Washington University

Leading medical school monitors critical applications with AppDynamics

The Biomedical Informatics division at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine serves the needs of researchers and investigators at one of the most prestigious medical schools in the country. Its applications provide access to millions of patient records from affiliated hospitals, as well as data on tissue samples, clinical studies and patients outside the university's network. This data needs to be available instantly to meet the needs of intensive cancer research projects.

Challenge: Struggled to anticipate performance challenges without access to sensitive data

One of the university's most important applications was an electronic repository that included 5.5 million records of patient data from several affiliated hospitals. Researchers at Washington University with funding from the National Institute of Health and National Cancer Institute used this application to identify patient records for their research studies. For these researchers, the application's performance and availability were critical - faster data collection allowed more time for potentially life-saving analysis.

Bijoy George, Biomedical Informatics Program Manager at Washington University in St. Louis, was responsible for the uptime and availability of many applications in the Biomedical Informatics division, including the clinical data repository application. The development team that created and supported these applications were not allowed access to the sensitive patient data they managed. That meant their QA environment couldn't estimate the load the application would carry in production, and affected their ability to anticipate performance problems.

“The application would be running fine, but then all of a sudden it would take more than a minute for a page to load,” George says. “Because the developers don't have the data in high-volume, they couldn't reproduce some of the performance issues.”

Performance exceptions identified early with AppDynamics

Soon after AppDynamics application performance management (APM) platform was deployed, George was able to find the bottleneck that his team had long searched out. By analyzing the path of the application's key business transactions, he could see that all of the time was being spent in a slow database call. He showed this data to the development team.

When they saw the call stack analysis, the programmers went ‘Bingo!' and were able to solve an issue that had plagued us for a long time.

“When they saw that, the programmers went ‘Bingo!' and we were able to fix it.” The page that took minutes to load was displayed within seconds. “Without AppDynamics, I doubt whether even now we would have found the issue.”

George's favorite feature of the AppDynamics APM solution is its built-in alerts. “I set up exception monitoring, and the tool immediately alerts me if there is a problem,” he said. “Out-of-Memory exceptions usually happen when a new user tries to do something with the wrong search parameters. With millions of patient records in the database, a string of bad searches like this can essentially cause serious issues.” With alerts in place, George was able to identify potential performance problems before they occurred.

Washington University also liked the ability to provide fine-details related to the execution of a single business transaction. This allowed George to quickly triage a performance problem down to the class and method level. “Without the AppDynamics platform, it's hard to see even what the method does, unless you're a programmer. But with AppDynamics, we can find out which method is taking the most time and drill down into the details. It's really helpful in finding issues.”

Reduced response time from weeks to minutes

Before AppDynamics, George's team would spend days and even weeks on troublesome performance issues. With AppDynamics APM, the time to find root cause has been reduced to a matter of minutes.

The AppDynamics solution provided George and his team at Washington University a high-level of visibility into their informatics applications, as well as method-level detail into performance problems. The combination of alerting and deep-dive diagnostics allowed George's team to respond quickly to issues.

With AppDynamics, we can find out which method is taking the most time and drill down into the details. It's really helpful in finding issues.

With the AppDynamics platform, George and his team were able to ensure that the physicians and researchers working on important projects could access the data they needed as fast as possible.

“We no longer waste time in meetings and on phone calls trying to identify application issues,” George concludes. “We're very thankful to AppDynamics.”