Adobe Flex Authors: Matthew Lobas, PR.com Newswire, Shelly Palmer, Kevin Benedict

Related Topics: Java IoT, Microservices Expo, Adobe Flex, Machine Learning , Apache

Java IoT: Article

Why Averages Are Inadequate, and Percentiles Are Great

Averages are ineffective because they are too simplistic and one-dimensional

Anyone who ever monitored or analyzed an application uses or has used averages. They are simple to understand and calculate. We tend to ignore just how wrong the picture is that averages paint of the world. To emphasis the point let me give you a real-world example outside of the performance space that I read recently in a newspaper.

The article was explaining that the average salary in a certain region in Europe was 1900 Euro's (to be clear this would be quite good in that region!). However when looking closer they found out that the majority, namely 9 out of 10 people, only earned around 1000 Euros and one would earn 10.000 (I over simplified this of course, but you get the idea). If you do the math you will see that the average of this is indeed 1900, but we can all agree that this does not represent the "average" salary as we would use the word in day to day live. So now let's apply this thinking to application performance.

The Average Response Time
The average response time is by far the most commonly used metric in application performance management. We assume that this represents a "normal" transaction, however this would only be true if the response time is always the same (all transaction run at equal speed) or the response time distribution is roughly bell curved.

A Bell curve represents the "normal" distribution of response times in which the average and the median are the same. It rarely ever occurs in real applications

In a Bell Curve the average (mean) and median are the same. In other words observed performance would represent the majority (half or more than half) of the transactions.

In reality most applications have few very heavy outliers; a statistician would say that the curve has a long tail. A long tail does not imply many slow transactions, but few that are magnitudes slower than the norm.

This is a typical Response Time Distribution with few but heavy outliers - it has a long tail. The average here is dragged to the right by the long tail.

We recognize that the average no longer represents the bulk of the transactions but can be a lot higher than the median.

You can now argue that this is not a problem as long as the average doesn't look better than the median. I would disagree, but let's look at another real-world scenario experienced by many of our customers:

This is another typical Response Time Distribution. Here we have quite a few very fast transactions that drag the average to the left of the actual median

In this case a considerable percentage of transactions are very, very fast (10-20 percent), while the bulk of transactions are several times slower. The median would still tell us the true story, but the average all of a sudden looks a lot faster than most of our transactions actually are. This is very typical in search engines or when caches are involved - some transactions are very fast, but the bulk are normal. Another reason for this scenario are failed transactions, more specifically transactions that failed fast. Many real-world applications have a failure rate of 1-10 percent (due to user errors or validation errors). These failed transactions are often magnitudes faster than the real ones and consequently distorted an average.

Of course performance analysts are not stupid and regularly try to compensate with higher frequency charts (compensating by looking at smaller aggregates visually) and by taking in minimum and maximum observed response times. However we can often only do this if we know the application very well, those unfamiliar with the application might easily misinterpret the charts. Because of the depth and type of knowledge required for this, it's difficult to communicate your analysis to other people - think how many arguments between IT teams have been caused by this. And that's before we even begin to think about communicating with business stakeholders!

A better metric by far are percentiles, because they allow us to understand the distribution. But before we look at percentiles, let's take a look a key feature in every production monitoring solution: Automatic Baselining and Alerting.

Automatic Baselining and Alerting
In real-world environments, performance gets attention when it is poor and has a negative impact on the business and users. But how can we identify performance issues quickly to prevent negative effects? We cannot alert on every slow transaction, since there are always some. In addition, most operations teams have to maintain a large number of applications and are not familiar with all of them, so manually setting thresholds can be inaccurate, quite painful and time-consuming.

The industry has come up with a solution called Automatic Baselining. Baselining calculates out the "normal" performance and only alerts us when an application slows down or produces more errors than usual. Most approaches rely on averages and standard deviations.

Without going into statistical details, this approach again assumes that the response times are distributed over a bell curve:

The Standard Deviation represents 33% of all transactions with the mean as the middle. 2xStandard Deviation represents 66% and thus the majority, everything outside could be considered an outlier. However most real world scenarios are not bell curved...

