Review: 3 Web stack monitors in the cloud

Monitoring services from Boundary, Circonus, and Librato combine simple setup and richly different capabilities

It's 11 p.m. -- do you know what your Web stack is doing? Or not doing? If you're working for any serious firm, you have to know what's going wrong because the website is the front door, your mall presence, your receptionist, and your permanent booth in the big trade show called the Internet, all rolled into one. Even if the business is officially closed, insomniacs and people on the other side of the globe are going to come knocking.

The job of monitoring this public face is undergoing a transformation that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. At the beginning, programmers started writing their own scripts that would ping a few pages, then send a text message if something wasn't right. After that, companies started selling monitoring tools you would install in your data center. Now a number of companies are popping up to offer monitoring as a service. These solutions sit out on the Internet, watching your site and setting off alarms if something doesn't work.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Read Paul Venezia's post on remote monitoring and control systems, "Stay connected when disaster strikes." | Stay up on the cloud with InfoWorld's Cloud Computing Report newsletter. | Get the latest practical info and news with InfoWorld's Data Center newsletter. ]

In the past, companies simply didn't outsource monitoring. Oh sure, it might be worthwhile to have some agents ping your websites from around the world if you had a global presence. Otherwise, most enterprise managers wanted everything running in their own servers in their own racks safely behind their own locked doors.

The cloud has changed this. If your website is going to be knit together from a bunch of machines that may be anywhere, there's no real reason to insist on doing all of the monitoring from the same rack. Or if your Web application is going to live in the cloud, reacting to the traffic and load by growing and shrinking, it makes sense to consume monitoring services that can also grow and shrink with demand.

It's worth noting that watching your website to make sure it's up can also be accomplished with more traditional tools like New Relic and AppDynamics, which offer sophisticated agents that watch the entire Java stack. If you want to know which method is misfiring, the agents are tracking everything that's happening in the Java VM. Programmers often find it much easier to fix the problem when they can see what's going on in excruciating detail. But while that data is useful for the programmers, the rest of us often don't need it.

To get a feel for how the market is changing, I dug into four new monitoring packages -- Boundary, Circonus, and Librato's Metrics and Silverline -- that are delivered as a service. I set up a cloud of servers, installed some agents, and watched the pretty colored lines go up and down. While they all share a cloud-based delivery model, each takes a different approach to detecting problems.

Boundary doesn't drill down into your application, but watches the network traffic as it flows in and out of your servers. Just keeping track of these comings and goings can be surprisingly useful. A big, fat zero for some flows is a red flag that something is wrong.

Circonus offers a surprisingly large collection of "checks" that can probe your system and track its performance. You can deploy all sorts of metrics and standards to watch all of the most important parts of a Web app's performance.

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