Web apps: Quality assurance at last?

Web apps have improved, says Eric Knorr, but an embarrassing number still bomb regularly. Fortunately, solutions abound to fill the quality assurance breach.

Aside from email, word processors, or spreadsheets, the applications most people use most often are HTML clients. Yet few users think of Web apps as software--because, apparently, neither do many developers. How many shades of purple would you turn if Excel told you its standard deviation function was "currently unavailable?"

Even the top e-commerce sites still have their share of bad error days. Of course, Web apps can't be blamed in isolation--DNS outages, data center failures, and various Internet disasters all play a part. But for infrastructure problems over which IT actually has control, tools like HP's OpenView or IBM Tivoli already have the bases pretty well covered. On the Web application side, however, IT managers often seem unaware that errors even occur.

Instead, the focus tends to be on generalized performance metrics. "When businesses that have implemented Web-based applications use the word 'performance' today, they're referring to one thing--speed," says Tim Smith, director of marketing for TeaLeaf Technology, which develops software for Web application error capture. "Think about it: 404 error pages load pretty fast, don't they?"

TeaLeaf is one of several companies--including Mercury Interactive and Keynote--that sells software dedicated to closely monitoring Web applications rather than just counting page turns or taking the temperature of data center infrastructure. These products are another welcome sign that the Web is maturing from a gizmo to an assumed part of modern life. On the other hand, judging by the continuing number of dysfunctional sites, Web app quality assurance still has a long way to go.

As a monitoring solution, TeaLeaf's unfortunately-named IntegriTea software is especially interesting, because it lets you record and play back user sessions rather than simply viewing error and performance stats. If you have the time and disk space, you can always go back and find out exactly where things went wrong. IntegriTea's reporting portal provides a pleasing drill-down interface and the package supports all the major app servers (although the software itself runs on Windows only).

Mercury Interactive offers similar capabilities with its Topaz Diagnostics software, although Mercury's large suite of products emphasizes granular performance measurements rather than capture of user sessions. In a speech delivered last October, Mercury CEO Amnon Landan offered a wild guess that half of all IT spending is wasted, simply because problems remain undetected and unaddressed. And lo and behold, his software solution is getting plenty of traction; in a dismal time for the industry, Mercury this week estimated record revenues for the fourth quarter, breaking $100 million for the first time.

Why do companies seem willing to invest in QA software--even from little-known software companies, which as a group have been nearly shut out of IT spending since the bubble burst? TeaLeaf, an SAP spinoff that received $12 million in series C funding last September, offers one answer: It estimates that its customers can save 60 percent of their support costs by capturing and fixing problems. The cliche of our era is that the products that sell today are those that make the most of what you've already got. You can still justify cost--but only if it reduces other costs.

So goes the bittersweet upshot of a searing tech downturn: Economic pressure forces IT to back off new initiatives, tighten operations, and make things work. Ironically, in the case of Web applications, that course of action is helping a slapdash new medium grow up.

What's your Web app QA strategy? TalkBack below or e-mail us with your thoughts.