Typically, transactions that are outside two times standard deviation are treated as slow and captured for analysis. An alert is raised if the average moves significantly. In a bell curve this would account for the slowest 16.5 percent (and you can of course adjust that); however; if the response time distribution does not represent a bell curve, it becomes inaccurate. We either end up with a lot of false positives (transactions that are a lot slower than the average but when looking at the curve lie within the norm) or we miss a lot of problems (false negatives). In addition if the curve is not a bell curve, then the average can differ a lot from the median; applying a standard deviation to such an average can lead to quite a different result than you would expect. To work around this problem these algorithms have many tunable variables and a lot of "hacks" for specific use cases.

Why I Love Percentiles
A percentile tells me which part of the curve I am looking at and how many transactions are represented by that metric. To visualize this look at the following chart:

This chart shows the 50th and 90th percentile along with the average of the same transaction. It shows that the average is influenced far mor heavily by the 90th, thus by outliers and not by the bulk of the transactions

The green line represents the average. As you can see it is very volatile. The other two lines represent the 50th and 90th percentile. As we can see the 50th percentile (or median) is rather stable but has a couple of jumps. These jumps represent real performance degradation for the majority (50%) of the transactions. The 90th percentile (this is the start of the "tail") is a lot more volatile, which means that the outliers slowness depends on data or user behavior. What's important here is that the average is heavily influenced (dragged) by the 90th percentile, the tail, rather than the bulk of the transactions.

If the 50th percentile (median) of a response time is 500ms that means that 50% of my transactions are either as fast or faster than 500ms. If the 90th percentile of the same transaction is at 1000ms it means that 90% are as fast or faster and only 10% are slower. The average in this case could either be lower than 500ms (on a heavy front curve), a lot higher (long tail) or somewhere in between. A percentile gives me a much better sense of my real world performance, because it shows me a slice of my response time curve.

For exactly that reason percentiles are perfect for automatic baselining. If the 50th percentile moves from 500ms to 600ms I know that 50% of my transactions suffered a 20% performance degradation. You need to react to that.

In many cases we see that the 75th or 90th percentile does not change at all in such a scenario. This means the slow transactions didn't get any slower, only the normal ones did. Depending on how long your tail is the average might not have moved at all in such a scenario.!

In other cases we see the 98th percentile degrading from 1s to 1.5 seconds while the 95th is stable at 900ms. This means that your application as a whole is stable, but a few outliers got worse, nothing to worry about immediately. Percentile-based alerts do not suffer from false positives, are a lot less volatile and don't miss any important performance degradations! Consequently a baselining approach that uses percentiles does not require a lot of tuning variables to work effectively.

The screenshot below shows the Median (50th Percentile) for a particular transaction jumping from about 50ms to about 500ms and triggering an alert as it is significantly above the calculated baseline (green line). The chart labeled "Slow Response Time" on the other hand shows the 90th percentile for the same transaction. These "outliers" also show an increase in response time but not significant enough to trigger an alert.

Here we see an automatic baselining dashboard with a violation at the 50th percentile. The violation is quite clear, at the same time the 90th percentile (right upper chart) does not violate. Because the outliers are so much slower than the bulk of the transaction an average would have been influenced by them and would not have have reacted quite as dramatically as the 50th percentile. We might have missed this clear violation!

How Can We Use Percentiles for Tuning?
Percentiles are also great for tuning, and giving your optimizations a particular goal. Let's say that something within my application is too slow in general and I need to make it faster. In this case I want to focus on bringing down the 90th percentile. This would ensure sure that the overall response time of the application goes down. In other cases I have unacceptably long outliers I want to focus on bringing down response time for transactions beyond the 98th or 99th percentile (only outliers). We see a lot of applications that have perfectly acceptable performance for the 90th percentile, with the 98th percentile being magnitudes worse.

In throughput oriented applications on the other hand I would want to make the majority of my transactions very fast, while accepting that an optimization makes a few outliers slower. I might therefore make sure that the 75th percentile goes down while trying to keep the 90th percentile stable or not getting a lot worse.

I could not make the same kind of observations with averages, minimum and maximum, but with percentiles they are very easy indeed.

Averages are ineffective because they are too simplistic and one-dimensional. Percentiles are a really great and easy way of understanding the real performance characteristics of your application. They also provide a great basis for automatic baselining, behavioral learning and optimizing your application with a proper focus. In short, percentiles are great!

