance
management software for Web enterprises.
Nexstar needed to add instrumentation to its app, ''so that we could know how
the gateway was performing and whether it was experiencing difficulties, such as
communication circuits,'' said Mark Carlson, Nexstar's VP of technology. And, he
noted, Nexstar ''needed to know about all these things in real-time.''
Carlson had several options. Nexstar's IT department could attain some of
that information by running queries -- ''analyzing log files after the fact'' is
how he described it -- but it would not have been in real-time, nor would it
have provided visibility into the application components. Another option was to
use SNMP, the most often-used method for adding management to Java applications,
to create custom Management Information Base (MIB) extensions to look into
application data. But even though SNMP requires little code to implement, ''we
wanted to standardize on something current, rather than adding an older MIB that
we would hand-code ourselves,'' said Carlson.
A third possibility was to use the Application Response Measurement (ARM)
API. ARM is a spec proposed by Hewlett-Packard and IBM that can be used by
developers who want to collect performance information by instrumenting the
business logic of their apps. It does this by embedding function calls that can
be captured by an agent in the software. However, the technique is still quite
complex and requires too much hand-coding for most developers' taste.
The Nexstar infrastructure includes an Oracle DBMS, IBM WebSphere application
servers, Tomcat open-source Web servers (''We develop under Tomcat and deploy
under WebSphere,'' said Carlson), and webMethods application integration
software. It uses packaged applications for its enterprise functions, such as
Siebel for CRM and PeopleSoft for financials, but typically writes custom Java
applications for its mortgage business. These include a decision support app for
routing loans to different credit providers, and one that configures pricing for
Because several products he was using had already
implemented the Java Management Extensions (JMX) management spec, Carlson wanted
to explore that avenue further. JMX is an API for the instrumentation and
management of J2EE applications. Currently an option, it will become a mandated
standard when J2EE Version 1.4 is released in 2003. Its popularity is growing:
In 2001, only 10% of J2EE applications were JMX-enabled, according to Gartner
Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based research firm; they expect that number to reach
50% in 2003.
JMX makes it easier for customers to get raw management information data and
turn it into data that gives them a view of their application performance.
Because it uses familiar Java semantics, it will make it easier for developers
to build management into apps. ''Our customers want to plug in management and
instrumented solutions around standard APIs,'' said George Kassabgi, vice
president of engineering at BEA's Foundation Division.
Open-source JMX solutions did not have everything Nexstar needed in terms of
instrumentation. Further, customizing JMX to Nexstar's situation might have
meant rewriting the application, and Nexstar was ''looking for a way to expose
attributes of our application without having to rewrite it,'' said the firm's
Carlson heard that an upcoming version of a software framework from AdventNet
Inc., a provider of J2EE management software in Pleasanton, Calif., would bundle
a pre-written implementation of JMX. After reviewing a pre-release version,
Carlson joined the beta program. AdventNet allowed his department to do initial
setups without rewriting the underlying application code from scratch to support
the JMX extensions. Using the AdventNet GUI, they simply chose which attributes
they wanted to expose. All that was needed was a couple of lines of code.
By automating instrumentation, AdventNet's ManageEngine framework allows
developers to customize the management of their apps to meet business needs.
''Most developers don't want to deal with instrumentation until after the
application has been deployed,'' said Giri Giridharan, vice president of product
marketing at AdventNet. ''They'd rather spend time developing applications than
reading about manageability.''
Or as BMC's Byrd noted, ''The vast majority of customers are not instrumenting
their application right now.''
In the past, the process of exposing application attributes, like response
time, or the functions to be managed required a big investment in time, effort
and knowledge. ManageEngine allows developers to graphically pick the attributes
they want to manage by pointing at Java Archive files or Java class files and
representing them as EJB components. AdventNet's approach does not require
developers to create custom MIBs or use MIB editors; it automates the creation
of the management beans, or Mbeans, JMX needs to manage an app.
''We were able to expose the information we wanted, even read-only
information,'' said Carlson. The developer who configured the JMX features on
AdventNet had no JMX experience, but after two days learning the JMX Studio
portion of ManageEngine, he was able to expose that information.
Altaworks' Ure said that in 2003, users can expect ISVs to offer performance
management as an add-on service to their packages, with JMX functionality built
into applications to decrease support costs. They will be able to turn it on
from their office, run it over the Web and check out the performance of their
software running in the customer's environment.
''Some customers may balk at having a performance management agent that wakes
up when the packaged software is installed, if it's accessible over the Web by a
third party; but with VPN or encryption technology, that will be less of a
problem, and customers will see benefits of having that proactive management,''
he said. ''It could lead to packaged software vendors viewing things proactively
and telling the customer, 'If you do these three things, you'll be able to
process 20% more transactions.'''
See the related story, ''AdventNet pursues more
manageable Java,'' by Peter