15 Top Factors that Impact Application Performance

What is it that drives the need for Application Performance Management (APM)? What are the main factors that can negatively impact application performance? What should you be looking out for? That is what this new APMdigest list reveals.

Many of the APM industry's top experts — from analysts and consultants to users and the top vendors — offer their perspective on the root causes of application performance problems.

These factors are not listed in order of importance. Some of the categories overlap. Some of the categories could actually be considered subsets of the other categories. Some of the quotes could fit into multiple categories. But the bottom line is that the list accomplishes the goal: to provide a broad picture of the many factors out there impacting application performance.

On this list you will see a wide range of impacts from the applications themselves, to the environment and the network, to the people behind those applications. What this list really shows is that all of these factors must be considered when managing application performance.

I think Julie Craig, Research Director, Application Management, Enterprise Management Associates (EMA) said it best in her response: “When trying to pin down the top factors impacting application performance, the right answer is that there is no right answer ... the source of a performance problem could be almost anywhere!”

“Almost anything that touches an application either improves or degrades performance,” she adds. “Determining whether that is infrastructure, code, data, the network, the application architecture, the endpoint, or another application is the name of the game — and the big reason why APM solutions are so valuable.”

The following are the industry's top 15 factors that impact application performance:

1. Application Complexity

Today’s enterprise applications are increasingly a large collective of distributed software components and cloud services that enable complex business services. With so many moving parts, something’s always bound to have the chance of impacting performance, even with a resilient architecture. Complexity – and the fact that all these components are monitored in different silos – also makes it hard to manage a business service or application as a whole, which also impacts performance. But it’s the reality of today’s enterprise application and monitoring architectures.
Nicola Sanna
President and CEO, Netuitive

Application complexity is one of the biggest factors impacting application performance. Today’s applications and services, particularly those delivered via the Web, are a mosaic of components sourced from multiple places: data center, cloud, third-party, et al. While the customer or employee looking at a browser window sees a single application, multiple moving parts must execute in the expected manner to deliver a great end-user experience. Maybe the Web server and app server are running fine, but if the database is faltering, user experience will suffer. Being able to measure and keep tabs on all those moving parts is the challenge and requires an APM tool that can provide a view into the performance of all the parts, not just individual components. As the saying goes, “The more moving parts, the more that can go wrong.”
Jason Meserve
Product Marketing Manager, CA Technologies

2. Application Design

One of the biggest factors that impacts application performance is design. Performance must be designed in. When applications are specified, performance goals need to be delineated along with the details of the environment the applications will run in. Often development is left out of this and applications are monitored, analyzed and “fixed” after they are released into production. This never works as well as when performance is one of the key goals of the application design before a line of code is written.
Charley Rich
VP Product Management and Marketing, Nastel Technologies

One of the biggest impacts to application performance is caused by companies outsourcing/subcontracting their application development outside of their company and their quality control domain. Application quality and performance needs to be built into the application platform and cannot be an afterthought or something that “we’ll fix later”. The subpar app performance that is accepted in the development phase is bound to manifest itself in the production stage. Modern APM solutions capture this poor performance, but can’t provide the cure. The only way to prevent poor app performance is to expose your app development to the rigorous quality controls and processes early on in the application lifecycle — and actually fix them early in the cycle.
Petri Maanonen
Sr. Product Marketing Manager for HP Application Performance Management

From my perspective the biggest factor affecting application performance today is poorly optimized code and infrastructure, such as suboptimal SQL queries, poorly configured network infrastructure, or inefficient code algorithms at the application layer. All of these problems can be difficult to isolate, and the emphasis on DevOps processes can cause these issues to multiply quickly by increasing the rate of change in the data center. Because of this it is important to adequately tool the data center to monitor and report on all aspects of a deployed application using code level instrumentation, EURT and network performance tools, and traditional IT infrastructure monitoring solutions.
Rick Houlihan
VP of Engineering, Boundary

3. Application Testing

Today's applications are often developed in simulation labs without testing performance on real-world networks. Before applications are deployed, transport across today's highly distributed network architectures should be monitored and optimized.
Doug Roberts
Managing Director of Product Strategy, Fluke Networks Visual

