Put a Load on It: Combining Load and Functional Testing

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Typically, industry software testing practice is to separate load testing from functional testing. Different teams with different skills and expertise do their testing at different times, and each evaluates the results against its own criteria. Rarely do we get the two together and evaluate load test results for functional correctness or incorporate sustained load in our functional testing.

We don’t always need to do this in pre-release testing. For my retail customer, time to market was more important than strict accuracy (so long as the error didn’t cheat customers). In effect, the pilot became the load test and getting the test team to do some routine accuracy checks during pilot helped to mitigate the risk. Although it caused an upset at the time, finding the bug in the pilot was more acceptable for this business than delaying the launch for a load test to be done.

In some contexts, that’s a strategy we can consider and discuss with our business customers. In others, as in my bank example, the business impacts of certain kinds of escaped bugs would be too high and we need to look at a test strategy that combines functional testing with sustained load.

We probably won’t need to do a comprehensive risk assessment. Normally, in assessing the risks of implementing a software system, we evaluate both the impacts of varied kinds of bugs and the probability of their occurrence. But bugs like the two I’ve described are notoriously difficult to predict. Who would have guessed that, after weeks of careful functional testing, the teller application could bring up the wrong account for a bank customer?

In reality, the consequences of certain kinds of bugs in systems intended for certain kinds of use can outweigh a perceived low probability of occurrence. We don’t need detailed risk assessment to tell us that an emergency services mobilization system had better not send an ambulance to the wrong address. Even if we think that’s an unlikely outcome, we should build checks for it into test scenarios where the ambulance service is experiencing a higher-than-expected volume of callouts over a sustained period. Checking every potentially calamitous functional outcome under load should be the minimum when something that the business really values is at risk.

We can identify which outcomes to check by brainstorming with our test teams and business customers, asking, “In the use of this system, which errors would really hurt someone (e.g., customers, the business, or the general public) if they occurred?”

Sometimes, the risks will justify combining complex functional testing with system loads. If a lighter approach would suffice and we’re planning a load test anyway, we can expand it to include a check for each nasty outcome. Or, if no load test is planned, we can expand the functional test to incorporate a period of sustained load.

In the end, it’s a business prerogative to decide whether or not to pay for load testing. It’s our responsibility, however, to give our business stakeholders information that allows them to base their decisions about testing on fact and reasonable inference. It helps to give concrete examples, like the two bugs I’ve described here or others from your own experience. It also helps to suggest possible outcomes from the system you’re testing that could have a major impact if they happened.

As testers, we can start by developing our own awareness that maintaining a separation between functional and load testing may not be serving our stakeholders well. We need to consider more holistic test approaches that better simulate how systems will actually operate in the wild.

About the author

Fiona Charles's picture Fiona Charles

Fiona Charles is a Toronto-based test consultant and manager with thirty years of experience in software development and integration projects. Fiona is the editor of The Gift of Time, featuring essays by consultants and managers of various professions about what they've learned from Gerald M. Weinberg. Through her company, Quality Intelligence, Inc., Fiona works with clients in diverse industries to design and implement pragmatic test and test management practices that match their unique business challenges. Her experiential workshops facilitate tester learning by doing, either on the job or at conferences. Contact Fiona via her Web site at www.quality-intelligence.com.

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