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WAN application performance: Does it need its own department?

A formal or informal WAN application performance advisory group can provide a systems-wide perspective long before faulty apps go into production and the WAN takes the blame.

Poorly designed applications with chatty protocols are often to blame for sluggish wide area network (WAN) application performance -- a problem that's often caused or aggravated by lack of communication between groups within IT, namely networking and application development. Establishing an application performance advisory group can provide a systems-wide perspective long before faulty apps go into production and the WAN takes the blame.

"Under stress, people reach for technical solutions -- 'Let's get some special debuggizer tool' or the next thing the sales rep comes in with," said Eric Siegel, research director at Burton Group, a division of Gartner Inc. "Instead of thinking about the tool you want, think about the structure you want."

Although a WAN application performance advisory group can start informally -- with a few interested IT pros agreeing to collaborate -- Siegel said large enterprises must create and compensate new, senior-level positions that function as an in-house IT consultancy.

"It has to be someone's full-time job," said Siegel, who recently outlined a framework for WAN application performance advisory positions and groups. "We're talking about broad and deep knowledge -- someone who looks at a particular application and says, 'In our particular architecture, it's going to have this problem and that problem.'"

For very large enterprises, the WAN application performance group may need five or six people who could be "loaned out" to different teams during development and testing, he said. But for most large enterprises, he added, one or two staffers would be ideal, as too many specialists could cause the group to lose focus.

"I've run across half a dozen or so organizations that I thought were doing this well, but that's it. Everybody else is flapping around," Siegel said. "There's some guy in networking who's somewhat interested in performance; another guy [in application development]. Occasionally they talk to one another, and that's not really it. The idea is this team gets pulled into all the major development and all the major architectural decisions."

Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) with fewer IT personnel may find a WAN application performance manager unnecessary, however, because their IT organizations are so small that networking pros work much more closely with other members of the organization.

Dan Putman is the information systems director for the city of Livonia, Mich., and he oversees the wireless WAN connecting the city government's two campus networks. He said his team of five IT pros already work together to evaluate any applications that may go over the WAN.

Given the IT team's size and existing review process, creating a new position or forming an advisory group to manage WAN application performance "isn't really a good fit" for them, Putman said.

"My staff would review any requirements for new applications, and if we found that they were not going to be a good fit, we'd be giving recommendations back to the requesting department. That's usually all it takes," he said. "If somebody felt [that] they had to have the application, we'd be looking at ways to change our network design to accommodate them, if necessary."

Culture, executive support key to WAN application performance group's success

Even if the networking team lobbies hard for a WAN application performance advisory group, their efforts can fizzle if they misjudge how the enterprise's corporate culture receives it.

"Culture eats strategy for breakfast. You could have the best strategy in the world, but if it doesn't fit in the corporate culture … this is not going to work," said Jim Metzler, vice president of Ashton, Metzler & Associates. "I'd rather deploy the most state-of-the-art technology than try to change the culture around."

Culture eats strategy for breakfast. You could have the best strategy in the world, but if it doesn't fit in the corporate culture … this is not going to work.

Jim Metzler
Vice President, Ashton, Metzler & Associates

Networking pros whose people skills are attuned to interacting mostly with other engineers will have a hard time selling the idea -- especially to the business half of the organization, Metzler said.

"In many cases, you have to prove your value," he said. "If you're building a relationship with anybody -- organizations, humans, anybody -- speak their language and be able to demonstrate what's in it for them if they work with you."

WAN application performance pros must also command respect and get executive-level support to ensure that they have the authority they need over different aspects of IT, Siegel said. A WAN management team in a large enterprise he worked with recently attempted to create this type of position only to see it die off because the lead engineer lacked clout, he said.

"As the various organizational groups within this enterprise discovered the fact that he was monitoring their systems, they would turn off his access,” Siegel said. “They couldn't see any good coming out of this. All they could see was this guy saying, 'Hey, that performance looks crappy.’ They have to be really tactful. They can't be some geek who goes in there and kicks the apple cart."  

Networking pros who have some application knowledge and management savvy are natural candidates for moving up into an advisory role, Siegel said. The position could create a new career path for WAN managers to move up in their organizations without having to move to the business side.

"The network has become the backplane of a multi-server computer system, so the networking people are in a key position," he said. "All that [a WAN manager] really has to add is an understanding of tuning issues inside some things like servers and applications…. But if you took a security guy or a development guy, there's probably a lot more [training] you have to add."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer.

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