Web application performance tuning

Introduction into website performance management

This is short introduction into website performance improving concept from the hardware, software and application perspectives. While there are other indicators of how web site performs (SEO, ROI) here we will talk specifically about analyzing web site speed, most important parts of the website, which can hog you down and especially about large web applications, which are designed to be scaled continuously in the future. While this article concentrates specifically on web sites, provided rules can be used to analyze any kind of project.

It is simple, but takes time

There are three basic ingredients of successful scaling of web application: analysis, clear action plan according to data from the analysis, execution of the action plan according to action plan and not deviating from it. Then the loop starts again.

Before we will dig deeper in those three phases - we have to make some important points:

It is ongoing periodic work, not one time fix every change must be measured and its impact documented for the future it is not about Linux performance tuning (or FreeBSD, windows - any operating system), apache, mysql or other software components of the application - the main thing on which you will concentrate most efforts is your website.

Analyzing the enemy – approaching the battleground

This is starting point and it is very important one – you always need to analyze your systems to know what is going on and why. Like spies before entering foreign country, you must analyze what resources do you have, how they are used, what are main bottlenecks, is it specific to your application or is it well known limitation with software tools you are using. It is so important - that we will stress it again - you need to know where you are before you are going somewhere else in the future.

In the first stage of analysis you need to have at least general view of your application components DOCUMENTED - it can be a picture from whiteboard or six hundred specification documents - your call, but it is a must to have. If you currently do not have it – make it, you will find interesting and important things while doing it (for example – that there is no one person, who knows everything). Every time you will want to analyze and improve web application - you will be bringing the document with you and showing it to other people for them to understand, make comments and improve it. In the document you must have information about components used, software, servers, and flows between various parts of application.

The best practice is to start this document when application is being designed and constantly updates if anything changes. Simplicity and clear view is the key here. Schematics with every small detail will provide you too much information. Generally it is suggested to have a diagram in one page, which you could hang on the wall for everyday usage. If you don't have such overview of your web applications - there is no point to read more. You need to make it before reading more.

Still here? Now let's start with real time performance monitoring. In this part you have very clear view on what resources you have and how they are bound together, but you do not have any idea how do they perform and what are important things to consider - you have an understanding about what car you are driving, why wheels are important, but you still don't have dashboard with indicators. From the performance point of view there are three simple groups:

  • How is hardware being utilized - maybe some servers are overloaded, but others are doing nothing?
  • How fast are components of your application and application itself - what is the status of database, image processing scripts, and page generation times - which are the slowest components?
  • How we correlate performance with systems status - here we will combine system resource usage statistics with web site counters - how many users, how many pictures served and other interesting things real time, so we can conclude what is needed to provide service to users.

Steps to be implemented for real time data gathering:

Choose monitoring solution, which is suitable for your need

Choose monitoring platform. You can go with Nagios, Zabbix or any other tool available. According to chosen indicators above - some tools will already provide means to gather the data without custom scripting. Some of the parts will have to be scripted in house though.

Choose what is important to monitor and what is not

Choose indicators you will want to follow, here is the list of the most common:

  • CPU usage
  • Memory usage
  • Disk input/output
  • Network utilization
  • Page load times
  • User sessions
  • Web server requests per second
  • Web server cpu usage
  • Database query count (read/write queries separately)
  • Database index usage, cache usage and other information, which could be taken from database statistics.
  • Any other counter, specific for your application (i.e. - pictures uploaded, videos streamed, etc)

Review periodically gathered data

Plan weekly reviews of all data gathered and make sure that everyone attending has clear understanding on how to interpret values.

From this point of view your car has dashboard and you know if it is speeding, has enough gas to run or not, is electronics working, seatbelts are on etc - it is much easier to spot a problem now and to take care of it.

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