Web Performance, Part I: Fundamentals

If you ask 15 different people what the phrase Web performance means to them, you will get 30 different answers. Like all things in this technological age, the definition is in the eye of the beholder. To the Marketing person, it is delivering content to the correct audience in a manner that converts visitors into customers. To the business leader, it is the ability of a Web site to deliver on a certain revenue goal, while managing costs and creating shareholder/investor value.
For IT audiences, the mere mention of the phrase will spark a debate that would frighten the UN Security Council. Is it the Network? The Web server? The designers? The application? What is making the Web site slow?
So, what is Web performance? It is everything mentioned above, and more. Working in this industry for nine years, I have heard all facets of the debate. And all of the above positions will appear in every organization with a Web site to varying degrees.
In this ongoing series, I will examine various facets of Web performance, from the statistical measures used to truly analyze Web performance data, to the concepts that drive the evolution of a company from “Hey, we really need to know how fast our Web page loads” to “We need to accurately correlate the performance of our site to traffic volumes and revenue generation”.
Defining Web performance is much harder than it seems. It’s simplest metrics are tied into the basic concepts of speed and success rate (availability). These concepts have been around a very long time, and are understood all the way up to the highest levels of any organization.
However, this very simple state is one that very few companies manage to evolve away from. It is the lowest common denominator in Web performance, and only provides a mere scraping of the data that is available within every company.
As a company evolves and matures in its view toward Web performance, the focus shifts away from the basic data, and begins to focus on the more abstract concepts of reliability and consistency. These force organizations to step away from the aggregated and simplistic approach of speed and availability, to a place where the user experience component of performance is factored into the equation.
After tackling consistency and reliability, the final step is toward performance optimization. This is a holistic approach to Web performance, a place where speed and availability data are only one component of an integrated whole. Companies at this strata are usually generating their own performance dashboards with combinations of data sources that correlate disparate data sources in a way that provides a clear and concise view not only of the performance of their Web site, but also of the health of their entire online business.
During this series, I will refer to data and information very frequently. In today’s world, even after nearly a decade of using Web performance tools and services, most firms only rely on data. All that matters is that the measurements arrive.
The smartest companies move to the next level and take that data and turn it into information, ideas that can shape the way that they design their Web site, service their customers, and view themselves against the entire population of Internet businesses.
This series will not be a technical HOWTO on making your site faster. I cover a lot of that ground in another of my Web sites. It will also not be data heavy; again, I point you to another of my Web sites if you want only the numbers.
What this series will do is lead you through the minefield of Web performance ideas, so that when you are asked what you think Web performance is, you can present the person asking the question with a clear, concise answer.
The next article in this series will focus on Web performance measures: why and when you use them, and how to present them to a non-technical audience.