How do tax war rooms operate?

By : |June 2, 2015 0
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MUMBAI, INDIA: Intuit develops financial and tax preparation software and related services for small businesses, accountants, and individuals.

Although it is best known for the TurboTax, Quicken, and QuickBooks product lines, the company actually has 170 business units and 800 applications. As it makes more applications available online, ensuring fast, flawless application performance over the Internet is critical to the company’s success. And that is where the challenge lies as well.

Challenges:
Performance: The company must succeed during two US tax season peaks. These are two-week-long periods when millions of people log on to TurboTax Online to do their taxes.

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The first peak comes in February, when people file for refund of their returns. The second is in April, when people who owe money file to meet the April 15 deadline.

To ensure that the TurboTax Online performs optimally, Intuit runs a tax war-room during those four weeks. The war room is staffed 16 hours a day with representatives from mission-critical vendor and group related to the delivery of the service.

Their task is to make sure that the software lives up to the company’s goal of having all Web pages paint in two seconds or less.

Hosting and data centers: Hosting the products such as TurboTax Online, QuickBooks Online, and Mint.com requires 17,000 servers. The company’s data center in Quincy, Washington has space for many thousands more.

This will also determine which applications will be moved to the cloud as the company re-architects more applications for delivery as software as a service (SaaS).

The solutions and implementation:
Intuit decided to consolidate its infrastructure. For that it deployed 24 SteelCentral AppResponse appliances for network-based application performance and user-experience monitoring, with Web Transaction Analysis (WTA) to measure response time at the page level.

It also opted for SteelCentral AppInternals software for enterprise-class application performance management (all licenses are currently dedicated to monitoring TurboTax Online). Besides, it procured SteelCentral NetSensor software for agentless infrastructure and synthetic monitoring.

Intuit also installed the SteelCentral Transaction Analyzer software for transaction trace-analysis and performance prediction; as well as the SteelCentral Dashboards Solution for performance analysis and Riverbed SteelCentral for end-to-end application visibility.

Across the organization, Intuit has approximately 72 tools for monitoring and managing some aspect of network or application performance. The Performance Analysis Services team’s preferred tool is the Riverbed SteelCentral solution.

Ted Turner, Senior Network Engineer, Performance Analysis Services, a part of Intuit’s Communications Services group, says he can troubleshoot from the war room, often identifying the root cause of an issue within minutes.

“I can provide that information on the fly in front of everyone,” he informs. “That gives the appropriate people what they need to resolve the issue.”

In addition to using the tools for troubleshooting, the Performance Analysis Services team uses Riverbed solutions for capacity planning and to aid in the conversion of legacy applications to SaaS, including support for mobile devices. The team is now working to share the visibility throughout the organization.

Preparing for the services:
Turner explains how the team was prepared for the change.

“We are a software company and the developers’ big question is, ‘Is the network getting in the way?’ We started a troubleshooting window on the network team to help developers dig in and identify if the issues were application-related or network-related. Then the team was created, and disconnected from the network to focus purely on building the application infrastructure.”

Additionally, three Riverbed Professional Services resident engineers are also on hand in the tax war-room to provide mission-critical support. Through the Technical Resident Service, Intuit has a flexible contract with Riverbed Professional Services that gives them one dedicated engineer throughout the year, with two more brought in during the tax season peaks.

The engineers lend their expertise in application performance management, continuous application monitoring, and hands-on mentoring to help other Intuit team members master the SteelCentral toolset. By coordinating directly with other vendors, the engineers help Intuit gain a complete picture of application performance across all solutions. This cross functional analysis improves communication and coordination in the war room, drastically reducing troubleshooting time.

Benefits:
Turner also performs on-the-fly troubleshooting during load testing, which uses a similar war room setup. On average, Turner says troubleshooting time has dropped by more than 80 percent because of how quickly he can identify root causes.

Turner also uses SteelCentral dashboards to roll up and blend performance data. His group publishes dashboards for each of the war rooms to actively identify and resolve problems.

“One of our goals is to set things up so that network operations center engineers, service delivery teams, and developers can self-serve all the things I’ve been doing,” says Turner. “The plan is to get to the point where other people can look at the data and solve the problems themselves,” he adds.

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