Canada Post keeps e-services running, customers happy with Introscope

Brent Kirwan’s job is to make sure the busiest e-commerce site in Canada is running smoothly – but that hit a major hiccup when rogue scripters hit the Web site with a large amount of unseen requests.

At risk if Canada Post‘s Electronic Shipping Tools (EST) crash is $12 million in daily revenue, and 14,000 unhappy users across the country, most of them small and mid-sized companies.EST is a secure shipping application that Canada Post business customers can use to prepare all of the paperwork required for mailings and shipments, and to automate shipping and mailing processes. Canada Post offers EST in a desktop version, Business Desktop 2.0, an online version, and Express Order Entry.

Innovapost Inc. provides IT services to the public mail system, and guarantees 99.5 per cent uptime for the shipping tools – so there’s not a lot of room for error.

Good thing the senior consultant at Innovapost set up CA Wily Introscope software back in 2004. All it took was a glance at a colour-coded graph to track down the problem and identify how to fix it.

“We were able to determine very quickly that it was an excess load and were able to fix that problem relatively quickly,” Kirwan says. “We were able to do throttling … for that specific type of transaction and it fixed the problem.”

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Introscope belongs to class of software often called application performance monitoring tools. Designed to give IT departments a tool to alert them when an infrastructure glitch causes services to act sluggish or break entirely, it’s gained popularity among firms offering large transaction volume, Web-based point of sales.

The software is a critical tool for an IT department that abides by a service level agreement (SLA), says Russ Conwath, senior research analyst with London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group.

“This is leaps and bounds ahead of the IT perspective where we start at the bits and bytes and work our way up,” he says. “You can actually input what your SLA is and [the software] will try to enforce it or at least tell you when it’s been broken.”

Innovapost uses four metrics measured by Introscope to monitor its Web applications. The software measures throughput (events over time), latency (time from a request to a result), utilization (percentage of capacity being used), and efficiency. Those numbers help Kirwan provide 24/7 support.

“It’s a lot better than just saying it’s fast or it’s slow,” he says. “We have the alert system e-mail out what application server is in trouble so our service guys know what we’re in for.”

Presenting at CA World in Las Vegas in May, Kirwan showed off his BlackBerry, which also serves as his alerts tether. The alert system will let him know when he’s needed.

CA Technologies isn’t the only vendor offering application performance monitoring. Competitors such as IBM, HP, Quest and Compuware also have on-premise solutions, Conwath says.

Other vendors are selling appliances for this purpose, bringing the cost down for mid-sized firms.

Tealeaf Technologies, Fluke Networks Systems and CA all offer appliances for this category.

“Previously only large enterprises could afford this, but it’s becoming more affordable as an appliance,” the analyst says.

The tools are designed to be flexible, adapting to a variety of IT infrastructures. Businesses that run on-premise as well as cloud-based apps can both make use of application performance monitoring. In fact, CA sees it as an important piece of managing a virtualized environment, says Steven Elliot, vice-president of strategy for infrastructure management at CA.

“If you don’t have these things, you’re out of luck,” he says. “You’re not going to get the visibility you need, or the transparency to prove out what’s working and what’s not.”

Innovapost now uses Introscope for Canada Post Online as well as version 2.0 of the Electronic Shipping Tools. The software’s transaction trace viewer feature helps identify queries that are taking too long.

Lengthy queries “means your customer is sitting on your Web page waiting for something,” Kirwan explains. “That’s not good.”

The Investigator feature shows a variety of built-in metrics and custom metrics fed into it in a visual graph format. This visual element, as well as the various dashboards that show when systems are performing well or not (green is good, red is bad), has made the tool popular outside of the IT — with business managers.

“You can’t lie to these guys because of the great graphs,” Kirwan jokes. “But a smart customer is a great customer.”

IT shouldn’t worry that graphs and dashboards will be used by management as a new excuse to yell at them, Conwath says. There may be real business processes connected to the performance of applications and a manager could be notified of any needed actions that arise because of these tools.

“Because these applications take all that underlying stuff and translate it into English, more and more folk are asking to see this data and to be able to manage it,” he says.

Even if he can’t lie any more, Kirwan wouldn’t trade in Introscope. Those colour-coded graphs help him do his job.

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