Friday, November 20, 2009

Performance Optimization with Global Entry. Or Not?

As I entered the 30-minute "U.S. Citizens" queue for immigration back into the U.S. last week, the helpful "queue manager" handed me a brochure. This is a great place to hand me something to read, because I'm captive for the next 30 minutes as I await my turn with the immigration officer at the Passport Control desk. The brochure said "Roll through Customs faster."

Ok. I'm listening.

Inside the brochure, the first page lays out the main benefits:
  • bypass the passport lines
  • no paper Customs declaration
  • in most major U.S. airports
Well, that's pretty cool. Especially as I'm standing only 5% deep in a queue with a couple hundred people in it. And look, there's a Global Entry kiosk right there with its own special queue, with nobody—nobody!—in it.

If I had this Global Entry thing, I'd have a superpower that would enable me to zap past the couple hundred people in front of me, and get out of the Passport Control queue right now. Fantastic.

So what does this thing cost? It's right there in the brochure:
  1. Apply online at There is a non-refundable $100 application fee. Membership is valid for five years. That's $20 a year for the queue-bypassing superpower. Not bad. Still listening.
  2. Schedule an in-person interview. Next, I have to book an appointment to meet someone at the airport for a brief interview.
  3. Complete the interview and enrollment. I give my interview, get my photo taken, have my docs verified, and that's it, I'm done.
So, all in all, it doesn't cost too much: a hundred bucks and probably a couple hours one day next month sometime.

What's the benefit of the queue-bypassing superpower? Well, it's clearly going to knock a half-hour off my journey through Passport Control. I immigrate three or four times per year on average, and today's queue is one of the shorter ones I've seen, so that's at least a couple hours per year that I'd save... Wow, that would be spectacular: a couple more hours each year in my family's arms instead of waiting like a lamb at the abattoir to have my passport controlled.

But getting me into my family's arms 30 minutes earlier is not really what happens. The problem is a kind of logic that people I meet get hung up in all the time. When you think about subsystem (or resource) optimization, it looks like your latency savings for the subsystem should go straight to your system's bottom line, but that's often not what happens. That's why I really don't care about subsystem optimization; I care about response time. I could say that a thousand times, but my statement is too abstract to really convey what I mean unless you already know what I mean.

What really happens in the airport story is this: if I had used Global Entry on my recent arrival, it would have saved me only a minute or two. Not half an hour, not even close.

It sounds crazy, doesn't it? How can a service that cuts half an hour off my Passport Control time not get me home at least a half hour earlier?

You'll understand once I show you a sequence diagram of my arrival. Here it is (at right). You can click the image to embiggen it, if you need.

To read this sequence diagram, start at the top. Time flows downward. This sequence diagram shows two competing scenarios. The multicolored bar on the left-hand side represents the timeline of my actual recent arrival at DFW Airport, without using the Global Entry service. The right-hand timeline is what my arrival would have looked like had I been endowed with the Global Entry superpower.

You can see at the very bottom of the timeline on the right that the time I would have saved with Global Entry is minuscule: only a minute or two.

The real problem is easy to see in the diagram: Queue for Baggage Claim is the great equalizer in this system. No matter whether I'm a Global Entrant or not, I'm going to get my baggage when the good people outside with the Day-Glo Orange vests send it up to me. My status in the Global Entry system has absolutely no influence over what time that will occur.

Once I've gotten my baggage, the Global Entry superpower would have again swung into effect, allowing me to pass through the zero-length queue at the Global Entry kiosk instead of waiting behind two families at the Customs queue. And that's the only net benefit I would have received.

Wait: there were only two families in the Customs queue? What about the hundreds of people I was standing behind in the Passport Control queue? Well, many of them were gone already (either they had hand-carry bags only, or their bags had come off earlier than mine). Many others were still awaiting their bags on the Baggage Claim carousel. Because bags trickle out of the baggage claim process, there isn't the huge all-at-once surge of demand at Customs that there is at Passport Control when a plane unloads. So the queues are shorter.

At any rate, there were four queues at Customs, and none of them was longer than three or four families. So the benefit of Global Entry—in exchange for the $100 and the time spent doing the interview—for me, this day, would have been only the savings of a couple of minutes.

Now, if—if, mind you—I had been able to travel with only carry-on luggage, then Global Entry would have provided me significantly more value. But when I'm returning to the U. S. from abroad, I'm almost never allowed to carry on any bag other than my briefcase. Furthermore, I don't remember ever clearing Passport Control to find my bag waiting for me at Baggage Claim. So the typical benefit to me of enrolling in Global Entry, unfortunately, appears to be only a fraction of the duration required to clear Customs, which in my case is almost always approximately zero.

The problem causing the low value (to me) of the Global Entry program is that the Passport Control resource hides the latency of the Baggage Claim resource. No amount of tuning upon the Passport Control resource will affect the timing of the Baggage In Hand milestone; the time at which that milestone occurs is entirely independent of the Passport Control resource. And that milestone—as long as it occurs after I queue for Baggage Claim—is a direct determinant of when I can exit the airport. (Gantt or PERT chart optimizers would say that Queue for Baggage Claim is on the critical path.)

