Suncorp Metway's performance testing on wings

In competitive environments where business owners are keen to roll out new products as quickly as possible, many executives feel frustrated with the time it takes application performance testers to confirm that new applications are ready for prime time.
Written by David Braue, Contributor
In competitive environments where business owners are keen to roll out new products as quickly as possible, many executives feel frustrated with the time it takes application performance testers to confirm that new applications are ready for prime time.

At financial services giant Suncorp Metway, however, a new approach to risk management has sped up the process by using a risk management technique to help business owners and application testers jointly assess the real risk posed by new applications.

Performance testing -- which uses testing tools and simulated user loads to pound a new application that has been confirmed to have all the required functionality -- is normally a major exercise because systems are generally tested from one end to the other no matter how big a change they represent.

This approach, however, doesn't necessarily reflect the requirements of the business, argues Philip Pooch, performance test specialist within the Infrastructure Services division of Suncorp Metway.

"Saying that you always need to test or that you never need to test are both immature processes," he explains. "If testers can get a feel for what they're planning and establish a risk profile, a lot of issues can be sorted out. This is about the right-sizing of performance testing."

During a recent upgrade to Suncorp Metway's customer relationship management (CRM) system, for example, a move from a proprietary system to a standalone J2EE-developed platform needed to be validated by application testing using tools from performance management company Mercury.

Recognising that fully testing every aspect of the application would take a huge amount of time and effort, the testing team worked carefully with the business owners of the CRM system to prioritise components. Their mutual decision was to focus most of its testing efforts on the high-risk J2EE components; the other components of the solution would be tested less, but monitored along with potential network bottlenecks to ensure adequate performance.

In another project - enhancements to a loan document tracking system - the risk was evaluated and found to be low enough that performance testing was not judged to be necessary. Instead, the team decided to focus on ongoing application monitoring and staff training to avoid problems.

The Stages

1 - Ostrich (lowest):
Performance testing is not considered.

Only interested in functional testing.

2 - Chicken:
Performance testing is considered, but an ad-hoc or inconsistent approach is taken.

Limited manual concurrency testing tagged onto functional testing.

No real load.

Possibly some manual production monitoring "hope and pray" testing

3 - Crow:
'Indicative' performance testing done for some apps.

Possibly use an automated test tool.

Fitted in at the end of functional testing.

Tested in a functional test environment that often only remotely resembles production-like capacity.

Work from vague performance requirements.

Some processes, but inconsistently applied.

4 - Owl:
Performance testing done consistently and well.

Use a near production-like test environment.

Create and maintain reusable automated scripts under version control.

Establish clear performance requirement.

Use repeatable processes.

Test a narrow range of applications well but restricted by tool, environmental and training costs.

5 - Eagle (highest):
Application performance testing seen as a risk reduction exercise.

View application performance as a lifecycle that commences with application design and runs parallel with a Projector Release.

Establish an Application Performance Risk Profile.

Provide performance testing solutions based on risk.

Get involved, even when they can't test.

Are trusted advisors.

Since it began running risk assessments 18 months ago, Suncorp Metway's testing team has conducted more than 20 such assessments, leading the business leaders to a new level of understanding of exactly how complex and burdensome performance testing can be. By working collaboratively, business owners can set their expectations more clearly and ensure that higher-risk elements get a higher priority from testers that are often working to tight deadlines and budgets.

"The driver for this change is that performance testing environments are really hard to set up," says Pooch. "We're all IT people and IT people tend to go straight into solution mode, but when it comes to testing that's not actually the best place to start. We often hear talk about business-IT alignment, but this is really business-testing alignment."

To support his work with the business divisions, Pooch has established a formal methodology - which he has called PPTMM (Phil's Performance Test Maturity Model) - that ranks the maturity of application performance testing on a five-bird scale.

Ranked in terms of increasing sophistication, the birds - ostrich, chicken, crow, owl and eagle - reflect the maturity of the risk-based performance testing philosophy.

Pooch outlines a simple approach to doing a performance risk assessment. Working together, business and testing leads work through all supporting documentation such as business and functional requirements, conceptual solutions and diagrams.

Working in a face-to-face meeting, all stakeholders question the structure of an application, reusability of components, the project's importance to the company, and other risk-related aspects.

Using the bird system, risk scores are plotted on a matrix that guides the decision-making process in a much more consistent, repeatable and meaningful way than was possible in the past. Scores are weighted, with each element of the solution analysed tier by tier.

By using a "disciplined, repeatable process" to evaluate the full aggregate risk within the environment, the teams work together to determine a risk reduction strategy that can be followed more smoothly than was possible in the past.

"Sometimes you can burst some bubbles [by pointing out the real risk of a project] but by taking a risk approach, we've got the business owners on board all the way," says Pooch.

"They used to say 'we need performance testing' and we'd say 'how much?' Now we're being more proactive than we used to be. We're now seen as advisers rather than testers, so they business will engage us really early and do a risk assessment before we even give them an estimate [for performance testing]. The company has very much pushed into the user experience, and is being proactive about making sure it's good enough."

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