Making sure legacy-Web links are in sync

Because mainframe and other legacy systems have proven reliable and robust over the years, no one is in a rush to get rid of them. Instead, organizations are dressing up old green screens with pretty user interfaces to create Web-friendly access to legacy information. With access to legacy systems through the Web becoming vital to large corporations, testing the links between legacy and newer systems is becoming more important as well.

"Given the increasing complexity of computing environments, there is a general need to be able to test further into an application and an enterprise," noted Kathy Quirk, senior analyst at Hurwitz Group, Framingham, Mass.

Companies are concerned with how new systems, which include links to legacy systems, will perform, and for good reason. Internet users are disloyal. If they come to a site that is too slow or unresponsive, they leave it and find a faster one. So, "clients need to know whether their end users are going to experience slow response times or even crashes when the load on their applications increase," said Joe Fernandes, product manager for e-Test suite at Empirix, Waltham, Mass.

"The availability of a Web-friendly interface improves accessibility to these legacy apps, which may lead to higher usage," added Fernandes. "This puts more stress on the application architecture, which increases the need to test performance before deployment."

Testing used to come at the end of a development cycle, if at all; today, developers cannot wait that long to test an app's performance and scalability or the links between legacy and newer systems.

Stephen Burkholder, CEO at Work Smarter Systems, a Regina, Saskatchewan, consulting company, believes more links will appear between legacy and Web user-friendly systems. "Since the user interface layer is then Web-enabled in addition to, or possibly instead of, traditional text user interfaces," he said, "testing the additional functionality is a crucial step in the Web-enablement process."

What's a company to do?
Fortunately, most testing tools vendors provide a way to test the links between legacy and newer systems. Mercury Interactive, Sunnyvale, Calif., offers ways to test them with its LoadRunner tool. Work Smarter Systems' Burkholder uses Mercury's WinRunner and LoadRunner to test links. He uses WinRunner for automation and functional testing, including regression testing, of very large systems. LoadRunner, on the other hand, plays a role in functional testing of systems under load. Burkholder said, "load test is really a functional test at volume."

Load testing has risen in importance and complexity as the Internet has taken hold. "This is significant in today's Web access world where the potential users of a system currently number [the world's population]," he explained. "No longer is the system load at full production known or even, in some cases, predictable."

There are two approaches to testing the links between legacy and Web-friendly systems, according to Burkholder. One is to replace a user interface with a Web interface, in which case all the functional testing (and load testing for that matter) has to go through that one interface from then on in the life of that system. The second is to supplement an old green screen, in which case the functional test results from the green screen must match the test results from a Web-enabled front end.

According to Hurwitz Group, companies are using tools that manage and automate the full testing life cycle. Compuware, Farmington Hills, Mich., is one vendor that focuses on the entire development life cycle. "We're taking productivity and automation tools from the planning and development phases into automated software quality and production deployment," said Rebecca Lockhart, product manager.

That is one reason the Detroit Medical Center (DMC), a $2 billion multi-hospital, multi-clinic healthcare organization comprising seven hospitals and 120 clinics in Southeast Michigan, chose Compuware's QACenter to test its links between legacy and newer systems. "We have a lot of different applications and want to be able to use a common product suite to attack those," noted Mike Haggerson, DMC's director, clinical information systems.

The organization utilizes Cerner Millennium as its core clinical information system. Cerner Millennium is to the healthcare industry what PeopleSoft is to the financial industry, "a 'big dog' app," according to Haggerson. With 120 interfaces into Cerner Millennium at press time, DMC relies heavily on integration testing. Add to that the organization's 6,000 users and 150 sites, and the significance of successful integration testing escalates.

DMC uses Compuware's QARun as a screen-capture application, which has features that autogenerate data. The product allows DMC to conduct application testing, integration testing and volume testing. DMC also uses QALoad for volume testing its clinical information system. QALoad can mimic user load against a database using QARun.

"Patient demographic data is the unique key to accessing all data in the healthcare industry," Haggerson said. Because of that, DMC uses QAHiperstation, Compuware's mainframe solution, to test patient demographic data like last name, first name and social security number.

The organization also uses Compuware's File-AID in its testing process. "Between QAHiperstation and File-AID, integrating information between the two is helpful," Haggerson said. One reason for that is all of the apps within QACenter sit on a common data store, "so there's some tight coupling between Compuware products," he added.