How could a designer make the airport experience better for the customer? Here are a few ideas:
  • Let me carry on more baggage. This idea would allow me to trot right through Baggage Claim without waiting for my bag. In this environment, the value of Global Entry would be tremendous. Well, nice theory; but allowing more carry-on baggage wouldn't work too well in the aggregate. The overhead bins on my flight were already stuffed to maximum capacity, and we don't need more flight delays induced by passengers who bring more stuff onboard than the cabin can physically accommodate.
  • Improve the latency of the baggage claim process. The sequence diagram shows clearly that this is where the big win is. It's easy to complain about baggage claim, because it's nearly always noticeably slower than we want it to be, and we can't see what's going on down there. Our imaginations inform us that there's all sorts of horrible waste going on.
  • Use latency hiding to mask the pain of the baggage claim process. Put TV sets in the Baggage Claim area, and tune them to something interesting instead of infinite loops of advertising. At CPH, they have a Danish hot dog stand in the baggage claim area. They also have a currency exchange office in there. Excellent latency hiding ideas if you need a snack or some DKK walkin'-around-money.
Latency hiding is a weak substitute for improving the speed of the baggage claim process. The killer app would certainly be to make Baggage Claim faster. Note, however, that just making Baggage Claim a little bit faster wouldn't make the Global Entry program any more valuable. To make Global Entry any more valuable, you'd have to make Baggage Claim fast enough that your bag would be waiting for anyone who cleared the full Passport Control queue.

So, my message today: When you optimize, you must first know your goal. So many people optimize subsystems (resources) that they think are important, but optimizing subsystems is often not a path to optimizing what you really want. At the airport, I really don't give a rip about getting out of the Passport Control queue if it just means I'm going to be dumped earlier into a room where I'll have to wait until an affixed time for my baggage.

Once you know what your real optimization goal is (that's Method R step 1), then the sequence diagram is often all you need to get your breakthrough insight that either helps you either (a) solve your problem or (b) understand when there's nothing further that you can really do about it.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Why We Made Method R

Twenty years ago (well, a month or so more than that), I entered the Oracle ecosystem. I went to work as a consultant for Oracle Corporation in September 1989. Before Oracle, I had been a language designer and compiler developer. I wrote code in lex, yacc, and C for a living. My responsibilities had also included improving other people's C code: making it more reliable, more portable, easier to read, easier to prove, and easier to maintain; and it was my job to teach other people in my department how to do these things themselves. I loved all of these duties.

In 1987, I decided to leave what I loved for a little while, to earn an MBA. Fortunately, at that time, it was possible to earn an MBA in a year. After a year of very difficult work, I had my degree and a new perspective on business. I interviewed with Oracle, and about a week later I had a job with a company that a month prior I had never heard of.

By the mid-1990s, circumstances and my natural gravity had matched to create a career in which I was again a software developer, optimizer, and teacher. By 1998, I was the manager of a group of 85 performance specialists called the System Performance Group (SPG). And I was the leader of the system architecture and system management consulting service line within Oracle Consulting's Global Steering Committee.

My job in the SPG role was to respond to all the system performance-related issues in the USA for Oracle's largest accounts. My job in the Global Steering Committee was to package the success of SPG so that other practices around the world could repeat it. The theory was that if a country manager in, say, Venezuela, wanted his own SPG, then he could use the financial models, budgets, hiring plans, training plans, etc. created by my steering committee group. Just add water.

But there was a problem. My own group of 85 people consisted of two very different types of people. About ten of these 85 people were spectacularly successful optimizers whom I could send anywhere with confidence that they'd thrive at either improving performance or proving that performance improvements weren't possible. The other 75 were very smart, very hard-working people who would grow into the tip of my pyramid over the course of more years, but they weren't there yet.

The problem was, how to you convert good, smart, hard-working people in the base of the SPG pyramid into people in the tip? The practice manager in Venezuela would need to know that. The answer, of course, is supposed to be the Training Plan. Optimally, the Training Plan consists of a curriculum of a few courses, a little on-the-job training, and then, presto: tip of the pyramid. Just add water.

But unfortunately that wasn't the way things worked. What I had been getting instead, within my own elite group, was a process that took many years to convert a smart, hard-working person into a reasonably reliable performance optimizer whom you could send anywhere. Worse yet, the peculiar stresses of the job—like being away from home 80% of the time, and continually visiting angry people each week, having to work for me—caused an outflow of talent that approximately equaled the inflow of people who made it to the tip of the pyramid. The tip of my pyramid never grew beyond roughly 10 people.

