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6 application performance management trends to watch

Ericka Chickowski Freelance writer

Once considered a niche IT operations tool with limited enterprise deployments, application performance management (APM) —also known as application performance monitoring—is now on a tear.

Gartner analysts say that in the four-year period from 2018 through 2021, the category is on track to experience a fourfold increase in usage. By 2021, they say, APM will monitor 20% of all business applications. 

Wrapped into that growth are big evolutionary changes in how organizations are using APM tools, who's using them, and what they can track. More intrinsically, as these shifts occur, broader business and technology trends are transforming, too. The kinds of positive user-experience outcomes APM is designed to effect are making these tools an integral lever for ensuring the success of digital initiatives.

Gartner analysts Charley Rich, Federico De Silva, and Sanjit Ganguli wrote in a report, released in March, that APM suites are "useful to a growing set of stakeholders within IT and, increasingly, in the business."

"Given the transition that many businesses are experiencing in terms of digital transformation and adopting hybrid, multi-cloud deployment strategies, APM has become even more critical to their success."

Here are the key trends that are driving APM growth—and shaping usage at enterprises today. 

With digital transformation, customer experience is everything

Enterprises are spending trillions of dollars on digital transformation—$1.25 trillion in 2019 alone, according to IDC—and a huge driving force behind that investment is the desire to improve customer experience.

Altimeter Group principal analyst Brian Solis wrote in his firm's 2019 State of Digital Transformation report earlier this year that most work is aimed at fixing and modernizing the customer journey. "Over the years, the biggest digital transformation priority for companies has continued to be the customer experience." 

The Altimeter study found the percentage of companies that put the customer at the center of their transformation efforts increased by 24 points in the last year, up to 59% of respondents. Meanwhile, most of the top-10 projects related to digital transformation have at least some tie to customer experience.

This, in turn, is juicing the APM market. When implemented correctly, these tools provide deep visibility into what the customer experience looks like when customers are interacting with a company on a technical plane, said Joe Madden, CEO of the Greenlight Group, a consulting and systems integration services firm. 

"That's what APM tools are all about—it is your view into the customer's perspective."
Joe Madden

In this way, APM offers a unique opportunity for IT leaders to better align tech performance with digital objectives, because IT operations teams have historically focused so much on infrastructure measurables that they've lost the forest for the trees.

"They have all these tools to monitor CPU and disk and integrations and things of that nature, and they'll stand up in front of the business and say, 'We don't have any servers down. We don't have any sites down. Everything's working great.' Yet, users can't get access to their applications," said Jeff Jamieson, president of Whitlock Infrastructure Solutions, an enterprise IT consulting company.

"So at the end of the day, all that infrastructure management's great, but the piece that everybody cares about is: What's the real experience going on?"
Jeff Jamieson

Keeping up with the pace of business

As businesses try to move more quickly to adjust to fickle market conditions with appropriate digital capabilities, software development teams are responding with faster release cycles.

Eveline Oehrlich, an analyst for Research in Action, said that not only is the release cycle faster, but today's overall environment is dynamic, with interconnected microservices, containers, serverless infrastructure, and other elements.

"Software development cycles are changing due to demand from the business. No longer are companies releasing software on a monthly basis, but continuously."
Eveline Oehrlich

Maintaining high performance levels that enhance the customer experience requires a more proactive stance than is the case in many traditional companies, she said. But many organizations are struggling to keep up with the pace of business and to manage performance from end to end.

Even the biggest companies struggle with the issue of pace, Whitlock's Jamieson said. Application development teams are rolling out software faster to support the demands from the business side.

"[Ops is dangling in the wind and usually gets pulled in late. What we often see is a go-live on a new application or service that has problems, then the dev team turns to ops to fix it. Then the ops team says, 'We didn't even know you were rolling it out. What are you talking about?'"
—Jeff Jamieson

Tackling performance in face of complexity challenges

Layered on top of that are the complexities of hybrid IT.

There are components that are on premises or SaaS, or in a public cloud, said Jamieson. "When the operations team is trying to sort through where application performance issues are, they're really hamstrung because they don't control half the environment."

This is one of the big drivers behind not only the overall growth in APM usage but also for longtime APM users switching away from their existing legacy solutions. According to Research in Action's analysis of the market, some 57% of organizations are currently migrating to a new APM solution, piloting another solution, or planning to migrate to another solution in the next one to three years.

