Ups and downs of Azure monitoring (and a fuzzy BizTalk bear)

January 21, 2022

Over the next few weeks, we are going to do some interviews with Integration Specialists and IT managers to get to the bottom of what is important in Integration Monitoring. I have invited some of the best developers and managers to join me in my research. This interview is with Mikael Sand (Twitter, LinkedIn), who I unfortunately did not get to meet in person this time because he lives and works in Sweden. We did do a lot of talking on the subject and Mikael has given me the following answers.

What is your function and in what manner are you confronted with monitoring issues?

My role is one of the Azure CTOs for Enfo in Sweden. This means that I get to be involved in a lot of different technologies, services and projects based on Azure.

Monitoring is – and has always been – the core of the “what happens after the project” part of a project. I might be confronted with issues because of failed monitoring. The alarm was simply not raised.

What do you often encounter in terms of monitoring / what do you notice when working with customers?

Working with standard services in Azure, I often find that monitoring is easy and built right into the product, or of it is not, it can easily be added to the solution. The best case for built in monitoring is Logic Apps, and example of the latter might be Azure Functions with Application Insight.

Customers always assume things can easily be monitored for errors, but often ask for additional functionality, such as searching for an order. This functionality needs to be built for each project.

What should every IT manager know before starting with integration within an organization (what do you often hear back from customers)?

There are a lot of things to know before starting. I think the most important is the organization’s ability to work together between different departments. A lot of organizations are silos of “marketing”, “production”, “finance” etc. Integration tends to work across silos and therefore it can be very hard to get people to cooperate. Not because they are mean but because they are not used to it.

The next thing to know is who to talk to. Getting to know who actually gets stuff done. Sometimes the official way of doing things is not the most efficient and then you need to know who to contact.

Lastly, I also think that it is important for the organization to know the integration manager. I spent a lot of time at one of my clients, just explaining to people what we do and how we could help them achieve their goals. It really paid off, both in how we were perceived but also in our ability to get answers quickly, as people knew who we were.

With what purpose are monitoring tools often used (which customer requests are involved, is a goal always specific)?

A lot of things. I think the sense of control, order and opening the otherwise black box of BizTalk or the integration platform, is the main purpose. They want to know what is happening.

Another thing that I frequently come across is the demand for presenting the information in a way that is valid for that person or role. A person monitoring a service needs to know technical details, whereas the IT-manager needs traffic-lights level of the whole.

In what scenario is monitoring most often used, first-line monitoring (functional) vs. second-line monitoring (technical)?

It is very hard to say really. Both are used a lot, but my guess is in favor of the functional monitoring as that is always used. Everyone needs to be able to handle errors.

What is missing in the current monitoring solutions?

Every product has its unique features and drawbacks. Some fail under heavy load and many BizTalk applications, another might need a graphical update and yet another might need stronger technical support.

A mode for “I just want it to work” might be one thing that is missing, and as always nice graphical, personalized, presentations of how the platform is feeling. The emphasis here should really be on personalized.

Can you share an example(s) of a downtime incident that caused problems?

It was some years ago when a solution for a hospital basically filled the entire diskspace with logging and backup data, resulting in a complete halt of the entire platform. The error message basically said: BizTalk will now halt until you can solve the issue of diskspace in the database.

The most pressing problem was that patients orders for medicine could not be transferred to pharmacies.

After about 30 minutes of intense searching and debugging we simply made the disk space for the backups bigger, the backups could run, and the logs was cleared, making the database work again.

The estimated damage was unknown, but the incident happened over night and we solved it early in the day. I think most people never noticed.

It is hard to say that a monitoring tool might have solved this out of the box. If we had something that would look for disk usage and looking at table sizes growing alarmingly, then perhaps we could have realized what was about to happen. We had disk space monitoring bit that was handled by another team that was not in contact with us.

Do you have a customer that extracts business intelligence / analytics from their IT systems in general, and integrations environment specifically?

Currently, only to a small extent. The client is using the integrations to monitor the number of orders and compare that number to the number of orders according to suppliers and customers.

They extract the data using custom built monitoring and the number of files on a cloud storage. One upside of building things is that you can start small and see what might be needed later, compared to buying a tool that you might not end up using that much.

How do you see Azure and the current development towards the cloud? BizTalk vs. Logic Apps?

I welcome it, since I have seen how much has happened in the Logic Apps space in the last two years. Initially my feeling was “this will be good when it’s done”, but now it has been for a while. This does not only show in usage but also in what things we want added to it. It used to be connectors but now the wishes are for features that points to a more mature usage of the product.

BizTalk will always be there, like the warm fuzzy bear you can come home to hug but I left BizTalk behind two years ago and I do not want to go back.

How do you see the future of integration and how should monitoring solutions adapt to this?

The emerging technologies related to integration will blur the lines even more in what is integration and what is not. On top of that I see a future where we layer integrations, building on top of other integrations and services. These might be handled by different departments or even different suppliers.

This points to a monitoring tool that can reflect that, either by being able to monitor across platforms and suppliers or by illustrating boundaries of responsibility. I am looking at pictures of webs of streams of information from old sci-fi art and thinking that might be a good way to illustrate activity.

How do you see the demands on IT systems getting more complex, and how are you coping with this?

I am not sure it is getting more complex, but if we assume it is, then I think that a lot of CIOs need to understand what to use and show restraint. You always need to be able to show what a technical feature will add to an organization and how it can fit current models of monitoring and support.

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BizTalk and Azure integration consultant, technical writer and #aimsperformancepro.

Eva De Jong

BizTalk and Azure integration consultant, technical writer and #aimsperformancepro.

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