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2/11/2005
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Test Tools Give Performance Edge

Online retailers use software to make sure their sites respond quickly and don't serve up errors during peak traffic seasons

See's Candies Inc. is well prepared for massive traffic at its online store, which is expected to see 40 times more visitors in the week leading up to Valentine's Day than during a typical week. Thanks to testing tools that look for errors in its Web site, See's has been able to decrease the number of problems that might make their way into production.

The candy company sells more than 30 million pounds of boxed chocolates a year, has more than 200 retail shops, and operates a large mail-order business generated by its online sales. See's online store (www.sees.com) experiences its biggest traffic spike during Christmas, followed by Easter, Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, and Father's Day, says IT director Greg Gibbons.

See's Candies Valentine's assortment

Valentine's Day is one of the busiest times of year at See's.


Photo courtesy of See's Candies
To ensure that Web sites respond quickly and don't serve up errors, particularly during holiday seasons, performance testing is key, says Forrester Research analyst Carey Schwaber. "Users won't stick around for a site to load. They'll just go to a competitor, especially since there aren't many retail sites that are the only one [of their kind] on the market," Schwaber says.

See's wants to make sure that doesn't happen. The company uses RadView Software Ltd.'s TestView tool for testing its business-critical Web applications. The software first builds a script by acting like a user placing an order. Then the software tests the site for performance, using a load generator to simulate actual users. "It makes it look like there are 100 users beating up your machine at the same time," Gibbons says.

During the Valentine's Day season, See's site receives as many as 500 orders per hour, and the candy company has had several instances in which TestView was able to detect a problem early on. Last October, See's added a "build a box of candy" application, which lets users build a 1-pound box of candy with up to 10 different candies from 65 flavors. "Because of these big changes, I knew it was important to stress test," Gibbons says.

While testing, See's found an application-server problem in which the memory structures failed under a load. At first, it looked as if the application was failing, but TestView helped See's identify that the problem was with the server software. The glitch was resolved before the Christmas ordering rush.

RadView is one of many vendors offering Web-site testing tools. Other major players include Compuware, Empirix, IBM Rational, Mercury Interactive, and Segue Software.

Empirix's e-Test suite for Web-application testing includes e-Tester for functional and regression testing, e-Load for load and performance testing, and e-Manager Enterprise for test-process management. Companies can download and install the entire e-Test suite or individual components at www.empirix.com.

One Empirix customer, ShopNBC.com, wanted to ensure that its site would perform without interruption, that it would be scalable to thousands of users, and that customers wouldn't experience downtime or delays. ShopNBC implemented Empirix's e-Test suite to perform a series of stress tests over three to four weeks, and the company was able to relaunch a stronger Web site shortly after. Because ShopNBC receives thousands of daily orders, one day of downtime would have had a negative impact on its bottom line, the company says.

Companies that don't load-test their Web apps to ensure that they can handle peak user loads could set themselves up for potential problems ranging from longer response times to system failure. And once a compromised application is put into production, the cost of repairing it would be 10 times more than it would have been to correct the problem during testing, Forrester's Schwaber says.

See's Gibbons agrees: "I've done a fair amount of load testing, and two times in the last several years I've had situations where it has completely saved our lives."

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