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What is Application Performance Monitoring (APM)?

Ayooluwa Isaiah
Updated on April 30, 2024

Application Performance Monitoring (APM) is the practice of tracking and managing how well software applications perform in production. It uses special tools and data to keep tabs on things like how fast an application responds, how reliable it is, and how it uses up system resources.

Think of APM like a doctor for your applications. Just as a doctor monitors your health with checkups and tests, APM tools constantly check the 'vital signs' of your applications to ensure that they're always meeting their service level objectives.

A brief history of APM tools

The rise of complex internet applications revealed a crucial gap: existing tools were blind to how well the software was actually serving users. Pioneers like Wily Technology addressed this need with innovations such as bytecode instrumentation.

This technique injected monitoring logic into running applications, enabling them to track user requests without requiring developers to manually modify application code. Although Wily focused on monolithic Java applications, this marked the birth of true application-level performance monitoring.

As monoliths gave way to interconnected services (SOA), tracing became even more complex. Companies like Dynatrace and AppDynamics revolutionized APM by extending monitoring to communication between applications. Their tools could follow transactions across distributed systems, providing a much more complete picture of performance. Continuous refinement of instrumentation techniques became critical, striking a balance between data richness and acceptable overhead.

New Relic, founded in 2008, popularized the Software-as-a-Service model for APM. By targeting cloud environments and simplifying the setup process, SaaS lowered the barrier to entry for organizations. However, early concerns around data privacy initially made SaaS adoption slower within larger enterprises. These concerns eased over time due to the shift towards cloud computing, although they remain a factor in highly regulated sectors.

Why is Application Performance Monitoring important?

Traditional server monitoring focused on the basic health of individual machines, such as if a server was up, had enough disk space, or wasn't overheating. While important, this offered a limited view of how well applications were actually serving users.

Modern applications are far more complex, often consisting of interconnected components spread across various systems. This reliance on distributed services means issues could arise from sources traditional server monitoring wouldn't detect. APM addresses this by directly tracking how applications perform from the user's perspective – measuring response times, error rates, and how efficiently they use resources.

This focus on user experience is essential as slowdowns or glitches in your applications can lead to irritated users, a bad reputation, and lost revenue. By implementing APM practices, you can stay one step ahead and catching these problems before they cause serious trouble.

What do APM tools measure?

APM provides visibility into a wide range of metrics and data points critical to understanding application health, performance, and user experience. These are usually divided into two categories:

1. Application-level metrics

  • Response time: How long it takes the application to respond to user requests. Slow response times directly impact user experience.
  • Error rates: The frequency of errors or crashes. This helps identify code problems or misconfiguration.
  • Request rates: The volume of user requests coming in. Understanding patterns helps with capacity planning and pinpointing traffic spikes that may overwhelm your systems.
  • User interactions: Track how users interact with features within your application. This reveals areas where the experience might be slow or clunky.
  • Availability/uptime: Monitors whether the application is online and accessible to users.
  • Code-level performance: Advanced APM tools can pinpoint bottlenecks within specific functions or lines of code, helping developers target optimizations.

2. Infrastructure metrics

  • Server CPU and memory usage: Tracks CPU and memory demands of the application.
  • Disk read/write speeds: Monitors how fast data is accessed from storage. Slow storage often slows down applications that rely on databases or file I/O.
  • Network bandwidth: Analyzes network traffic to identify potential bottlenecks or congestion issues affecting data flow and application performance.
  • Instances: For cloud-based applications, APM tracks how many instances of applications or services are running.

How Application Performance Monitoring works

A successful APM strategy employs a suite of specialized tools to keep tabs on how your applications are running from both the end-user's perspective and deep within the code itself. These tools provide different layers of insight:

1. Distributed tracing

Distributed tracing allows you to follow a user's request as it hops between different services and systems within your application. This reveals bottlenecks, errors, and dependencies that could impact the overall user experience. Advanced APM solutions include auto-instrumentation, reducing setup time, and many support the OpenTelemetry standard for flexibility.

2. Service inventorying

A service inventory provides an overview of all the components within your application, along with their key metrics, dependencies, and any active alerts. It often includes visual service maps, making it easier to see how different parts of your application interact.

3. Code profiling

Code profiling drills down, taking snapshots of your code as it runs. This pinpoints sections of code that consume excessive time or resources. Some tools offer various profiling methods (CPU, memory, I/O, etc.) for a more granular analysis.

4. Error tracking

Error tracking goes beyond counting errors. It groups related errors together, providing context to help track down the root cause. Smart error tracking tools even give you code-level details and a snapshot of variables at the moment the error occurred, speeding up problem-solving.

5. Database monitoring

Databases are often the heart of applications. Database monitoring digs deep, exposing how specific queries perform, how your database is designed, and even system-level metrics of the database server itself. This arms developers with the insights needed to ensure databases aren't contributing to slowdowns.

