AKF often recommends to our clients the adoption of business metric monitoring – the use of high-level user activity or transaction patterns that can often provide early warning of an incident. Business metric monitors will not tell you where or what the problem is, rather they tell you something appears to be abnormal and should be investigated. The early warning aspect can help reduce detection time and thus shorten overall MTTR.

At eBay, we had near real time graphs of user metrics such as bids, listings, logins, and new user registrations. The data was graphed week over week. Usage patterns throughout a day followed a readily identifiable pattern with peaks and valleys. These graphs were displayed in the network operations center, which was staffed 24x7. Deviations from the previous week’s pattern had proven useful, identifying issues such as ISP instability in the EU impacting customers trying to access eBay.

Everything seemed normal on a Wednesday evening – right up to the point that bids and listings both took a nose dive. The NOC quickly initiated the SEV1 process and technical resources checked their areas. The site had no identifiable faults, services were confirmed to be working fine, yet the user activity was still markedly lower. Roughly 20 minutes into the SEV1 process, the root cause was identified. The finale episode of American Idol was being broadcast. Our site was fine. Our customers had other things on their mind. The business metric monitors worked – they gave warning of an aberrant usage pattern.

The World Cup is the most popular football (soccer) event in the world, arguably the most popular sporting event worldwide. Broadcast matches draw huge audiences in the UK and the broadcast is typically aired without commercials until half time. There was a documentary on the UK electrical utility system preparing for a broadcast. As soon as half time commenced, a large proportion of the viewing audience visited the loo and hit the lever on their electric tea kettles. Thankfully, the documentary was about the electric utility and not sewage! The step function increase in load would cause significant problems for the utility, straining its ability to maintain voltage and frequency. The utility had prepared for this situation by staging “peakers” – diesel generators that can be brought online to help serve the increased load. Utility grid stability is akin to a Goldilocks Zone – too much is bad, too little is bad, just right is best. The operations center for the utility did not want to bring the generators on too early or too late. They needed real time information on their customers. The solution was to have a TV tuned to the World Cup broadcast in the operations center, enabling the engineers to stage on generators immediately prior to half time and stage them off as the load increase subsided. Being paid to watch the World Cup was certainly an unintended benefit!

How could your company react in a manner like the UK power utility? A sponsored event or viral campaign could overload your systems. Consider using elastic compute in the cloud for your peak demand – the equivalent to the diesel generators use for the World Cup. Scale up for the spikes in demand, then shut it down afterwards. Own the base, rent the peak. Use business metric monitors to detect workload shifts.