When Morningstar Inc., a Chicago global investment research firm, began migrating FoxPro databases to SQL Server, it chose WebLoad from RadView Software, Burlington, Mass. The firm found WebLoad invaluable when it identified problems in databases and app servers after QA testing had not detected them. "In each of those cases," explained David Bambrough, operation systems programmer, "we were able to find the [problem] with WebLoad before the app launched. That would have brought down the whole system [otherwise]."

The firm used WebLoad to simulate customer activity on a Web site. It then compared performance between apps before and after migration. Now the company uses WebLoad to test new apps it puts on its Web site, as well as modifications to existing apps.

"We started with one Web site for individual investors and went through the launch of four new sites with WebLoad," Bambrough said. Using the product, the firm tests a Web site from the start of development to the components it builds on the site.

After considering Empirix's e-Test suite, Mercury's Astra LoadTest and a Web app stress tool from Microsoft, Morningstar selected WebLoad for its value. "It is one of the cheapest load testing tools on the market, yet it offers the same functionality as the other tools," Bambrough said. "In some cases, I found it to outperform the other tools, even though it's cheaper."

Bambrough also found WebLoad's accuracy to be "as good as or better than any other tool I've looked at, and more efficient as well. It's able to simulate more clients per workstation than any of the other tools I've tested. On top of producing a load," he added, "it's also able to integrate some functional testing to make sure pages returning are correct."

One thing Bambrough would change about WebLoad, if he could, is to open up its database structure so he could export data to a SQL database or have some sort of access to it without going through WebLoad. Currently, test results are stored in a closed database structure and cannot be accessed without going through the product. "In most cases, that's not a problem," Bambrough said, "but in some cases, [an open database structure] would have been very helpful and we would have been able to move forward."

Big Chalk, a Berwyn, Pa., provider of educational Internet services, has also found testing critical as it migrates from older to newer systems. "As we start migrating from older systems to newer ones, we have to make sure, functionally, that they're identical," explained Steve Cisick, infrastructure director. Big Chalk uses Empirix's e-Test suite for functional, load and performance testing and likes its ease of use. The suite is "effective to record the scripts and play them back," said Lynn Paul, QA manager. She also found the suite effective in diagnosing scalability issues.

One firm that does not provide a tool to test the links between legacy and newer systems is Rational Software, Cupertino, Calif. In fact, according to firm spokesperson Brian Bryson, Rational customers have already been checking data access using existing Rational tools. Testing links is done on a case-by-case basis, typically using Rational Robot to test from the front end and compare it to the back end through a programming language.

To outsource or not
Other testing tools vendors have offerings for testing the links between legacy and Web-friendly systems. While some are not specifically designed for this, they are capable of doing it. As technology continues to change, however, the testing process becomes more complex. "The complication is due to a variety of technical elements and the complex technical architectures companies now have," Hurwitz Group's Quirk explained. Shorter production cycles, coupled with the need to accomplish much in a limited amount of time with fewer people, only add to the mix.

This complexity is giving way to a new phenomenon, hosted testing, in which a company turns to a vendor to handle a portion of its testing. Many organizations are taking advantage of these hosted services, especially for load testing, noted Theresa Lanowitz, research director of the Application Development Group in the San Jose, Calif., office of market research firm Gartner Inc.

"The majority of enterprises may not have the technical ability or resources to have a separate test environment that closely mimics their environment," Lanowitz explained. A hosted service provides both skilled professionals and an environment created specifically for the purpose of conducting performance testing.

Hurwitz Group's Quirk noted that companies tend not to turn all their testing over to a hosted service to retain some control. "They like to have balance there," she said. "They like to have someone helping them out and stepping them through it. Once they're more knowledgeable, they can repeat it on their own. They're looking for guidance."

Compuware offers professional services in this area. Another example is Mercury's Application Risk Management Model (ARMM) initiative, a set of best practices and guidelines to help organizations meet the challenges of deploying high-quality apps when faced with changing technologies, shorter development cycles and higher expectations for service. The model provides a framework for assessing current quality practices and implementing processes to move forward.

Necessary ingredients
Testing, once considered a luxury development add-on, has become a necessity. Vendors and analysts have observed that testing has moved upstream in the development process. The reasons are obvious. Without a solid Web-friendly app, businesses go by the wayside. In today's Internet world, firms cannot afford to lose customers, suppliers or loyalty.

How can a corporation ensure its vitality? Gartner's Lanowitz suggests four necessary ingredients for thorough testing. "If you have a combination of skilled professionals, good processes and procedures, a good methodology, and good tools and services, everything should go smoothly," she said.

See the related article "Reliable legacy-extended apps a reality."


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