Insufficient testing of the application in the actual production environment and under varying conditions impacts performance. Tied to that is for developers and testers to have a clear understanding of the non-functional performance criteria.
Michael Azoff
Principal Analyst, Ovum

Agile release cycles — the reality is that less than 5% of developers performance test their code before it is pushed to production. The “make it work” over “make it perform” mantra is one of the biggest factors that impacts application performance today. Most organizations don't have the time, resource or budget to replicate production environments in test for every agile release, this is why a growing trend of customers have started to test in production out of working hours. When you consider that the codebase of an application changes several times per month, you can begin to understand why performance anti-patterns and bottlenecks make their way into production.
Stephen Burton
Tech Evangelist, AppDynamics

4. The Butterfly Effect

It’s the "Butterfly Effect" in IT, which theoretically describes a hurricane's formation being contingent on whether or not a distant butterfly had flapped its wings weeks before. Sensitive dependence on environmental conditions where a small change at one place (Dev env.) can result in large differences to a later state (Production). It’s possible that a small innocuous code change could go undetected, being promoted through each Dev/QA environment, and then have catastrophic effects on performance once it reaches production. The environmental variants need to be minimized and closely monitored to prevent the anomalous events. I'm suggesting that it is not necessarily the number of features or technical stamina of each monitoring tool to process large volumes of data that will make an APM implementation successful — it's the choices you make in how you put them together to support the multiple environments within IT.
Larry Dragich
Director of Enterprise Application Services at the Auto Club Group

Click here for more on the Butterfly Effect in IT

5. The Infrastructure and Components of the Application Service

Application performance is impacted by componentry used to deliver the service to the user, the user’s interfaces with the application, and the connectivity between these components. The variance and complexity is what makes the problem hard to solve, and often causes approaches to fail on given architectures.
Jonah Kowall
Research Vice President, IT Operations Management, Gartner

Applications are distributed by nature, and unless the underlying infrastructure is responsive on all the different components of the application service, the entire application service is impacted.
Vikas Aggarwal
CEO, Zyrion

Without a doubt, third-party web components are among the biggest factors impacting web application performance today. To deliver the functions and features online visitors expect, websites and web applications are actually a composite of your own resources plus numerous third-party web components. These include content delivery networks (CDNs), site search functions, shopping cart and payment processing functions, ad networks, multiple social network connections, ratings and reviews for gathering feedback and web analytics. Today, the average website includes components from eight or more different hosts, and a slowdown for any one service can degrade performance for an entire website or web application. If anything goes wrong (and inevitably it will), only one party will get the blame: you, as the primary website owner. Organizations leveraging third-party web components must adopt an end-user focused approach to APM, in order to better identify and fix performance problems associated with third-party services beyond one’s own firewall.
Stephen Pierzchala
Technology Strategist, Compuware APM's Center of Excellence

One of the most critical factors that affect application performance, and often the hardest to identify and track, are application dependencies – on supporting applications, as well as the underlying system and network components that connect them all together. With the advent of virtualized servers and networks, the complexity of the application delivery infrastructure has increased significantly, and so the challenge is finding an application performance monitoring solution that can automatically discover and monitor the network and server topologies for the entire application service.
Brian Jacobs
Senior Product Manager, WhatsUp Gold suite of network and application management products by Ipswitch

Today's distributed applications — particularly for large organizations — can have thousands of individual connections stretching across many tiers and even reaching outside services. We've moved beyond simple 3-tiered web applications into complex distributed applications (made up of load-balanced web and application servers, multiple layers of middleware and databases, storage arrays, mainframe transactions, and even outside services). In this world, problems are no longer concentrated in application code — instead they are randomly distributed throughout the application infrastructure. Just this week, we've seen LDAP, anti-virus, database, firewall, and DNS misconfiguration all create application problems; and that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Chris Neal
CEO and Co-Founder, BlueStripe

As applications tie together more and more disparate services, both internal and external, they become exposed to new opportunities for failure. These interactions are the single biggest source of performance and availability problems for applications. Not only does a bad link in the chain — say, an unresponsive external API — generally mean a key part of the app is unavailable, but in fact, most systems are architected in such a way that timeouts cascade to bring down the entire environment. A failed request means a bad experience for a single user; a stalled request ties up resources in services shared by many users, which in the worst case means total system failure.
Dan Kuebrich
Director of APM Product Management, AppNeta

