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Ten Questions to Avoid a Classical Business War Room Scenario

Make sure you have the real facts available in order to get through these situations as fast as possible

I personally don't like the term "War Room" when describing a firefighting situation that many software companies have to deal with when systems go down or have problems. The way these war rooms typically play out is that key personnel (engineers, operations, business) are summoned into a room until the problem is solved. This was the case back with the Apollo 13 mission and still is now when we look at the famous Facebook war room from Dec 2012:

The War Room back then - And Now: Not a whole lot different

What's the problem with these pictures? There are a lot of people in the room that have no clue whether the problem on hand is actually something they can fix or are responsible for. All of these people are summoned without first figuring out which people should look at the problem. Why is that? Because the collected "evidence" in the form of infrastructure monitoring data, log files, user complaints, etc., just shows symptoms but doesn't tell us anything about the actual impact and root cause of issues:

Would you know whom to bring into a war room based on these "facts"? Would you want to be one of them?

Looking at the previous image, it is hard to tell which people need to get in a room. Do we just need an Ops guy to restart the process that consumes all of the CPU? Or do we need an application expert that sifts through log files? Do we need to contact our mobile solution provider because it is an actual problem in the 3rd party mobile native app? The typical MO is to simply call-in everybody to figure out the root cause of the problem and with that pulling critical resources from other important projects without even knowing if these folks can actually help solving these problems. How can we change this? By asking the right questions first!

The 10 Real Questions to Ask
You don't need nice and shiny dashboards that show you an aggregated overview of twitter statuses, infrastructure health or insight into slow application transactions. You need data to answer the following questions - whether it is presented in nice dashboards or log files doesn't really matter:

Having answers to these 10 questions avoids calling too many people in a war room and improves handling of critical application problems

1. Is an individual user complaining?
Is it "just" the CEO that complains about a problem with your newly deployed internal app because a report doesn't work on his old IE6? Or is it "just" the end user in a remote location that still uses dial-up? Knowing whether a problem just happens for a single or a very small group of users is important to prioritize.

Analyzing the problem of the complaining user lets us assess whether it is a problem related to just "that" user, e.g, using an unsupported browser version, slow network connectivity,...

2. Are "all" users impacted?
If a large number of users are impacted but you may not have individuals that really complain about it you still need to know as it is very critical to you fix any problems that impact a large number of your users?

Having the evidence that a large number of people in a certain region, using a certain browser or a certain device makes it easy to prioritize this issue

3. Is the problem in the application?
The next question, after knowing whether users are impacted or not, is to figure out if the problem is in the application or not. This allows us to call in the application experts, architects and developers if needed. Looking at the performance distribution gives us an overview where our hotspots really are:

Where are the performance and problem hotspots? Is it really the application? Or do we need to involve other teams?

4. Is there a problem in the delivery chain?
Modern web applications rely on a long list of services along the delivery chain that lies outside of our own data center. That includes CDNs, third-party services, ISPs or mobile networks. Knowing the status of these services and their impact on end user performance of our own application allows us to answer whether to look into our own data center or calling up Akamai, Facebook & Co:

Do CDNs or other third-party services experience any performance issues and is that the root cause of our complaining users?

5. Is one uncritical transaction impacted?
When the error rate goes up - is it a critical transaction such as search? Or is it rather uncritical such as the Contact Page. Or is a BOT causing lots of errors because it crawls through pages that do not exist anyway or that require authentication and with that skews the overall error rate?

Analyzing which transactions drive the error rate may show you that these are not critical because either caused by a BOT or on pages that are not business critical

6. Are critical transactions impacted?
What if your critical transactions are impacted such as the landing page, login, search, or entering a ticket in your support system? These are critical transactions to you, your end users, or your colleagues that need to use the back office software for their daily tasks. If these are impacted you need to act fast. Therefore it is important to monitor these critical transactions on failure rate as well as performance. If these are impacted it is more important to act than other transactions that are not vital to your business - and - you also know which subject matter experts to call:

Monitoring your critical transactions allows you to identify problems on those areas that are critical for your business

7. Is the problem related to bad coding?
If application response time is getting slower, the first question is whether it is because of bad coding. Analyzing the performance hotspot to the code level can tell you whether most of the time is spent because of inefficient algorithms or just not following coding and architectural best practices:

Throwing thousands of exceptions to control program flow is not a good coding practice and also impacts performance

8. Does the infrastructure cause an issue?
What if it is not the app itself, but the app is running low on resources provided by the infrastructure? What if the CPU required to run the Garbage Collector is not available because the machine also runs lots of other services on an already over utilized machine? In that case it is time to think about the infrastructure - better distributing these applications and services or scaling the infrastructure:

Where does the memory shortage come from? Does it impact other processes on that machine? Which processes to move to a different machine?

9. Is the AppServer the issue?
Depending on the AppServer you are using you have multiple configuration options to optimize the usage for your environment. The question remains whether the AppServer might be responsible for performance issues caused by an incorrect setting or corrupt deployment. Correct resource pool (threads, database connection, ...) sizing, security settings or logging options can impact the performance. If it turns out that the AppServer is the problem contact your IBM, Oracle, Microsoft ... specialist:

A global synchronized logging feature of IBMs WebSphere caused this performance issue which can be resolved through configuration settings in the AppServer

10. Is the problem in the virtual machine?
Leveraging virtual compute power - whether it is from your local running VM server farm or running in one of the cloud providers - provides lots of flexibility. But it can also be the reason for performance problems if the virtual machines are not properly sized or are battling for resources with other virtual machines on the same virtual server. Knowing the impact of virtualization on the application allows you to call in the VM experts and not the app developers to solve a problem:

Understanding what is going in EC2, Azure or your VMware ESX Server allows you to figure out whether the virtualize environment is the root cause

Have an Answer to These Questions?
Now that you have an idea about the right questions to ask before you call a war room session together - or before you accept a call into such scenario, you can start focusing on preventing these sessions. Whether you are a developer, architect or on the business side, make sure you have the real facts available in order to get through these situations as fast as possible by calling in the RIGHT people and giving them the RIGHT data to analyze.

Better than spending time in War Rooms however is to prevent the number of times these situations come up. If you want to learn more about this check out some of the other blogs we recently wrote such as Performance-focused DevOps or - in case you happen to be getting ready for the holiday shopping season - Verify Readiness in Test & Pre-Production.

More Stories By Andreas Grabner

Andreas Grabner has been helping companies improve their application performance for 15+ years. He is a regular contributor within Web Performance and DevOps communities and a prolific speaker at user groups and conferences around the world. Reach him at @grabnerandi

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