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How We Monitor Web Mail Performance - 12/16/06

From: Email Guy
Subject:       How We Monitor Web Mail Performance
Date: December 16, 2006 7:26 PM
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We care a lot about performance. One of the tools we use to make sure Web Mail is working well for you is a set of monitoring agents that constantly run from 10 cities all around the United States. The "agent" is basically an automated script that runs on a computer connected to the Internet, and opens the Internet Explorer browser to load and use Web Mail just like a real user. So this isn't a simulation, it is doing exactly what real users do on their own computers, and using the most popular software used by real users. These monitoring agents are connected to one of several different network backbones to represent a good cross section of users in different areas without skewing the results with faster or slower network paths to our servers.

Ten times every hour the script opens Internet Explorer and runs through twelve steps performing common tasks in Web Mail. It begins by loading the Web Mail login page and logs in using a regular account just like yours. Then it proceeds to refresh the Inbox view, open a message, delete a message, compose and send a message, and all the basic tasks that you do in Web Mail. And unlike your own browser settings, this test browser has the cache turned off, so it gets no speed advantage from loading locally cached files like you do. Everything loads fresh from our server on every test.

I pulled up some graphs of the results for the last 24 hours at the time I was writing this. You can see the steps in the script below, and the average times for the 24 hour period. These times are measured from when the link in the browser is clicked, until the task completes and the resulting page finishes loading.

Dec. 15 4:34 PM EST - Dec. 16 4:34 PM EST (average times)
These results are probably not what you will see at home, unless your computer is plugged in directly to the nearest Internet backbone node like these agents are, and you have a top-speed computer. So we aren't measuring the performance of your home connection here, but we are measuring the performance of Web Mail. On my own cable modem connection at home, when I run the same script I usually get results in the same range as those shown. But it is probably a little slower on average. Note also that the script doesn't wait for advertisements to load (and you don't have to either). It clicks the next task as soon as the Web Mail page has finished reloading. And things like sending messages do depend on the size of the content; the script sends a one-word email on that step (the message says "Testing"). Robots can type pretty fast too.

Here's another graph showing all the tests runs during the same period (this past day) as shown in the task list above. This one shows the total time for all twelve steps to complete. These times are one of the things we watch carefully, and if we see a test that has an unusually high time, we can drill down using the information in the top chart above (and a lot of other detail we get) to find the problem.

Total Script Time

The charts above show that Web Mail is working fine today. The different times in the graph are showing that the different cities and networks we measure from have slightly different performance (see how they repeat every hour), but they are very consistent today and it looks like all is well. This test is only measuring the Web Mail pages and checking and sending email, it isn't measuring some of the other related systems like setting Preferences. We have other monitoring tools to do that.

So these end-to-end tests of our Web Mail system are one way we are working to keep everything in top shape for you. When problems show up from these monitoring tools and others that we use, alarms go off and a team of people acts to get it fixed as quickly as they can. Of course the results aren't always as consistent and nice looking as these, but we do work hard to keep it that way.


Posted by: John   |   December 17, 2006 3:20 PM    |   (1)

I have a suggestion: program the mail page to load the mail listings first.

I live in the country and only have access to dial up, officially listed as 56K but practically it is in the low to mid 30's. I use Opera, but have tried Firefox and MSIE with the same response. In Opera, the status bar shows what is loading, and the low baud rate lets me examine the loading of the page in slow motion.

The left hand panel text loads first, followed by all the icons. In the Opera status bar are values like "images: 32/41" for example and also text like waiting #6, so it is clear what the programed download sequence is.

"Setting up a secure connection..." also appears to be a major hang up -- the process seems to drag on for literally minutes. (I opened up another window and logged in as I was writing this so I could cite an actual example. At this time, 3 minutes and 40 seconds have elapsed and still no list of emails. Sometimes, I just go directly and click on "INBOX" to hustle things along, but often that doesn't help either.)

Since usually all I want it to see if there is any new mail, it is really frustrating to have to wait for all the niceties to download before I get to see what I want to see. By the way, I often open another window and browse other sites, while waiting for my mail, so the slow download is not entirely due to my low baud rate.

Thanks for considering this,


Posted by: Email Guy   |   December 17, 2006 4:14 PM    |   (2)

John - I'm probably going to anger some Opera users with this response. :-)

Your Opera loading display is misleading you in several ways, and the page load is already optimized in the way you describe. The very first thing that loads after login is the entire page body, which contains the message listing and all other text on the page. This doesn't mean Opera shows it to you first, but it absolutely does retrieve it first. Only after the entire page body is loaded including the message list, can a browser (any browser) even begin to load images, as the image references are in the page body and have to be read there by the browser to know which images to fetch. After retrieving the page body (and message listing) then the images are loaded in the order in which they appear in the page. And those aren't usually being loaded from our server, they should be loaded from the local cached copy in your browser (except for a very small request to check for a new one). And then the very last thing to load on the page is the advertisement, only after everything else is visible.