6. The Network

Network latency and bandwidth is king for any application that isn't local (remote workforce, customer facing website, web applications, etc.). Monitoring network bandwidth and web application performance from multiple locations helps isolate the problem to the network tier.
Jennifer Kuvlesky
Product Marketing Manager, SolarWinds

The network on which the application is used impacts performance tremendously, especially for mobile and cloud. Inconsistent bandwidth, high jitter, increased latency and packet loss all work to degrade application performance. While you might not be able to control mobile or most cloud networks, you can build and test apps with these network conditions in mind. This gives organizations the best chance to optimize app performance before the network impacts are felt by users.
Dave Berg
Vice President of Product Strategy, Shunra

Bandwidth Bottlenecks are a big problem as it causes network queues to develop and data to be lost, impacting the performance of applications. My advice is to keep tabs on the number of devices, users and new applications utilizing the network.
Jim Swepson
Pre-Sales Technologist, iTrinegy

7. The Dynamic IT Environment: Virtualization and the Cloud

Applications today are an intricate mesh of multi-tier software running on servers, networks, and storage. In addition, there is a good chance they are running on virtualized hardware that is shared with other applications. It is very challenging in this dynamic environment to understand what will impact your application performance as it requires intimate knowledge of your ever-changing application structure at any given moment. Many IT organizations are very advanced on the application side but unfortunately still struggle to move beyond managing applications via a silo approach to the different technology tiers – application, server, network, storage, etc. This is why many organization will experience application performance issues without any useful tools to help them to resolve the problems. Only an application performance management tool that uses a unified, cross-domain view of the application and its supporting infrastructure components – with an accurate run-time update of their fast-changing inter-dependencies – can ensure highly available and optimally performing systems.
Ariel Gordon
CTO and Co-Founder, Neebula

Virtualized environments — from the desktop layer to applications and the underlying infrastructure — are becoming too complex to troubleshoot with traditional silo tools. Too many isolated metrics and alerts that don’t make much sense and confuse administrators. The next generation of APM requires awareness of performance across all virtual and physical domains from the desktop to the datacenter and cloud, presented in an intuitive dashboard. Equally important are capabilities to proactively alert admins before users call and complain about slow apps. And not only alert about general issues but with smart auto-diagnosis that points right to the root cause so that admins can quickly restore performance levels without spending days troubleshooting.
Srinivas Ramanathan
CEO, eG Innovations

The modern application is complex and a single transaction trace can sprawl across many layers in a virtualized, cloud world – a perfect storm impacting application performance. This growing complexity impacts application performance from the end user experience all the way back through transactions, the application layer, application infrastructure, and IT infrastructure.
Paul Brady
Sr. VP and GM of Riverbed Performance Management

The rapid rise of communications and content via the Cloud among increasingly dispersed employees seeking to better serve customers and collaborate with their peers and partners will have the greatest impact on application performance.
Jeffrey Kaplan
Managing Director of THINKstrategies and Founder of the Cloud Computing Showplace

8. Mobility

One of the biggest factors we see is the acceleration of mobility and IT consumerization, which will propel the ongoing shift in application architectures required to deliver the most dynamic, modern mobile end user interfaces.
John Newsom
Executive Director, Application Performance Monitoring, Dell

Mobile usage numbers are soaring, which is certainly having an impact on application performance. Users have multiplied as they engage more often using a variety of devices.
Gregor Rechberger
Product Manager, Performance Testing, Micro Focus

9. The Web Browser

TRAC’s 2013 APM Spectrum shows that the Web browser is the key blind spot for gaining true end-to-end visibility into application performance. With new approaches to application design and the increased usage of Web Services, the ability to monitor the processing that takes place within the browser has become one of the key requirements for full visibility into application performance.
Bojan Simic
President and Principal Analyst, TRAC Research

10. Configuration Changes

Application performance has been impacted severely by what is now known as the "chronic change and configuration management challenges" – a big data problem with lack of actionable insight into changes in the IT environment. A typical application includes hundreds of thousands of different configuration parameters and is subject to numerous changes. The volume, velocity, and variety of configuration changes overwhelm IT operations. This is especially true when considering that any minute misconfiguration can cause a high impact application performance and availability incident.
Sasha Gilenson
CEO, Evolven

