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Spherion cuts costs, boosts application performance with Foglight

Spherion was experiencing a lot of application performance issues with its PeopleSoft payroll processing application, but implementing the Quest Foglight APM tool made a world of difference.

When staffing and recruiting company Spherion first rolled out its PeopleSoft applications several years ago, it "had a lot of performance issues," according to application infrastructure manager Raj Bahra.

For a staffing company, the performance of the payroll processing application is particularly important. Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Spherion has 650 locations in the United States and Canada and employs more than 230,000 people annually through its network. According to Bahra, Spherion needed to process, calculate and print paychecks on Tuesday nights and get them out the door on Wednesday mornings. "If we were delayed, we had to use a premium courier service or the temporary employees would not get paid."

But the company was experiencing application performance issues. They'd start the processing at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, and "at one point we didn't finish until Wednesday at 2 p.m." Bahra said. The result? Paying the courier $60,000 every time they ran late, he said.

They were also hearing about performance issues from end users, Bahra said. Spherion is not unique in this regard. According to a 2008 Advisory Note from Enterprise Management Associates, "The most common way IT finds out about application-related problems is (still) via telephone calls from users, and this percent¬age is up approximately 10% from two years ago. … Over the past two years, the percentage of application-related problems reported by users (versus detected by technology) has risen from 43% to 54%."

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Spherion's IT group has about 80 employees, both in-house and outsourced. About 25% are developers, Bahra said. They are running the older PeopleSoft 8.2 Human Resources and 8.4 Financials, Front Office and Procurement apps, all highly customized and running on IBM AIX, with some components running on Windows NT.

Spherion tried addressing the performance issues by using the Tivoli ITM monitoring software that came bundled with the AIX system the company purchased at the time it bought PeopleSoft, Bahra said. While ITM was a capable product, he said the associated learning curve and required investment in resources was too great for Spherion at the time.

To capture and track application performance issues, Spherion went on to evaluate products from BMC Software, Quest Software and a newer version of ITM. Spherion chose Foglight from Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based Quest. "It came down to the cartridges [Quest Foglight had] to do PeopleSoft monitoring," Bahra said. "With the modules we can just plug in and we had the logic and intelligence to monitor our PeopleSoft implementation."

That was about three years ago. At the same time, Spherion implemented Quest's Stat application change management product. Since the PeopleSoft applications are customized, Bahra said, "we were looking for a quick and easy way to handle code management and migration from development to QA, from QA to production and from production to post-production." Spherion's database team was already using Quest's Spotlight and Toad tools for database performance monitoring and development/admin, respectively.

Foglight provided the visibility and insight needed to find and chase down application performance issues. A lot of issues "translated to network lag issues," he said, "So using Foglight, we monitored the user experience to see what the end user was doing and the workload it was putting on the system." The database team, he said, used the historical information Foglight provided to tune the environment.

And the payroll issue? Spherion was able to fix it after monitoring performance with Foglight. "We did use Foglight in conjunction with the database administration tools to chase down code issues and send [that information] back to app dev for improvement," Bahra said. "Using Foglight gave us the insight to ensure we meet our SLA [service-level agreement]."

Once they were comfortable with Foglight, they started using it to predict where the next issue might be, he said.

Spherion also conveyed what it found to PeopleSoft (which has since been acquired by Oracle). "Some of the performance improvements [PeopleSoft was] able to incorporate into patches," he said.

After early success with the PeopleSoft applications, Bahra said they expanded the use of Foglight to monitor some utility applications used in conjunction with PeopleSoft, as well as some non-PeopleSoft applications, which are a mix of third-party and custom-developed apps.

One application utilized an index and searching product from Microsoft in conjunction with PeopleSoft, which allows recruiters to find potential employees based on resume credentials. Spherion developed a cartridge to monitor the resume search tool, which was performing poorly. Since it was a third-party application, "we had no control over the source code. We used Foglight to better scale the underlying architecture for that implementation. Foglight made [the application] more reliable so recruiters were more productive."

Spherion is now also using Foglight for SharePoint in conjunction with Microsoft Operations Manager. And recently Spherion used Foglight to help consolidate infrastructure. "We decreased the number of premium IBM servers on the floor. [Foglight] delivers a fairly significant cost savings as part of support and maintenance as well."

For other organizations looking for an application performance management/monitoring (APM) tool, Bahra has this advice: "The key is ease of use and rapid delivery. There are a lot of products out there. Get something on the floor quickly that can get a lot of success quickly."

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