Cloud Computing – The Miracle Tool for Testing

Cloud Computing eliminates restrictions due to the number of servers in the QA lab, and thus allows concurrent testing by developers and QA engineers. By making it easy to test often, and to expose early releases to the outside world, Cloud Computing will improve product quality

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Does this story rings familiar? You are in a planning meeting for the next release, and learn that in addition to supporting Oracle 11g, the product will also need to support Microsoft SQL Server 2008 (or DB2, or mySQL, or PostgreSQL). Once the typical brouhaha dies down about how complicated this will be, how the whole code will need to be ripped apart, and how much time this will take, the Director of QA turns to you and asks for a couple of additional servers for the QA lab, so that the software can be tested on the two databases in parallel; minimum of three servers: 1 for the database, 1 for our software, and 1 for the test fixtures. The following day, it’s the developer lead’s turn to ask for more servers: need at least 1 “populated” database against which the developers can test, plus another set up for the daily build, etc.  Makes perfect sense … Except that no budget has been allocated for these servers! Soon you find yourself with your beggar’s cup in the CEO’s office, explaining to him, and the CFO, why your team needs these extra servers when “you already have so many!!”

Rejoice! Here comes Cloud Computing to the rescue ..

Cloud Computing could not only eliminate the need to purchase servers for testing, but also actually radically improves your ability to test, and thus improve product quality.

Cloud Computing, such as Amazon EC2,  offers the ability to deploy (and un-deploy) software on demand. One pays “by the hour” of computing used, and storage and bandwidth consumed. This is perfect for testing (by developers and by QA): compute load varies greatly over the cycle of the day, as well as the cycles of the release.

First of all, every developer can now have his/her own test setup against which to test. There is no limitation of hardware, no begging, borrowing or stealing from your colleagues for unutilized servers. One can just deploy at will. Furthermore, there is no restriction on the number of servers. So if you need to test a four-server cluster, you don’t have to hunt around for free servers, you just do it.

Similarly the daily build can deploy to multiple test environments concurrently and thus accelerate the validation of the build.

Finally, the QA team can also test in multiple environments simultaneously, e.g. Oracle and SQL Server at the same time! This offers the potential benefit of being able to test a much larger number of deployment scenarios, than would be possible using one’s own hardware.

Naturally, leveraging a Cloud Computing infrastructure, requires new tools.

First and foremost, all the tests must be automated. While technology has created virtual servers, it has not yet inventing virtual test engineers J.  Secondly, one will have to build tools to automatically deploy, e.g. from the build environment, the new version of the software, and the test fixtures, as well as collect the results of the test runs.

One can be quite creative with the test management tools. For example, if a test setup encounters a high-severity bug, you could configure your test software to pause the test, deploy to a second environment and continue testing in the second environment. This allows you to go back to the first test setup to troubleshoot, and find the cause of the crash.

Another fascinating advantage is that you can deploy demo or beta systems at will  (assuming your deployment model allows it.), and let your sales team or prospective customers to “play with” the early release. By making it easier to expose early releases of the product to the outside world, Cloud Computing further improves the quality of your product.

Will you save money by testing in a Cloud Computing infrastructure?

Obviously the answer depends … on your usage, but also on factors like how much data you need to keep permanently in the cloud. For example you may need to permanently store a synthetic database of a million users (it would be too slow to upload it each time). You will also incur higher networking traffic.

In addition, you may not want to move all your tests to the cloud. For example, you may want to keep your stress-tests, or longevity tests in-house, since these will be running 24×7, and you may want the option of running them on bare-metal.

At the end of the day, to me the attraction of Cloud Computing for testing is that it will increase quality (in addition to reducing costs). It will allow each developer to have access to a test environment at will.  It will create an additional impetus for test automation. Cloud Computing will also allow the concurrent deployment of tests to an arbitrary number of computing environments, and make it easier to give early access to your customers. Net-net, this translates to more tests in the same amount of time with less effort. It’s all goodness.

MVP – Minimum Viable Product

Defining the Minimum Viable Product requires the selection of a segment of target customers and deliver the smallest critical mass of features – as early as possible – provided that you can charge a high enough price for it.

I have recently discovered, with great delight, Eric Ries’ “Startup Lessons Learned” blog , and in particular, his post about Minimum Viable Product (MVP). This is not surprising, since we are both fans of Steve Blank‘s Customer Discovery Process.

Eric’s post reminded me, how critical, yet how difficult in practice, the concept of Minimum Viable Product is.

Defining the minimum viable product correctly allows you to release products that are valuable to your customers with the minimal amount of energy and time invested – because as the name says, you have done the minimum, and yet you provide value. Said differently, if you only need to have 2 features in your product in order to sell it for $100, then you’d be crazy to spend the extra effort to add a 3rd or a 4th feature. Plus, by only delivering the minimum, you get to market fast – and hopefully beat the competition.

So why is this so difficult in practice … at least in my experience 🙂 ?

My first answer is that it is a lot easier to define the Maximum Product than it is to define the Minimum Viable Product.

Defining the Maximum Product  entails compiling a list of all the possible features that your product could possibly have: you only need to talk to a handful of customers and take good notes. Critical thinking is not required. It is easy to get consensus on the Maximum Product: More is always better. The only problem is that no company can afford the time it takes to deliver this “ideal” product. Hence this need for the MVP.

The first step in defining the MVP is the one that is most often overlooked: you first need to define the segment of your customers that you target with the new product. The segment has to be small enough to group customer with similar requirements, but large enough that your new product will generate enough revenue.

The second step is to define the theme of the product in terms of benefits (not features). One of the best tools to help define this theme is by imagining that you are putting up a huge billboard on 101 (one the main arteries of Silicon Valley) that will advertise the new product: what  does the billboard say?

The third and final step is to define the critical mass of features in the release. In this step,  ruthless time vs feature vs price trade-offs need to be made – because the question is not just “what features do our target customers absolutely need?” (this list will always be too long), but rather: “Will our customers be willing to buy the product with these  features – available at this date –  at this price? Economically, this question may have multiple correct answers. However, in practice, presented with this question, customers will often select a date in the near term, which in turn defines the minimum viable product.