Perfecting app performance

To manage application performance, Evolution Benefits starts right at the source -- the code itself. "We sell our performance and uptime," explains Sean Erwin, vice president of application development for the U.S.-based company.

Evolution Benefits sells a prepaid benefits card, called Benny, for employers to offer as part of their benefits programs. When employees sign up for a Flexible Spending Account or some other tax-favored benefit, they can use Benny to pay for eligible out-of-pocket and other expenses. The card payment system debits the payment from the appropriate accounts. "Employees no longer must pay for services, submit claims, and then wait for reimbursement," he describes.

As part of this process, a company's benefits administrators must be able to access the back-end application -- a .Net/Web services-based Web portal called Benny Central -- at will. "Performance and uptime are key drivers in enabling benefits administrators to support employees," he says.

Via Benny Central, benefits administrators can use various tools to set up the prepaid cards for employees, provide customer service and automatically substantiate transactions per Internal Revenue Service guidelines, he says. Monitoring application performance at the code level was the only way to guarantee uninterrupted, real-time access to Benny Central.

The company gets our nod as a 2006 Enterprise All-Star for going above and beyond on application performance. Since this platform wrapped up in late 2005, application downtime has been eliminated while management-related costs are down by one-third. "Our app has to be up 100 percent of the time," Erwin says. "We needed a tool that could monitor performance and identify problems quickly - and not just the problem, but what the user was doing when it occurred. We needed to put the problem in context."

Evolution Benefits turned to AVIcode's Intercept Studio, a specialized .Net application-monitoring tool. Intercept Studio agents, installed on machines running .Net applications, monitor the applications for performance degradations, code failures, and security and connectivity problems. AVIcode's .Net Management Pack software sends exceptions from Intercept Studio into Evolution Benefits' Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM) system. From MOM, it gets a view of all exceptions, including those not generated from the application, Erwin says. It receives alerts through MOM, then uses AVIcode's Intercept SEViewer to work the issue in real time, he adds.

At the development level, Intercept Studio has reduced operating costs associated with the bug-fix queue by 25 percent to 30 percent, Erwin says. In production, the tool points out performance issues before the application becomes unusable, resulting in 100 percent uptime since deployment. "We can specify, 'If this part takes more than two milliseconds, then notify us,'" says Aaron Junod, the senior application developer who architected the Benny Central Web services. And the monitoring has no affect on the back-end infrastructure, he says.

The transparency is important, he notes, because traffic is growing steadily and he does not want any drag on processing. In March, for example, the company handled about 900,000 individual Web services calls, a 30 percent to 40 percent jump from February. Through August, the company has seen monthly increases of 10 percent to 20 percent, he adds.

Evolution Benefits has invested less than US$500,000 in this piece of its application performance strategy. It recouped that cost in the first six months following deployment, Erwin says.

Equally as important, the 100 percent uptime has resulted in an auto-substantiation rate of more than 80 percent, he says. This is a competitive advantage, Erwin says. "This gives us among the highest substantiation rates in the industry."

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Beth Schultz

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