The problem, by definition, was the Training Plan. It just wasn't good enough. It wasn't that the instructors of Oracle's internal "tuning" courses were doing a poor job of teaching courses. And it wasn't that the course developers had done a poor job of creating courses. On the contrary, the instructors and course developers were doing excellent work. The problem was that the courses were focusing on the wrong thing. The reason that the courses weren't getting the job done was that the very subject matter that needed teaching hadn't been invented yet.

I expect that the people who write, say, the course called "Braking System Repair for Boeing 777" to have themselves invented the braking system they write about. So, the question was, who should be responsible for inventing the subject matter on how to optimize Oracle? I decided that I wanted that person to be me. I deliberated carefully and decided that my best chance of doing that the way I wanted to do it would be outside of Oracle. So in October 1999, ten years and one week after I joined the company, I left Oracle with the vision of creating a repeatable, teachable method for optimizing Oracle systems.

Ten years later, this is still the vision for my company, Method R Corporation. We exist not to make your system faster. We exist to make you faster at making all your systems faster. Our work is far from done, but here is what we have done:
  • Written white papers and other articles that explain Method R to you at no cost.
  • Written a book called Optimizing Oracle Performance, where you can learn Method R at a low cost.
  • Created a Method R course (on which the book is based), to teach you how to diagnose and repair response time problems in Oracle-based systems.
  • Spoken at hundreds of public and private events where we help people understand performance and how to manage it.
  • Provided consulting services to make people awesome at making their systems faster and more efficient.
  • Created the first response time profiling software ever for Oracle software applications, to let you analyze hundreds of megabytes of data without drudgery.
  • Created a free instrumentation library so that you can instrument the response times of Oracle-based software that you write.
  • Created software tools to help you be awesome at extracting every drop of information that your Oracle system is willing to give you about your response times.
  • Created a software tool that enables you to record the response time of every business task that runs on your system so you can effortlessly manage end-user performance.
As I said, our work is far from done. It's work that really, really matters to us, and it's work we love doing. I expect it to be a journey that will last long into the future. I hope that our journey will intersect with yours from time to time, and that you will enjoy it when it does.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Latency Hiding

A few weeks ago, James Morle posted an article called "Latency hiding for fun and profit." Latency hiding one of the fundamental skills that, I believe, distinguishes the people who are Really On The Ball from the people who Just Don't Get It.

Last night, I was calling to my 12-year old boy Alex to come look at something I wanted him to see my computer. At the same time, his mom was reminding him to hurry up if he wanted something to eat, because he only had five minutes before he had to head up to his bedroom. "Alex, come here," I told him, putting a little extra pressure on him. "Just a second, Dad." I looked up and notice that he was unwrapping his ready-made ham and cheese sandwich that he had gotten out of the freezer. He dropped it into the microwave and initiated its two-minute ride, and then he came over to spend two minutes looking at my computer with me while his sandwich cooked. Latency hiding. Excellent.

James's blog helped me put a name to a game that I realize that I play very, very often. Today, I realized that I play the latency hiding game every time I go through an airport security checkpoint. How you lay your stuff on the X-ray machine conveyor belt determines how long you're going to spend getting your stuff off on the other side. So, while I'm queued for the X-ray, I figure out how to optimize my exit once I get through to the other side.

When I travel every week, I don't really have to think too much about it; I just do the same thing I did a few days ago. When I haven't been through an airport for a while, I go through it all in my mind a little more carefully. And of course, airport rules change regularly, which adds a little spice to the analysis. Some airports require me to carry my boarding pass through the metal detector; others don't. Some airports let me keep my shoes on. Some airports let me keep my computer in my briefcase.

Today, the rules were:
  • I had my briefcase and my carry-on suitcase.
  • Boarding pass can go back into the briefcase.
  • Shoes off.
  • 1-quart ziplock back of liquids and gels: out.
  • MacBook: out.
Here's how I put my things onto the belt, optimized for latency hiding. I grabbed two plastic boxes and loaded the belt this way:
  1. Plastic box with shoes and ziplock bag.
  2. Suitcase.
  3. Plastic box with MacBook.
  4. Briefcase.
That way, when I cleared the metal detector, I could perform the following operations in this order:
  1. Box with shoes and ziplock bag arrive.
  2. Put my shoes on.
  3. Take the ziplock bag out of the plastic box.
  4. Suitcase arrives.
  5. Put the ziplock bag back into my suitcase.
  6. Box with MacBook arrives.
  7. Take my MacBook out.
  8. Stack the two boxes for the attendant.
  9. Briefcase arrives.
  10. Put the MacBook into the briefcase.
  11. Get the heck out of the way.
Latency hiding helps me exit a slightly uncomfortable experience a little more quickly, and it helps me cope with time spent queueing—a process that's difficult to enjoy—for a process that's itself difficult to enjoy.

I don't know what a lot of the other people in line are thinking while they're standing there for their 15 minutes, watching 30 people ahead of them go through the same process they'll soon endure, 30 identical times. Maybe it's finances or football or cancer or just their own discomfort from being in unusual surroundings. For me, it's usually latency hiding.