Visual Intercept: More than simple bug resolutions
It should not surprise anyone that the growing complexity of modern software engineering necessitates sophisticated methods of management and quality testing. Although source-code control systems (SCCSs) have grown in prominence, bug-tracking systems have yet to achieve an equal status. With Visual Intercept, Elsinore Technologies Inc., Raleigh, N.C., seeks to close this gap for PC development environments with a product that encompasses more than simple bug resolutions. Could Intercept find itself on every developer's desktop alongside Microsoft's Visual Studio?
Elsinore Technologies Inc.
The key to understanding -- and subsequently getting the most out of -- Visual Intercept lies in its declared paradigm shift of "incident management" as a superset of mere bug tracking. The database-driven framework is designed to encompass project management as it applies to all participants in the process: from manager to programmer to end user. The incidents themselves can include initial requirements, feature requests for subsequent versions, maintenance issues and code reuse for other projects, as well as the obvious bug reports.
|Visual Intercept's incident browser gives a rich interface for quickly sorting through large project databases.
Hence, Visual Intercept is best utilized as a company-wide system that each employee has access to in order to browse, update and create incidental information. Because it supports the open database connectivity (ODBC) standard, it can scale high enough to meet critical environments in which hundreds of users access information.
The architecture of Visual Intercept is considered an asset, not only in the efficiency it affords users, but also in the promise of easier upgrades should the ever-morphing software industry outgrow the product's present layout. The product sports a three-tiered design: the ODBC API for data storage, the actual Visual Intercept engine and the overlying GUIs (Elsinore has future plans to devise different GUIs geared toward different user types; for now, the Visual Intercept Manager serves as the universal interface). Though the GUIs are naturally the only portion most everyday users will be aware of, a forthcoming Visual Intercept ActiveX and API kit will appeal to specialized sites looking to extend functionality or database content within the product.
|In each incidental case, there is a status, a severity level, the user requesting action regarding the incident and the assigned user responsible for looking into the matter.
In terms of versatility, Visual Intercept is a tool that strives for -- and generally succeeds at -- optimal practicality at every level. The package can adapt to any ODBC data source, although it only includes automated scripts to work with mSQL and Oracle servers at this time. Perhaps more vital to its goal of a unified management system for the development process, it integrates with Visual SourceSafe so that actual check-ins and check-outs can be accomplished through the Visual Intercept Manager, among other conveniences.
Visual Intercept installs rather smoothly and creates an executable that facilitates setup of just the client components on other machines to access the server. On the server side, there is an Administrator applet that handles formation of users and groups in a somewhat straightforward manner. The Wizard is the component that assists in the creation of new projects. When first adding a project to Visual Intercept, the Wizard offers the user a choice of mirroring an existing SourceSafe project hierarchy, creating a new hierarchy based upon standard development characteristics, or using a sample prefabricated database for evaluation and training purposes. Typical categories generated via the second option include Menus, Replication, Third-party Products, Quality Assurance and Marketing. All of these are optional and can be deselected if the category is entirely irrelevant to a particular project.
The bulk of Visual Intercept's use will occur in the Manager applet. This is where the actual incidents are recorded, modified, queried and browsed, among other tasks. The browser offers the popular expandable tree diagram of the project hierarchy, with a pop-up menu containing the most commonly used query filters. These can be executed on the entire hierarchy to find all incidents with the appropriate criteria. More complicated queries can be built from the Search menu, which has a very useful interface for compounding and restricting criteria.
|Queries can be done on the entire hierarchy to find incidents matching certain criteria. Complicated queries can be built from the Search menu.
Alas, adding an additional project to the database could not be accomplished through the browser, and instead, required running the Wizard again separately. This was the only usability annoyance encountered during the building and simulation of a typical small development group.
Visual Intercept's value as a company-wide utility really begins to shine in practice once the projects and objectives have been defined and incidents can be reported. In each incidental case, there is a status, a severity level, the user requesting action regarding the incident, and the assigned user responsible for looking into the matter. Users have the option of running the Notification Server in the background, so that they can be notified as incidents that require their attention are stored in the database. Within each incident, there are many parameters to help quantify and qualify (priority, history, duplicate or related incidents). There are also many fields in which free-form comments can be appended.
In addition, the database can store both simple contacts (representatives of other companies, one-time tech support calls) and accounts (clients, contractors, groups of contacts).
FILLING AN UNADDRESSED GAP
Like many auxiliary development tools that prove the most useful in the long run, Visual Intercept manages to maximize thoroughness while minimizing the confusion and proprietary clutter that confounds so many of its contemporaries. Because it tackles the broader issues of the software process and maintenance model, Visual Intercept is powerful enough to take the place of many project management tools.
Although it lacks the sophisticated artificial intelligence and hefty knowledge bases found in some of these project management utilities, it compensates by bringing the abstract ideal management plan closer to real-world code by virtue of its SCCS integration and step-by-step tracking of actual bugs and requirements. Elsinore boasts that Visual Intercept fills an unaddressed gap in Microsoft's tools suite and works with SourceSafe, but the company takes no stance on how Intercept might integrate, conflict or overlap with Microsoft Project.
Once upon a time, Visual SourceSafe was an independent product that soon became an essential tool for the Windows C++ developer -- to the point where Microsoft bought the application and bundled it with its ever-expanding Visual Studio product family. Visual Intercept is poised to attain a similar status, having made the leading initiative thus far to integrate project management, bug tracking and source-code control under one flexible product. In the meantime, it is a welcome addition to the increasingly essential software management market.