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First Utility (Now Shell Energy) uses APIContext to Increase Throughput Without Increasing Capacity

First Utility is one of the UK’s largest and fastest growing independent energy providers. Since beginning operations in 2009, the company has rapidly built a loyal following by offering homeowners innovative smart meters, website tools and mobile apps. These products give customers the ability to reduce their gas and electric bills by helping them monitor and control energy usage.

In the UK’s deregulated market, giving First Utility customers real-time insight into their short- and long-term energy consumption patterns is a competitive advantage. Within just a few years, First Utility’s customer base has grown to more than 850,000, with more than a third using First Utility’s iOS and Android mobile apps.

“First Utility empowers customers by giving them access to information,” said Richard Marshall, principal technical operations engineer. “We were one of the first companies to introduce smart meters, giving customers real-time feedback and comparisons to help them understand their energy usage. We stay ahead of our competition by introducing new features and ensuring that our website tools and mobile apps are the best they can be. The more knowledge we can share with our customers, the more power they have at their disposal to control energy usage and ultimately save money.”

Limited visibility

First Utility’s reliance on technology means that fast, dependable access to customer accounts via the website and mobile applications is central to the company’s success. All of this functionality, including billing, is driven by just a handful of mission-critical APIs. Initially, the company’s TechOps team used a variety of tools to monitor the website internally and ensure that everything was running smoothly, but they realized over time that running tests internally did not give an accurate picture of real-life usability from customers’ perspectives.

“Rather than an inside-out view, we realized that we needed a specialized tool that could give us visibility into the performance of our site and apps in the same way that the rest of the internet sees us,” continued Marshall. “It was really important for us to know when the site became unavailable for users, and to understand long-term trends and any pinch points in the network. The only way to accomplish these goals was to adopt a third party set of tools, and for that we chose APImetrics.”

Knowledge is Power

First Utility uses a complicated OAuth authentication process for access to its services, so it initially struggled to find a compatible monitoring tool. With its ability to handle most API security systems and renewals natively, APIContext enabled the TechOps team to easily configure customized dashboards specifically for their RESTful APIs. APIContext also allows First Utility to start monitoring new API end-points within minutes, and can generate useful latency charts and analytical summaries in a few simple keystrokes. These features give First Utility a great deal of ongoing confidence that their web tools and mobile apps are working properly and providing a first class user experience to the company’s customers.

“For our particular implementation, we use APIContext as a reference tool to help establish performance baselines for our mobile apps and the First Utility website,” said Marshall. “APIContext provides multiple monitoring sites globally. That helps companies conduct realistic tests as close to their user base as possible. In the case of First Utility, all of our customers are here in the UK, so we appreciate the fact that we can test Azure from Ireland, for example, or tap into Softlayer from London. It’s a feature that most other API testing or monitoring tools simply don’t offer.”

More than a performance tool

First Utility has approximately 1,000 employees, but within its lean 30-man operations team there are only five people tasked with managing web tech support and issue resolution. Having limited resources, the company naturally needs an efficient way to isolate, investigate and resolve website or application issues as quickly as possible.

Prior to implementing the APIContext tools in mid-2015, First Utility began running into potential capacity problems. Like most companies facing this common concern, the operations team considered several options including the installation of additional servers to boost performance. However, once APIContext was implemented, the team discovered that the issue was not one of capacity, but rather of configuration. By fixing the problem, they were able to improve throughput dramatically, helping user content load faster and effectively producing more bandwidth without adding more server capacity. This not only saved the company considerable time and effort isolating the problem, it also allowed the team to optimize their existing Oracle resources and park additional infrastructure expenditure.

“Energy companies have complex back-end systems, which become even more difficult to manage when they’re required to meet the needs of customers, suppliers and other stakeholders,” said Marshall. “There’s no question that APIContext has allowed us to establish practical baselines and improve performance. It opened a window to let us see what is really going on further down the line with our critical services, and points us in the right direction to take quick action before problems have a chance to impact customers. Without these kind of outside-in monitoring and diagnostic tools, enterprises cannot hope to adequately investigate or even avoid issues.”

The proof is in the pudding

“Most of First Utility’s employees are also customers. That gives us a really good incentive to make sure that the website and the apps are working,” concluded Marshall. “Being consumers of our own service, we have a vested interest in ensuring that the site and the apps are reliable, responsive, and act exactly the way we anticipate them to. So if they’re working well for us, we know they’re working well for our customers. We’ve set ourselves a high bar, expecting the systems to work just as well as any other big sites in the industry. With tools like the ones from APIContext, we’re certainly on the right track.”

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