It sounds like you may have your Web Mail set to the Secure Session option, and Opera appears to not cache images when using HTTPS. That is unfortunate, and before deciding to keep that setting you should read this post; in the second paragraph it talks about when that is useful. We default it to Off as it doesn't benefit most users (and harms Opera users). You probably should turn that off if you are going to use Opera, and speed things up dramatically. IE fortunately doesn't have this problem, and it is used by about 85% of our users.

Opera also isn't optimal in how it renders (draws to the screen) pages that use CSS for the layout, and it appears to render everything from upper left down to lower right in order. So it hides the message list from you until the left panel and all the images are already rendered and visible (even though it already has retrieved the message list). And it sounds like you either have caching turned off, or you are using the secure option mentioned above, or your browser cache has become very large and slow, so you might try clearing the cache.

Unfortunately because Opera usage is so low, we don't officially support it and don't routinely test on it. I would suggest you use a different browser that renders the page in a way that is more acceptable to you. Firefox, IE, Netscape, and just about all browsers besides Opera will display the complete page body and the message list before they even attempt to display any images. That is correct browser behavior, which unfortunately Opera doesn't follow. One last thing you might be interested in is that browsers use at least four simultaneous connections to retrieve files from the server (Opera uses 8), not one synchronous connection.

It sounds like you have several things going on that are making your experience less than ideal. One, you seem to have connection trouble, and I apologize for that and can't help you with it here. You should research how to optimize your tcp connection, and perhaps use the accelerator that comes with our Total Access dialer. Two, you should make sure you are taking advantage of the browser cache and that it is not disabled. You may need to increase the size too. And three, look into whether you really need to be using the Secure option, which does slow down Opera a lot since it won't cache images on a secure page, and it also won't show you the page in the correct order.

PS - although I'm not officially endorsing or recommending it, and absolutely won't support your use of it, here is one tool known to work well for connection optimization. I've used it myself on both dialup and broadband, with good results. There are lots of other similar ones.

Posted by: John   |   December 18, 2006 12:36 AM    |   (3)

Thanks, Email Guy,

I tried your suggestions and they really sped things up. I suspect that it was the encrypted mode that really slowed things down. I will compare firefox -- that sped up too -- and opera and decide which I like better for email.


Posted by: Chuck   |   February 8, 2007 1:49 AM    |   (4)

Your performance testing looks sound and I appreciate not only the fact that you do this, but the way you explained it. However, unless I'm statistically unlucky, I think there are problems not covered by this.

I routinely find that at times I can't get on to my earthlink mail account. I get stopped at one of two places. Sometimes I get to webmail.earthlink.net, but can't get to the actual login page, more often I enter my name and password on the login page, but it bogs down processing my response.

I use MS Explorer when I must, and Firefox otherwise, for the most part, and this problem seems to be browser neutral - at least for those two. I don't think it is typos logging in because I've tried cut and paste as well as repetitive entry. And more to the point, at the same time, with the same computer, on the same connection, I have no problem getting on to other accounts (one using POP/Outlook access, another with Sea Monkey, and another with a web mail system I use (not yours)). Also, I have no problems with routine browsing. I use multiple spybot clean-ups daily (Spybot, System Mechanic and Lavasoft) and keep my service updates and virus/firewall software up to date. That is about all I can think of that might be relevant.

Naturally, there are times now and then when the whole system bogs down, and I understand those times, and that isn't what I'm talking about. This is not a one-of problem, it is a routine irritation that started maybe a month or two ago. If you have thoughts on why this might happen or what I might try differently, I'd be more than a little bit interested. Even knowing you have service peak problems in my area would be a help - even if I can't fix it, I can put up with it if I can understand it.

p.s. I did look through your FAQs and didn't see an answer. Chuck.

Posted by: Email Guy   |   February 8, 2007 9:06 AM    |   (5)

Chuck - I don't have an explanation for why you are experiencing this, but I can suggest a few things to try. First, this has to be caused by the combination of your network environment, your connection, your computer, and Web Mail, as this kind of thing is not happening routinely with Web Mail. If you said you had this behavior once in five tries, or once in ten tries, then maybe it would be directly related to the Web Mail service occasionally running slowly. But if it is happening a lot, it isn't that.

First, you may find these user's experiences helpful:




Connection issues can be hard to find sometimes (which is exactly what this is: a problem with the connection between your computer and our web mail). If you don't have another connection available to test with and compare, then I would suggest that you temporarily disable all security software and firewalls (including windows connection firewall) and see what happens. I'd also suggest you try both options under the Secure Session setting in Web Mail, and see if it makes any difference. Lastly, clear your browser cache completely and see if that makes any difference. Perhaps one of these tests will give some insight into the problem.

If you are familiar with using tools like tracert then that might also be enlightening.

Posted by: Koresh   |   February 16, 2011 7:39 AM    |   (6)

Thanks, Email Guy,

Really good to see the Web Mail Performance monitoring tool details ...

Let me know how to implement it for test for my Email server ....(Qmail/Postfix)


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