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Why Performance Engineering? Why Performance Engineers?

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This chapter from Foundations of Software and System Performance Engineering: Process, Performance Modeling, Requirements, Testing, Scalability, and Practice describes the importance of performance engineering in a software project and explains the role of a performance engineer in ensuring that the system has good performance upon delivery. Overviews of different aspects of performance engineering are given.
This chapter is from the book

1.1 Overview

The performance of a computer-based system is often characterized by its ability to perform defined sets of activities at fast rates and with quick response time. Quick response times, speed, and scalability are highly desired attributes of any computer-based system. They are also competitive differentiators. That is, they are attributes that distinguish a system from other systems with like functionality and make it more attractive to a prospective buyer or user.

If a system component has poor performance, the system as a whole may not be able to function as intended. If a system has poor performance, it will be unattractive to prospective users and buyers. If the project fails as a result, the investment in building the system will have been wasted. The foregoing is true whether the system is a command and control system, a transaction-based system, an information retrieval system, a video game, an entertainment system, a system for displaying news, or a system for streaming media.

The importance of performance may be seen in the following examples:

  • A government-run platform for providing services on a grand scale must be able to handle a large volume of transactions from the date it is brought online. If it is not able to do so, it will be regarded as ineffective. In the United States, the federal web site for applying for health insurance mandated by the Affordable Care Act, healthcare.gov, was extremely slow for some time after it was made available to the public. According to press reports and testimony before the United States Congress, functional, capacity, and performance requirements were unclear. Moreover, the system was not subjected to rigorous performance tests before being brought online [Eilperin2013].
  • An online securities trading system must be able to handle large numbers of transactions per second, especially in a volatile market with high trading volume. A brokerage house whose system cannot do this will lose business very quickly, because slow execution could lead to missing a valuable trading opportunity.
  • An online banking system must display balances and statements rapidly. It must acknowledge transfers and the transmission of payments quickly for users to be confident that these transactions have taken place as desired.
  • Regulations such as fire codes require that audible and visible alarms be triggered within 10 seconds of smoke being detected. In many jurisdictions, a building may not be used if the fire alarm system cannot meet this requirement.
  • A telephone network must be able to handle large numbers of call setups and teardowns per second and provide such services as call forwarding and fraud detection within a short time of each call being initiated.
  • A rail network control system must be able to monitor train movements and set signals and switches accordingly within very short amounts of time so that trains are routed to their correct destinations without colliding with one another.
  • In combat, a system that has poor performance may endanger the lives or property of its users instead of endangering those of the enemy.
  • A medical records system must be able to pull up patient records and images quickly so that retrieval will not take too much of a doctor’s time away from diagnosis and treatment.

The foregoing examples show that performance is crucial to the correct functioning of a software system and of the application it controls. As such, performance is an attribute of system quality that presents significant business and engineering risks. In some applications, such as train control and fire alarm systems, it is also an essential ingredient of safety. Performance engineering mitigates these risks by ensuring that adequate attention is paid to them at every stage of the software lifecycle, while improving the capacity of systems, improving their response times, ensuring their scalability, and increasing user productivity. All of these are key competitive differentiators for any software product.

Despite the importance of system performance and the severe risk associated with inattentiveness to it, it is often ignored until very late in the software development cycle. Too often, the view is that performance objectives can be achieved by tuning the system once it is built. This mindset of “Build it, then tune it” is a recurring cause of the failure of a system to meet performance needs [SmithWilliams2001]. Most performance problems have their root causes in poor architectural choices. For example:

  • An architectural choice could result in the creation of foci of overload.
  • A decision is made that a set of operations that could be done in parallel on a multiprocessor or multicore host will be handled by a single thread. This would result in the onset of a software bottleneck for sufficiently large loads.

One of the possible consequences of detecting a performance issue with an architectural cause late in the software lifecycle is that a considerable amount of implementation work must be undone and redone.

This is needlessly expensive when one considers that the problem could have been avoided by performing an architectural review. This also holds for other quality attributes such as reliability, availability, and security.

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