Last week we tuned into a webinar from Pantheon. The subject? A SaaS software for your CMS system called New Relic. Andrew Taylor, Agency & Community Engineer at Pantheon, and Narayan Newton, Partner & CTO at Tag1 Consulting, presented the webinar and took us through some of the interesting features New Relic can offer.

What is New Relic?

First of all, we should define what we’re talking about for those of you who have not heard of it. New Relic is a piece of software that can be used to monitor application performance. As long as your site is live (if it’s still in development, you will only be able to run tests), you can analyse the efficiency of your site, and how fast it will load on a visitor’s machine. Essentially, you can improve your Apdex rating.

Apdex? Did you just make that up?

Not at all. Apdex (short – very short – for Application Performance Index) is an industry standard to measure user satisfaction at web-loading and response times. The default Apdex rating for websites is three seconds, but it’s recommended you change this to a time more appropriate for your website. There’s a handy equation for those that don’t know their Apdex: satisfied requests (when the site loads up quickly) + half the number of the tolerated requests (when the site is slow but not frustrating), and divide that sum by the total number of requests. And there you have it – your Apdex score!
New Relic is an application performance monitor that tells you not just when your site is slow but where your site is slow. It focuses more on back-end performance (programs or applications designed to support front-end services), which are often overlooked in website optimisation. Many people believe front-end services, namely static assets, are the main cause of poor performance for users, but back-end issues take their toll on website usability as well. Back-end problems are ones that aren’t visible to the user but have debatably equal importance (although you wouldn’t think it to look on the web for five minutes).

So New Relic is about back-end issues?

Indeed. Keeping track of back-end problems is tricky but, according to the Pantheon webinar, New Relic is great for troubleshooting your site and can help pinpoint slow transactions to find out how many of your pages are performing slowly. When it’s helped you identify the problem pages, it will then give you a list of the different back-end transactions, how much data they are requiring and the speed of their transactions. When New Relic does detect unsatisfactory performance, it will send you an email to alert you.

OK, that’s nice, but how does that help me?

Well, once the problem has been identified, you can then go and take action. For instance, one common problem for page loading is an embedded widget. Many sites like to include their Twitter feed on their website, but a look at the load times of different transactions will show that those Twitter widgets are very demanding; every few seconds the site requests more information. So, having been able to pinpoint the problem in New Relic, a developer can then find a solution. In this case, one way to solve the problem is to cache the information so the widget isn’t sending information back and forth so often. You can use your CMS to ask the widget to refresh every couple of minutes, or whatever frequency best suits your site.

Something else worth noting is that New Relic also allows you to set transactions as ‘key transactions’. These are used for business-critical pieces of the application, such as the checkout page or performance-intensive items like searches. These are areas of your site on which you can’t afford to have poor performance, and being able to closely track them and make sure they’re performing up to expectation could have a drastic effect on your visitor retention.

So New Relic is everything I need for better optimisation?

Not quite. While the Pantheon talk was largely about the New Relic product they were hoping to promote, that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. It’s there to monitor far more than it is to fix anything. Increasing your Apdex is, for the most part, up to you. But knowing the problem areas is a big part of that. For instance, a Content Delivery Network (CDN) is a way of making sure your information doesn’t have to travel so far between your servers and the visitor’s computer. It does this by utilising servers around the world to store your cached files at locations closer to the user, offering faster speed. With a CDN you can also enable HTTP/2, which is an updated web protocol to give your site another speed boost. In order to have HTTP/2 you need to have HTTPS, which we talked about in our web security blog, so go check that out.

In conclusion, Pantheon’s webinar offered helpful ways to analyse and implement a strategy to improve the performance of your website. New Relic works as a helpful tool to study what is actually going wrong, but in order to actually fix any of those problems you might need to pay extra for additional features or plugins. But knowing your Apdex could be critical to your business’s success, so even if New Relic doesn’t interest you, it’s a good idea to have a strategy in place to improve it.

If you want to view the webinar from Pantheon, you can watch it below!