More Stories By Michael Kopp

Michael Kopp has over 12 years of experience as an architect and developer in the Enterprise Java space. Before coming to CompuwareAPM dynaTrace he was the Chief Architect at GoldenSource, a major player in the EDM space. In 2009 he joined dynaTrace as a technology strategist in the center of excellence. He specializes application performance management in large scale production environments with special focus on virtualized and cloud environments. His current focus is how to effectively leverage BigData Solutions and how these technologies impact and change the application landscape.

Comments (1) View Comments

Share your thoughts on this story.

Add your comment
You must be signed in to add a comment. Sign-in | Register

In accordance with our Comment Policy, we encourage comments that are on topic, relevant and to-the-point. We will remove comments that include profanity, personal attacks, racial slurs, threats of violence, or other inappropriate material that violates our Terms and Conditions, and will block users who make repeated violations. We ask all readers to expect diversity of opinion and to treat one another with dignity and respect.

Most Recent Comments
rtalexander 11/21/12 12:58:00 AM EST

Hey, could you post a reference or two that covers the theory and/or practicalities of the approach you describe?


@ThingsExpo Stories
DXWorldEXPO LLC, the producer of the world's most influential technology conferences and trade shows has announced the 22nd International CloudEXPO | DXWorldEXPO "Early Bird Registration" is now open. Register for Full Conference "Gold Pass" ▸ Here (Expo Hall ▸ Here)
"We are a well-established player in the application life cycle management market and we also have a very strong version control product," stated Flint Brenton, CEO of CollabNet,, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 18th Cloud Expo at the Javits Center in New York City, NY.
In his session at @ThingsExpo, Arvind Radhakrishnen discussed how IoT offers new business models in banking and financial services organizations with the capability to revolutionize products, payments, channels, business processes and asset management built on strong architectural foundation. The following topics were covered: How IoT stands to impact various business parameters including customer experience, cost and risk management within BFS organizations.
Here are the Top 20 Twitter Influencers of the month as determined by the Kcore algorithm, in a range of current topics of interest from #IoT to #DeepLearning. To run a real-time search of a given term in our website and see the current top influencers, click on the topic name. Among the top 20 IoT influencers, ThingsEXPO ranked #14 and CloudEXPO ranked #17.
While the focus and objectives of IoT initiatives are many and diverse, they all share a few common attributes, and one of those is the network. Commonly, that network includes the Internet, over which there isn't any real control for performance and availability. Or is there? The current state of the art for Big Data analytics, as applied to network telemetry, offers new opportunities for improving and assuring operational integrity. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Jim Frey, Vice President of S...
With the introduction of IoT and Smart Living in every aspect of our lives, one question has become relevant: What are the security implications? To answer this, first we have to look and explore the security models of the technologies that IoT is founded upon. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Nevi Kaja, a Research Engineer at Ford Motor Company, discussed some of the security challenges of the IoT infrastructure and related how these aspects impact Smart Living. The material was delivered interac...
Andrew Keys is Co-Founder of ConsenSys Enterprise. He comes to ConsenSys Enterprise with capital markets, technology and entrepreneurial experience. Previously, he worked for UBS investment bank in equities analysis. Later, he was responsible for the creation and distribution of life settlement products to hedge funds and investment banks. After, he co-founded a revenue cycle management company where he learned about Bitcoin and eventually Ethereal. Andrew's role at ConsenSys Enterprise is a mul...
Amazon started as an online bookseller 20 years ago. Since then, it has evolved into a technology juggernaut that has disrupted multiple markets and industries and touches many aspects of our lives. It is a relentless technology and business model innovator driving disruption throughout numerous ecosystems. Amazon’s AWS revenues alone are approaching $16B a year making it one of the largest IT companies in the world. With dominant offerings in Cloud, IoT, eCommerce, Big Data, AI, Digital Assista...
The Founder of NostaLab and a member of the Google Health Advisory Board, John is a unique combination of strategic thinker, marketer and entrepreneur. His career was built on the "science of advertising" combining strategy, creativity and marketing for industry-leading results. Combined with his ability to communicate complicated scientific concepts in a way that consumers and scientists alike can appreciate, John is a sought-after speaker for conferences on the forefront of healthcare science,...