6. Digital experience monitoring (DEM)

This puts a magnifying glass on how your application performs from the perspective of the entity interacting with it, whether that's a human user or another software component. It focuses on metrics like how fast pages load, how quickly the application responds to input, and overall system reliability (uptime vs. downtime).

DEM typically uses two key techniques:

  • Real-user monitoring (RUM): RUM tracks the actual experiences of real users as they navigate your application. This provides invaluable insights into how your system performs in the real world.

  • Synthetic Monitoring: This involves simulating user interactions, allowing you to proactively test performance in different environments, both before and after new code is deployed.

Application Performance Monitoring vs Observability

APM provides a focused view of application performance like a health checkup that monitors vital signs. However, today's complex applications often require a more in-depth examination to pinpoint problems.

That's where observability enters the picture. Observability offers deep technical insights into the entire system, no matter how complex. While APM provides an overview, observability adds tools like distributed tracing to uncover the root cause of issues within vast, interconnected systems.

Think of it this way: Application Performance Monitoring is a crucial component within a broader observability strategy. To fully understand and manage modern applications, a comprehensive observability solution is often necessary.

Observability isn't simply a better version of APM; it's a shift driven by the unique complexities of cloud-based applications. It evolved from the need to unify what were once separate monitoring tools – APM, log management, infrastructure monitoring, and more. This unified approach is essential for understanding how the many moving parts of modern systems work together.

The benefits of application performance monitoring

Application Performance Monitoring offers a wide range of benefits that support your business objectives through ensuring a positive user experience. Some of the key benefits include:

1. Enhanced user experience

APM empowers you to identify and troubleshoot slowdowns or errors in your applications before they frustrate users. This translates to a smoother, more positive experience which is critical for customer satisfaction and business success.

2. Proactive problem solving

Unlike traditional monitoring that only reacts to outages, APM proactively identifies potential performance bottlenecks and issues. This allows IT teams to address problems before they snowball into major disruptions, minimizing downtime and its impact on users and business operations.

3. Faster issue resolution times

APM tools provides detailed data and insights into application performance. When issues arise, this data helps pinpoint the root cause quickly, enabling developers to resolve problems faster and get your applications back up and running swiftly.

4. Optimized resource utilization

APM tools track how applications use system resources like memory and CPU. This data helps you identify areas where resources are being wasted and optimize your infrastructure to reduce unnecessary costs.

5. Improved team collaboration

By providing a unified view of application performance across the entire technology stack, APM fosters better collaboration between development and operations teams. Developers gain valuable insights into how code changes impact performance, while operations teams can proactively address issues impacting application stability.

6. Data-driven decision making

APM allows you to assess the impact of new code and configuration changes in real-time. By monitoring key metrics before, during, and after deployments, you can quickly identify and roll back any changes causing performance degradation, enabling safe and reliable continuous delivery.

7. Scaling your application

By revealing how your systems behave under load, APM tools can highlight potential capacity bottlenecks. You can stay ahead of demand by making informed decisions about scaling infrastructure or optimizing code to ensure a seamless user experience as user volume grows.

Selecting the Right APM Solution

Given the complexities of managing application performance, it's crucial to choose a scalable solution that simplifies the process and aligns with your goals. Here's what to look for:

  • Comprehensive distributed tracing: Opt for a solution that captures 100% of your traces without sampling. This full visibility, tracing requests end-to-end across frontend and backend services, is essential for effective troubleshooting.

  • Dynamic service mapping: Modern systems change rapidly. Choose a solution that automatically maps your services and dependencies in real-time. This gives developers a clear, up-to-date picture of your application's structure.

  • Efficient code profiling: Avoid profiling tools that significantly slow down your production environment. Look for a solution that runs continuously with minimal overhead, providing code-level insights without compromising performance.

  • Intelligent alerting and insights: Machine learning can significantly streamline troubleshooting. Prioritize solutions that use AI to automatically pinpoint the root cause of issues and correlate performance problems across your system. This can save valuable time and resources.

By selecting a solution with these features, you'll be equipped to maintain optimal application performance and provide a seamless user experience even within complex environments.

Final thoughts

As businesses embrace cloud technologies and container-based systems, the risk of application downtime increases. This makes application performance monitoring vital for ensuring consistent software availability – crucial for any business, but especially SaaS models.

APM tools help DevOps teams understand how new code releases impact performance, security, and reliability. You can proactively address issues with alerts and automated actions triggered by specific performance patterns.

This guide likely improved your understanding of APM. By explaining its benefits for performance, user experience, and business growth, it highlights why APM is essential in your monitoring strategy.

The next step is simply choosing the right APM tool for your needs!

Author's avatar
Article by
Ayooluwa Isaiah
Ayo is the Head of Content at Better Stack. His passion is simplifying and communicating complex technical ideas effectively. His work was featured on several esteemed publications including, Digital Ocean, and CSS-Tricks. When he’s not writing or coding, he loves to travel, bike, and play tennis.
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