Walking the Walk – Gibraltar Moves You Down the PathBy
If you’ve read more than one or two articles from Reliable Systems you probably have gotten the sense that we worry a lot about how to make things just work. It’s that quality of anything where you get what you expect and what you need every time. It can be in an experience (like a fun drive down a country road) or a product. As a company if you can do this over and over you create a brand people develop a strong emotional connection to: Apple, John Deere, Starbucks…
When you want to create a product that just works, you need to get all of the details right – from packaging through to maintenance and upkeep. It’s not one thing that’s important, it’s all the things. We are often engaged by senior management within a client when things aren’t working, and there’s conflicting opinions on why. Usually along the path technology is being blamed: Not enough, not the latest thing, not someone’s favorite thing, not working. As we dig into the situation, rarely is the technology the dominant factor: More often, it’s how the technology is being integrated with the people and processes that all have to work together.
One of the first things we have to do in these engagements is to establish the real facts on the ground: What exactly are the problems in the system, who’s doing what with it, how many times. It comes down to establishing metrics to make sure time and attention are paid to the parts that make the biggest difference in the outcome. Armed with these facts in a form the business can consume it’s possible to create plans of action that deliver virtually regardless of budget.
So let’s make this easier
The biggest trick is then getting the facts you need on an ongoing basis, easily, and in a form that the business can consume. For over a decade we’ve been building instrumentation right into the systems we’ve worked on. We’ve created a variety of toolkits to make this easier over the years, refining them as technology and our experience has changed.
About 18 months ago we decided it was time to really invest down this path. We believe in routinely capturing key computer metrics along with whatever logging the application can do on its own. We won’t do a project without using a great logging system that includes a strategy for managing runtime exceptions. Now that we’re collecting all this data, we need to have a way of managing the raw data and turning it into valuable business data.
The challenge is that businesses don’t get up in the morning and say “what our customers want us to do is have great internal tools”, so you’re nearly always doing this on the cheap: Borrowing time from development projects internally to cobble together various free or cheap solutions. Frankly, we got tired of having to create new solutions with each client out of the margins of each project. So, we pooled our best thinking from all of the work we’ve done (including a previous product that we did license to our clients over the past decade called CLAS) and started creating Gibraltar.
Rock Solid from Initial Release
With Gibraltar we wanted much more than a log system. Of course, it had to be a log system too – and a really easy to use one that could work with each of our client applications. More than that, it had to:
- Automatically capture all of the performance metrics we wanted.
- Integrate with existing logging available on the platform, including whatever a client might already be doing (like custom in-house options)
- Be absolutely, positively, for sure safe to run in production no matter what. That means it can’t ever use too much disk space or disk throughput or block the application.
- Not use more than 5% of the performance of the app
- Include all of the tools necessary to get data from where it was collected to the people that could get value out of it
- Include the ability to look at the detailed session data up to high level analysis: What’s the error rate? What’s it correlate to? Are we doing better or worse in this version?
From this initial sketch into everything we wanted, we’ve spent 18 months including four beta periods (from 2-4 months each) to refine the vision with real customers and real scenarios. It was essential to us that this not be just a tool for techies but be ready for use by people with a wide range of skills. It had to be pretty and just do what you wanted, when you wanted it to.
We’ve added a lot of capabilities along the way: It can generate print-ready reports about application reliability that can communicate with senior management, you can define all kinds of custom metrics to easily track how your application is used and by whom. We ran a number of betas to be sure that we had hit every goal we have above. We’re happy to report that Gibraltar is in use within large deployments of custom applications, commercial applications, and small deployments right down to our corporate web site.
This tool isn’t for everyone – Our clients are nearly all Windows shops, and if they do any custom development it’s almost invariably in .NET, so that’s what we’ve targeted. But, if you’re interested in easily getting real data on not just infrastructure (how well the application is running) but whether or not it just works, have we got an easy path for you. You can see a quick demo video of how it works technically at Gibraltar Software.
You also don’t have to take my word for it at all, you can hear what one of our beta users did with it, which is really a more compelling story than what we might say.
I think you’ll find that our work sweating a lot of little details, from the exact design of the API and making sure the documentation was complete to rewriting our own licensing system to be very IT Admin friendly. If we didn’t get a detail right, we want to know. And the great news is that we’ve just begun: We’re obsessed with the little things, and you can bet we’ll keep listening and watching to make it better. Of course, this is made a lot easier because we’re using Gibraltar to monitor itself, and a select group of our users is sending that information back to us so we can make sure it just works in the field for real people.
It’s easy to start your journey
If you do development for Microsoft .NET, I’d encourage you to go over and download our commercial release of Gibraltar. You’ll get great documentation, a free agent you can use like a flight recorder “black box” in every application you create, and a trial for a tool that will make you seem wise beyond your years. And if you pay us the ultimate honor and purchase a permanent license, I can assure you that you won’t find anyone more committed to your satisfaction than we are.
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