Among some 20 different options, hybrid-cloud performance management was the No. 1 investment that organizations told Research in Action they'd be making in APM for 2019, Oehrlich said.

With the right APM tools in place, it's possible for organizations to tweak hybrid infrastructure to optimize performance and start to untangle the snarl of complexity to direct efficient troubleshooting, Greenlight's Madden said. This is true whether you're upgrading infrastructure, moving to a different data center, or leveraging the cloud. 

"APM gives you that baseline of data to be able to accurately measure the progress and the improvement of the steps that you're taking. APM can drive what you look into first."
—Joe Madden

Shifting away from ho-hum ops tools

Because customer experience is so critical to digital success, Gartner analysts say there's a "growing relationship between the health of the application and the health of the business" that's increasing the importance of APM to the business.

Research in Action's Oehrlich said it also improves customer satisfaction, which has direct impact on market share and profitability.

"IT leaders are realizing that they need to shift their teams toward becoming a key value driver for organizations and lines of business. Software delivery optimization, which is really what APM is, improves productivity, profitability, and market share."
—Eveline Oehrlich

This dynamic is shifting APM's role from a specialized ops tool to something that's delivering information of value for numerous stakeholders.

"It's definitely not an ops-only tool set anymore," said Greenlight's Madden. Application developers and site reliability engineers (SREs) are also using APM, "whether they sit in the app dev camp or the ops camp." And then there are the broader base of DevOps people who are "leaning on it."

Information from APM can be fed into continuous delivery/continuous integration (CD/CI) feedback loops to continually optimize software both operationally and functionally. As a result, Oehrlich concurred, it's gaining tremendous traction among a range of DevOps-oriented users.

Attracting a new base of users

It's also gaining currency among nontechnical staff.

Madden said the most interesting and more important group of newer APM users is the business.

"They may not be drilling down to the point of seeing that there's a bad piece of SQL that exists today that didn't yesterday. But they are going to want to have an awareness of how their particular solutions are working or not working."
—Joe Madden

Oehrlich added that this growing use case is in play at fewer than 20% of companies today. However, even when business stakeholders don't directly touch APM data or dashboards, they're usually still reaping the benefits.

The power of modern APM solutions is that they're making it easier to connect IT key performance indicators (KPIs) with business KPIs. You can see this as more organizations use APM to shift tracking application performance from mean time to resolution (MTTR) to time to business impact (TTBI).

Madden agreed:

 "APM turns out to be a great tool to have professional conversations about IT performance and the economics behind IT that drive business value."

DevOps pushes and pulls the APM market

APM tools could also be the linchpin to finally get developers and operations teams to collaborate more fully. DevOps practices have had a big influence on APM. In a way, DevOps both pushes and pulls the market, in what Oehrlich calls the "yin and yang" of APM.

DevOps is changing how teams work, which is pushing and stimulating greater use of APM from that broader range of stakeholders previously mentioned.

"APM is being more highly leveraged and highly adapted because of that DevOps culture," Madden said. Developers are much more engaged in helping to find and monitor application-layer-type things that, with a traditional approach, may not have gotten looked at until much further into the process.

"DevOps really created the cultural acceptance that development needs to own some of the monitoring and performance layers."
—Joe Madden

In the meantime, the heavy reliance on automation and rapid changes in tooling within the software development pipeline are also catalyzing changes in what APM tools are offering today. This is essentially pulling the market to better align with DevOps patterns and integrate with CI/CD tooling.

Automation is a major contributor to this as well. With infrastructure as code becoming more and more pervasive, "it's just part of the build recipe now," Madden said.

"It's much easier when you don't have some guy sitting in the back of a room trying to deploy 1,000 agents on 1,000 servers manually anymore as part of the build process."
—Joe Madden

No supernatural powers, but get going anyway

At the end of the day, APM is going to be the fulcrum for what Oehrlich calls "digital operational excellence." It's not a magic wand for solving every application performance woe, but it does make it easier to quickly isolate and trace problems for further review or automated problem solving.

She thinks that continuous APM tools will increasingly become an important data source for AIOps capabilities that will help speed up response times even further. APM is at the center of an automated, managed environment that's fully centered on improving customer outcomes.

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