11. Peak Usage

One of the most important factors that affect application performance is poor understanding of how the application will be used (i.e. how many people will simultaneously use it and for what kind of transactions), and the corresponding application architecture and its scaling assumptions that go into its design and deployment. This lack of understanding real user transactions and performance manifests itself as bottlenecks in performance during the most critical peak usage period.
Pratik Gupta
IBMDistinguished Engineer and Director of APM and Analytics

One of the biggest factors impacting application performance is that today’s applications are essentially like one-gear bicycles without gears to shift for different terrain. By enabling clients’ applications with performance “gears,” our industry can have a much more positive impact with applications and business performance. Just like today’s bicycles can shift gears depending on the challenge, applications should be able to rev up during peak user spikes or to deliver a premium user experience – maybe even by target customer or transaction types. They should be able to downshift to conserve resources when demand is low. To make this functionality work, APM technology should, at a minimum, provide a governor or feedback loop to the app regarding end user experience and internal app/infra operations.
Ray Solnik
President – US Operations, Appnomic Systems

12. People: Communication

My vote goes to “a failure to communicate.” Not to steal from Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. There are many good technologies out there, but as APM has evolved to become more than an introverted, single-domain discipline, sharing information effectively will require an investment in dialog. This will include next-step process awareness, so that key stakeholders are identified and know who each other are, and clear avenues for optimizing their collective insights. But it also requires, in many organizations, a cultural and often a political shift to promote a willingness to step beyond traditional boundaries and ways of working. As it matures, social media should also help. But no single technology will count more to promote effective APM than a revitalized and intelligent willingness to communicate across roles. Without it, most technology investments are wasted, or at least poorly optimized.
Dennis Drogseth
VP of Research, Enterprise Management Associates (EMA)

Today's application environments have become so complex that there is no single individual in the IT organization that understands all that is required to effectively deliver that application at the performance level the business expects. Crowd-sourcing and peer review of human knowledge combined with existing systems-based knowledge is the only way to fill in the gaps and ensure the organization can benefit from the knowledge everyone collectively possesses to ensure the needed quality of service.
Matthew Selheimer
VP of Marketing, ITinvolve

13. People: Skills

In my view, the single biggest factor that impacts application performance is people. Once you correctly align your resource aptitude, skill sets, and knowledge to your application portfolio and equip them with the tools and knowledge to be successful, applications and environments flourish. In the fitness world, they say diet is everything. Why not apply that same rigor to your organization? Satisfy your companies appetite for high availability, business continuity, rationalized portfolios, predictive environments and analytics through the targeted and thoughtful process of feeding your best and brightest with knowledge and support! In return, you’ll gain all that you require to mold yourself into a lean and mean organization, able to meet the toughest challenges.
Clark Cunningham
Practice Executive, Unisys Application Managed Services

14. The Unknown Unknowns

The Unknown Unknowns include unanticipated application behavior (e.g. "We never expected 80% of our users to be using mobile devices!"), unanticipated load (e.g. "Who would have guessed we'd get a traffic spike of 600% during the summer?") and unanticipated user behavior (e.g. "We didn't expect users to keep hitting that button.") Application architects plan for the known-knowns and QA checks for the known-unknowns. But APM is critical for the unknown-unknowns that eventually impact application performance.
Russell Rothstein
Founder and CEO, IT Central Station

15. Lack of Proactive Monitoring

A lack of visibility impacts application performance. Given today's complex and dynamic operational environments, traditional management tools are unable to provide a complete picture of application heath, availability and risk. As more organizations move toward hybrid and converged compute environments, it becomes challenging to provide complete visibility across internal and external resources. Organizations need management tools that provide a single pane of glass view across all IT assets and workloads, regardless of where they reside, to ensure critical business applications are always available and running at peak performance.
Julia Lim
VP Marketing, ScienceLogic

Lack of proper end-to-end monitoring can prevent IT from comprehending the health and capacity situation of critical applications. Finally, these applications can reach a point where they can no longer be stable, leading to degradation in performance or even downtime.
Arun Balachandran
Sr. Marketing Analyst, ManageEngine