Of e-commerce and 'ugly babies'

"WE'RE IN AN INTERESTING POSITION -- people pay us to tell them how ugly their baby is," said Eric Bowden, a systems engineer at Keylabs, the Lindon, Utah-based network and compatibility test lab. The topic at hand: e-commerce system testing. Bowden's work at Keylabs has given him a view into many of the pitfalls of building e-commerce sites -- sometimes referred to as 'ugly babies.' There are many symptoms.

Lack of knowledge -- about an application, system, or site -- is often an issue.

"Often, people don't have a clue as to what their site is capable of," said Bowden. He noted that companies may plan a site revamp and an associated media blitz, and then come in to the labs to find out if their sites can handle an expected 10- to 20-time increase in traffic. "At least these people are planning, which is a good thing," he noted.

Stress testing is vital. Bowden noted that an online trader operation came to Keylabs, did some preliminary tests, was advised to stress the server more thoroughly, and, either for budgetary or time reasons, decided to skip those tests. "Sure enough, the site went down due to load," he remarked.

Because there are many possible points of failure, it may be too easy for developers to focus on the wrong system element.

Said Bowden: "We were testing a site and getting five-minute response time on Web pages, but the engineer back at the target site was seeing minimal CPU utilization." The engineer suggested the test was not adequately stressing his application.

"But he was looking at the Web server," said Bowden. "He should have been looking at the database server CPU utilization." When the engineer did look at the DB server, he called the labs and asked Bowden's crew to stop the test. "As I recall, he said, 'Stop the test, you're melting my drives!'" said Bowden.

"Data-based access and active page generation are the two primary areas where we are asked to test," he noted. Increasingly, Bowden said, Web app testing is a matter of testing the data delivery service rather than the HTML pages.

-- Jack Vaughan

About the Author

Jack Vaughan is former Editor-at-Large at Application Development Trends magazine.