In his session at Cloud Expo, Alan Winters, U.S. Head of Business Development at MobiDev, presented a success story of an entrepreneur who has both suffered through and benefited from offshore development across multiple businesses: The smart choice, or how to select the right offshore development partner Warning signs, or how to minimize chances of making the wrong choice Collaboration, or how to establish the most effective work processes Budget control, or how to maximize project result...
In his keynote at 19th Cloud Expo, Sheng Liang, co-founder and CEO of Rancher Labs, discussed the technological advances and new business opportunities created by the rapid adoption of containers. With the success of Amazon Web Services (AWS) and various open source technologies used to build private clouds, cloud computing has become an essential component of IT strategy. However, users continue to face challenges in implementing clouds, as older technologies evolve and newer ones like Docker c...
Personalization has long been the holy grail of marketing. Simply stated, communicate the most relevant offer to the right person and you will increase sales. To achieve this, you must understand the individual. Consequently, digital marketers developed many ways to gather and leverage customer information to deliver targeted experiences. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Lou Casal, Founder and Principal Consultant at Practicala, discussed how the Internet of Things (IoT) has accelerated our abilit...
When shopping for a new data processing platform for IoT solutions, many development teams want to be able to test-drive options before making a choice. Yet when evaluating an IoT solution, it’s simply not feasible to do so at scale with physical devices. Building a sensor simulator is the next best choice; however, generating a realistic simulation at very high TPS with ease of configurability is a formidable challenge. When dealing with multiple application or transport protocols, you would be...
Data is the fuel that drives the machine learning algorithmic engines and ultimately provides the business value. In his session at Cloud Expo, Ed Featherston, a director and senior enterprise architect at Collaborative Consulting, discussed the key considerations around quality, volume, timeliness, and pedigree that must be dealt with in order to properly fuel that engine.
Two weeks ago (November 3-5), I attended the Cloud Expo Silicon Valley as a speaker, where I presented on the security and privacy due diligence requirements for cloud solutions. Cloud security is a topical issue for every CIO, CISO, and technology buyer. Decision-makers are always looking for insights on how to mitigate the security risks of implementing and using cloud solutions. Based on the presentation topics covered at the conference, as well as the general discussions heard between sessio...
Detecting internal user threats in the Big Data eco-system is challenging and cumbersome. Many organizations monitor internal usage of the Big Data eco-system using a set of alerts. This is not a scalable process given the increase in the number of alerts with the accelerating growth in data volume and user base. Organizations are increasingly leveraging machine learning to monitor only those data elements that are sensitive and critical, autonomously establish monitoring policies, and to detect...
Dion Hinchcliffe is an internationally recognized digital expert, bestselling book author, frequent keynote speaker, analyst, futurist, and transformation expert based in Washington, DC. He is currently Chief Strategy Officer at the industry-leading digital strategy and online community solutions firm, 7Summits.
Recently, REAN Cloud built a digital concierge for a North Carolina hospital that had observed that most patient call button questions were repetitive. In addition, the paper-based process used to measure patient health metrics was laborious, not in real-time and sometimes error-prone. In their session at 21st Cloud Expo, Sean Finnerty, Executive Director, Practice Lead, Health Care & Life Science at REAN Cloud, and Dr. S.P.T. Krishnan, Principal Architect at REAN Cloud, discussed how they built...
In his keynote at 18th Cloud Expo, Andrew Keys, Co-Founder of ConsenSys Enterprise, provided an overview of the evolution of the Internet and the Database and the future of their combination – the Blockchain. Andrew Keys is Co-Founder of ConsenSys Enterprise. He comes to ConsenSys Enterprise with capital markets, technology and entrepreneurial experience. Previously, he worked for UBS investment bank in equities analysis. Later, he was responsible for the creation and distribution of life settl...
IoT solutions exploit operational data generated by Internet-connected smart “things” for the purpose of gaining operational insight and producing “better outcomes” (for example, create new business models, eliminate unscheduled maintenance, etc.). The explosive proliferation of IoT solutions will result in an exponential growth in the volume of IoT data, precipitating significant Information Governance issues: who owns the IoT data, what are the rights/duties of IoT solutions adopters towards t...