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In testing times, nothing beats an experienced hand

The opacity of complex systems ensures that thorough testing may entail a major investment in man-hours and money. Or you could just call on experienced, specialist advice, says David Hill Spirent Communications.


Date: 28 May 2012

Acme Solutions knew they were onto a winner with their new wireless telepathy network. A few minor tweaks and it would be ready for launch at Interop 2011. One snag was that the system was scrambling its packets, so that received messages were absolute junk. So the team began running tests to identify and isolate the fault. After 3 weeks they were making no headway, so the team’s full technological resources were diverted onto finding some solution to the problem. Time was running out, and there was word of rival products being developed. In desperation, the project manager went against the wishes of senior management and arranged a consultation with Spirent Professional Services. That same day the consultant pointed out that their test methodology took no account of the dynamic nature of a virtual network, and suggested an appropriate alternative methodology. Next day a trial test bench was set up and within 2 days the fault had been identified and was able to be corrected in time for the launch. “If I had called in Spirent in the first week, we could have had a more refined product on show at the launch, and would have saved thousands on the project" commented Project Manager.

The moral of this story is obvious, but why were management initially so reluctant to call for expert help? It seems that, to those who pay the bills, the phrase “Professional Services” sounds warning bells, maybe on account of the way some vendors link their services to sales.

In any transaction when the ratio between capital expenditure and consultancy costs is high, then it is common business practice to make the consultancy fees attractively low and offer the consultants incentives to lock the client into the vendor’s own solutions. So, for example, the vendor’s professional services team may provide a perfectly sound and cost effective analysis of the business need and recommendation on installing a large system, but the recommendation will be primarily based on the vendor’s own equipment, where the services consultants can get an attractive commission on sales.

If, however, the capital expenditure is relatively insignificant, then there is much less pressure to provide these sales incentives. This is true in the case of system testing and optimization, where the professional team applies its expertise to analyzing the client’s needs, suggesting a suitable test regime and, in many cases, running the tests on their own equipment. Even if the clients do subsequently choose to capitalise on the skills transfer, and invest in their own in-house test solutions, it seldom adds up to major capital expenditure.

So, for example, my company’s Professional Services operate quite independently of the sales team, and receive no commission or other incentives to promote sales of our test solutions. The fact that a fair proportion of their customers do subsequently purchase our test equipment is because they have seen it in action.

The reputation of a team involved with stringent tests on highly critical and complex financial, business and government networks is so valuable that it must never be compromised by biasing its recommendations to any particular vendor solutions. You pay for a Professional Service and that is what you get. And, as in the example quoted above, it is an investment that repays itself many times over – an important consideration in the current economic climate.

Virtualization and cloud computing
That drive for economy is a major incentive for virtualizing data centers so that optimal use can be made of server and storage resources as well as saving on power bills. There is, however, a fundamental problem in testing any virtual system, in that it is not tied to specific hardware. The processing for a virtual switch or virtual server is likely to be allocated dynamically to make optimal use of available resources. Test it now, and it may pass every test, but test it again and the same virtual device may be running in a different server and there could be a different response to unexpected stress conditions.

This is a major problem for any in-house IT team – is it really possible to apply definitive testing to something as formless as a virtual system? Spirent engineers had already addressed this problem and come up with a solution involving virtualization of the test itself. Combining a physical test device with their virtual test software provides exceptional visibility into an entire datacentre infrastructure – not only allowing holistic testing of application performance under realistic loads and stress conditions, but also helping to identify what components – virtual or physical – are impacting performance.

To create realistic test conditions, the virtual software is used in conjunction with devices designed to generate massive volumes of realistic simulated traffic. The simulation can replicate real world traffic conditions with its error conditions and realistic user behavior, while maintaining over one million open connections from distinct IP addresses. By challenging the infrastructure's ability to stand up to the load and complexity of the real world it puts application testing in a truly realistic working environment.

Our solution was itself put to independent test by the independent European laboratory Broadband Testing. According to Steve Broadhead, founder and director, Broadband Testing: “Virtual Security works in theory but, until there was a way to test it thoroughly under realistic conditions, solution vendors have had a hard time convincing their customers. With the use of combined physical and virtual test machines, the testing proved not only highly rigorous, but also quite simple to operate.”

This example is vital at a time when many organizations are deliberating whether to consolidate in-house applications in a private cloud, or even to migrate them to a public cloud. The economic argument is powerful, but putting it into practice means a step into the unknown for IT departments already struggling to cope with new technologies and increasing complexity.

Think of Spirent’s Professional Services as a “cloud” of experience and specialist skills that can be called upon to advise, and know that they already have the technology and plentiful experience of using it to test virtual and cloud systems.

Security and cybercrime
Another area of increasing anxiety is the risk to critical systems from cyber-attack. Once the preserve of young hackers, more intent on showing off than causing serious damage, cyber attack is increasingly driven by professional criminals, amounting to a serious threat to legitimate business.

Again, this puts enormous pressure on a company’s IT team to keep up with developments in an attack landscape that is constantly evolving. Can a medium sized enterprise afford to maintain sufficient IT security skills in-house, or is it not wiser to tap into a “cloud” of skills, knowledge and techniques available from a specialist team?

With the latest test and traffic generation devices we can test any network to its limits – not only subjecting it to every known type of attack but also combining the attacks with both realistic and extreme operating conditions. It is one thing to identify an attack during everyday service, but to be able to do so even when the system is overloaded by a denial of service data flood is quite another matter.

Two key results typically emerge from such tests. The one is to be able to identify the weak points in the chain and maybe remedy them to strengthen defense against such attacks. The other is simply to know what are the limits of your system and to be forewarned. For anything less than the most highly critical systems, it is often more realistic to quantify its limits and have a crisis strategy in place than to try to make it one hundred percent bomb-proof.

A stitch in time
Virtualization and security are two extreme examples of the growing pressure on any organization to keep up with rapid technological and business developments, but the same lesson applies broadly across the IT spectrum: get advice from a specialist early on and you can save time and expense in the longer run, especially if you choose an independent specialist with no commercial axe to grind.

Do not think of system testing only as a last resort, something to fall back on when all else has failed, but rather as an essential foundation for the future. A professional test team is less often involved in rearguard action to repair past errors, and more often sees its task as one of optimizing a near complete solution before roll-out.

Such optimization does not normally mean making a system perfect by adding more and more elements at additional cost – on the contrary, it often means testing to see if a less complex system, or a cheaper component can do the job as well as is needed for actual business purposes.

Nor should one think of professional services as a sort of drug – that once they are called in your IT team will never be able to work without them in future. What is mostly needed is an experienced outsider’s analysis of your system and what is needed from it, and a suggestion of a suitable test strategy. This could be a one-off test before launch, or it could involve an ongoing test program.

In either case a good professional team, having reduced the complex problem to its basic essentials, can pass on its skills and leave the in-house team to continue the program – only needing to call on the professional service when major new challenges arise. As with the cloud, a good professional service adds value and allows your team to scale its expertise as needed.

So don’t be intimidated by the “Professional Services” label, and don’t wait until a crisis calls for desperate measures. Just make an early call on experienced, professional advice and present your challenges to experts who have already faced them many times over. As they say: “a stitch in time saves nine”.


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