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Monitoring the User Experience

Brad Reinboldt, Senior Product Manager, Network Instruments

One of the great challenges of network administrators is monitoring user experience. It's become something of a buzzword, with management telling the network team to do it, without any actual indication of what they want. Without clear direction, it's nearly impossible to know what metrics will be meaningful, and then how to configure monitoring solutions to produce useful data. And yet the overall goal of everything IT does is to enable the user to better access the resources needed to be productive. Users won't care if they have state-of-the-art endpoints if they perceive the experience to be slow. Clearly, quantifying users' perception of the services which they are utilizing is vital for IT to fulfill its mission.

In order to determine what factors are most significant in monitoring and managing the user experience, IT analysts at NetForecast conducted a survey of 364 IT managers. Based on the survey results, there are five important metrics that performance monitoring solutions should look to in order to produce a clear picture of the user experience.

  1. Page response time
  2. Query response time
  3. Number of transactions processed
  4. Traffic flow data
  5. Server errors

The first metric is the end user's page response time. This is a measure of the time required for the original request to be processed. It could be measured by placing a probe near the client to measure the turn time and validate the processing of the request. An example would be the duration from a request for a website and when the content is displayed on the user's client.

Next is the server query response time. This is the application-server side counterpart to page response time. Application-specific visibility is necessary in order to assess detailed response times and view transactions. Continuing with the website example, this might be the time the web server waits until it is able to construct the entire URL contents.

The total number of transactions processed is also an important metric. During a specified time period, measuring the volume of transactions is useful to see if they are too high, which results in transactions being caught in the queue. This in turn leads to errors and causes issues such as the client processing the request again. Excessive transactions can materially impact individual user experience.

Another advantage of having application-specific visibility is being able to measure traffic flow data. Data can be collected about each conversation showing the flow by application, including such details as packets, bytes, connections and request details. Understanding the traffic flow mix and amount on a network can provide invaluable indirect information into how distinct users may currently perceive usability. Perhaps more important, it can provide insight into trends that may eventually impact users if remedial action is not completed.

Finally, server errors themselves provide useful information. Details of the history of packet captures and application transaction details show server conditions, and this visibility shows when errors result from a higher number of requests than the server can handle. Too many server errors can ultimately impact users' overall service delivery experience.

metrics that provide insight into the user experience include network latency (RTT), server utilization, network availability and bandwidth utilization. Excessive quantities of any of these or in combination with the above discussed parameters can impact users.

Employing Best Practices in Monitoring
A large part of the picture, in addition to monitoring the application data and general network conditions, is the infrastructure supporting the system. Admins should look for solutions that will provide several key features in monitoring the network and proactively managing traffic.

  • The underlying components that support user applications should be monitored to ensure proper application delivery.
  • Baselining gives IT a long-term view and a starting point to assess when performance is higher or lower than expected.
  • The user experience isn't for end users alone. IT should have a single dashboard through which network activities can be monitored and managed, providing an at-a-glance problem identification.
  • Video performance is increasingly important as telepresence calls replace face-to-face meetings. Network administrators should validate unified communications performance, including VoIP analysis, to ensure satisfied users.
  • Endpoint resources can be used more efficiently if monitoring activities are conducted entirely by the network probe, which reduces overhead.

By finding the right network monitoring solution and working to improve the user experience within the organization, network administrators can make the most out of their bandwidth and computing resources, reduce expenses and more easily resolve issues that arise to keep the business running smoothly.

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