Thursday, February 20, 2014

Application Insights (A.I.), the Future is Now...

Although not a big fan of the moniker, I've been working with IT technology long enough to admit that the term 'geek' probably fits the bill just right for me. A quick definition lookup on the web for 'geek' throws up the following descriptions:

noun: geek
  • an unfashionable or socially inept person.

verb: geek
  • engage in or discuss computer-related tasks obsessively or with great attention to technical detail.
  • be or become extremely excited or enthusiastic about a subject, typically one of specialist or minority interest.

I'd like to think that the first description isn't applicable to me (although I'd say some of my friends would probably disagree with me on that one!). The second and third descriptions however, definitely come close to getting it right. When I come across a piece of technology that I'm passionate about, then you'll hardly get a word in when I get going on the subject!

This brings me to the reason for me putting this post together. If you've read even a handful of blog posts from me in the past, then you'll know that a lot of them are focused on Microsoft's System Center Operations Manager (SCOM) application. Delivered as part of the System Center 2012 R2 suite of Cloud and Datacenter management products, SCOM is their flagship tool for monitoring the health and performance of your IT environments and I've worked constantly with it for nearly 5 years.

During that time, I've seen SCOM develop into a truly heterogeneous platform monitoring solution that can span across on-premise and public clouds and the geek in me has well and truly ensured that I studied every piece of documentation, blog post and case-study on SCOM that I could get my hands on!

Herein lies the quandary for me now. When you work exclusively with the same product for a number of years, you begin to feel like you need something new to keep challenging you, and with SCOM, I sometimes feel like I've been there, wore the t-shirt and written the book on it. Don't get me wrong, it's a totally awesome product and I definitely won't be hanging up my unsealed management packs anytime soon! But there's no harm in working with something new and exciting (in an area that leverages the skills that I've learned from all those years of SCOM)....

Step forward Application Insights.

The Past

In the original release of SCOM 2012, we were treated to our first glimpse of Application Performance Monitoring (APM) which, in a nutshell, enabled IT Operations guys like me to bring deep-dive 'code-level' answers back to the table for Developers on how their applications were performing. This new synergy was known as 'DevOps'. A couple of years back, I wrote a short blog series about APM and it's a testament to the technology that today, this series is still one of the most visited on my site.

When SCOM 2012 Service Pack 1 was released, it came with an integration to a new technology called Global Service Monitor (GSM). What this essentially enabled us to do was to get an 'outside-in' perspective of our web applications by channelling monitoring information from the Windows Azure platform back into the on-premise SCOM environment. With APM and GSM integrated into SCOM, we were starting to see a picture forming of a full 360 Degree view of our applications health and performance.

The Present

In October 2013, System Center 2012 R2 was released and SCOM came with a small (but significant) number of infrastructure changes that added more flexibility and autonomy to the 'DevOps' story.

Around the time of that release, I presented a session at the System Center Universe Europe conference titled 'What's New in System Center 2012 R2 - Operations Manager'. One of the key takeaways that I wanted people to leave my session with was the change to the old  'Operations Manager Agent'. This old agent became the new 'Microsoft Monitoring Agent' which had new capabilities (on top of all the existing functionality) to run as a standalone agent separate to SCOM.  This could then be used as a .NET APM and Intellitrace collector plugging directly into IIS and Visual Studio.

The Future

The importance of the change to the old SCOM agent started to become apparent when Microsoft announced the preview of the new Application Insights technology that came bundled as a feature of the new Visual Studio Online - which is essentially an evolution of Team Foundation Server.

The reason the new SCOM Microsoft Monitoring Agent (MMA) is significant is that it's no longer exclusive to just SCOM. You guessed it - Application Insights also uses this same agent (it does however need to be running System Center 2012 R2 Update Rollup 1 which was just recently launched).

So what exactly is Application Insights?

It gives the various teams that have responsibility for the maintenance of an application (development, IT operations etc.), the capability to monitor the availability, performance, and even usage metrics of their applications and services. It does this by making use of the same type of technology that we have available through SCOM with Application Performance Monitoring (APM), Global Service Monitor (GSM) and the Microsoft Monitoring Agent.  All of this is managed from the cloud - so no need for a fully loaded desktop client or database to be deployed locally on your sites.

Here's some screenshots of AI in action:

AI GSM (Outside-In monitoring)


AI Usage Metrics

Information gathered from these different areas is then integrated back into the development tools and processes through Visual Studio to truly enhance the application lifecycle management process.


This introductory post on Application Insights kick's off a series of deep-dive posts that I've put together where I explain into how to deploy and manage your applications with it. You can check out the first post in the series here:

Application Insights Deep Dive Part 1 - Getting Started

Although AI is only in it's infancy as an emerging piece of armoury for your toolkit, it's definitely something to keep in mind if you want to feed the inner 'geek' inside you!

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