What is e-commerce? For the purposes of this paper, e-commerce (also known as e-business) is defined as the software and business processes required to allow businesses to operate solely or primarily using digital data flows. E-commerce is often associated with web technology and is commonly transacted via web portals, but e-commerce is much more than the provision of a web page as the customer interface. The creation of integrated business processes (Enterprise Resource Planning), the integration of collections of disparate software applications, each designed to facilitate a different aspect of the business (Enterprise Application Integration), the extension of software and business processes to embrace transactions with suppliers’ systems (Supply Chain Management), the need for increased security for transactions over public networks, and the potential volume demand at e-commerce sites all provide new and unique challenges to the e-commerce development community—challenges which will require novel and innovatory solutions and which will need thorough testing before they are allowed to go live.
Why is testing important in the e-commerce environment? The first and primary reason is because e-commerce is, by its very nature, business critical. In the third quarter of 1998, Dell’s e-commerce site exceeded $10 million in daily sales; the E*Trade site currently exceeds 52, 000 transactions per day, giving a cost of one-day failure of around $800,000; and the travel industry in Europe will be worth $2 billion by 2002, according to Datamonitor. The immediacy of the customer, with its implied promise of rapid delivery at competitive prices, and the sheer accessibility of the web, all combine to create potentially massive demand on web sites and portals.
The second reason is that e-commerce is a massive and growing market place but one which requires large up-front investment to enter successfully. There are already 5.8 million web sites worldwide, 2.5 million of which have been created this year (1999). The International Data Corporation (IDC) estimates that the e-commerce market will grow from over $5billion in 1998 to $1trillion in 2003. The average cost of development of an e-commerce site is $1 million, says the Gartner Group, and will increase by 25% annually over the next 2 years.
The third reason is because the history of e-commerce development has been littered with expensive failures, at least some of which could have been avoided by better testing before the site was opened to the general public. (In e-commerce terms, ‘the site’ means the entire architecture from suppliers through back-end systems and front-end systems to the customers; it typically includes Intranet, Internet and extranet applications as well as legacy systems and third party middleware).
The Testing Challenges
A successful e-commerce application is:
- Usable. Problems with user interfaces lose clients.
- Secure. Privacy, access control, authentication, integrity and non-repudiation are big issues
- Scaleable. Success will bring increasing demand./li>
- Reliable. Failure is unthinkable for a business critical system.
- Maintainable. High rates of change are fundamental to e-commerce.
- Highly available. Downtime is too expensive to tolerate.
These characteristics relate in part to the web technology that usually underlies e-commerce applications, but they are also dependent on effective integration and effective back-end applications. E-commerce integrates high value, high risk, high performance business critical systems, and it is these characteristics that must dominate the approach to testing because it is these characteristics that determine the success of e-commerce at the business level.
The development process for e-commerce has unique characteristics and some associated risks. It is generally recognised that a ‘web year’ is about 2 months long. In other words, a credible update strategy would need to generate e-commerce site updates roughly monthly. For this reason, Rapid Application Development (RAD) techniques predominate in the e-commerce environment, and in some cases development is even done directly in a production environment rather than in a separate development environment. RAD techniques are not new, and it is generally agreed that they work best where functionality is visible to the user – so web site development would seem to be an ideal application area. Unfortunately, though, other aspects of e-commerce are at least as important as the front-end. The end-to-end integration of business processes and the consequent severe constraints placed on intermediate processes make them less than ideal application areas for RAD.
These changes increase risk and create new challenges for testers, because time pressures militate against spending a longer time testing sites before they are released. At the same time, the technical environment of front-end systems is changing very rapidly, so change is imposed on e-commerce sites even when the site itself is not changing. This requires more regression testing than would be expected in a conventional application to ensure that the site continues to function acceptably after changes to browsers, search engines and portals. New issues have also come to the fore for testers, notably security of transactions and the performance of web sites under heavy load conditions.
Front End Systems
Static Testing. The front end of an e-commerce site is usually a web site that needs testing in its own right. The site must be syntactically correct, which is a fairly straightforward issue, but it must also offer an acceptable level of service on one or more platforms, and have portability between chosen platforms. It should be tested against a variety of browsers, to ensure that images seen across browsers are of the same quality. Usability is a key issue and testing must adopt a user perspective. For example, the functionality of buttons on a screen may be acceptable in isolation, but can a user navigate around the site easily and does information printed from the site look good on the page when printed? It is also important to gain confidence in the security of the site. Many of these tests can be automated by creating and running a file of typical user interactions—useful for regression testing and to save time in checking basic functionality.
Dynamic Testing. Applications attached to an e-commerce site, either by CGI programming or server extensions, will need to be tested by creating scenarios that generate calls to these attached applications, for example by requiring database searches. The services offered to customers must be systematically explored, including the turnaround time for each service and the overall server response. This, too, must be exercised across alternative platforms, browsers and network connections. E-commerce applications are essentially transaction-oriented, based on key business processes, and will require effective interfacing between intranet-based and extranet-based applications.
Back End Systems
The back end of e-commerce systems will typically include ERP and database applications. Back end testing, therefore, is about business application testing and does not pose any new or poorly understood problems from a business perspective, but there are potential new technical problems, such as server load balancing. Fortunately, client-server system testing has taught the testing community many valuable lessons that can be applied in this situation. What is essential, however, is to apply the key front end testing scenarios to the back end systems. In other words, the back end systems should be driven by the same real transactions and data that will be used in front end testing. The back end may well prove to be a bottleneck for user services, so performance under load and scalability are key issues to be addressed. Security is an issue in its own right, but also has potential to impact on performance.
Middleware and Integration
Integration is the key to e-commerce. In order to build an e-commerce application, one or more of the following components are usually integrated:
- Database Server
- Server-side application scripts/programs
- Application server
- HTML forms for user interface
- Application scripts on the client
- Payment server
- Scripts/programs to integrate with legacy back-end systems
The process of developing an e-commerce site is significantly different from developing a web site—commerce adds extra levels of complexity. One highly complex feature is that of integration.
If an application is being built that uses a database server, web server and payment server from different vendors, there is considerable effort involved in networking these components, understanding connectivity-related issues and integrating them into a single development (executable) environment. If legacy code is involved, this adds a new dimension to the problem, since time will need to be invested in understanding the interfaces to the legacy code, and the likely impact of any changes.
It is also crucial to keep in mind the steep learning curve associated with cutting-edge technologies. Keeping pace with the latest versions of the development tools and products to be integrated, their compatibility with the previous versions, and investigating all the new features for building optimal solutions for performance can be a daunting task. Also, since e-commerce applications on the web are a relatively new phenomenon, there are unlikely to be any metrics on similar projects to help with project planning and development.
The maintenance tasks of installing and upgrading applications can also become very involved, since they demand expertise in:
- Database administration.
- Web server administration.
- Payment server administration.
- Administration of any other special tools that have been integrated into the site.
Technical support should also be borne in mind.
Correctly functioning back-end and front-end systems offer no guarantees of reliable overall functionality or performance. End-to-end testing of complete integrated architectures, using realistic transactions, is an essential component.
Ten Key Principles of Effective E-Commerce Testing
Over the decades since Information Technology (IT) became a major factor in business life, problems and challenges such as those now faced by the e-commerce community have been met and solved. Key testing principles have emerged and these can be successfully applied to the e-commerce situation.
Principle 1. Testing is a risk management process. The most important lesson we have learned about software testing is that it is one of the best mechanisms we have for managing the risk to businesses of unsuccessful IT applications. Effective testing adopts a strategy that is tailored to the type of application or service being tested, the business value of the application or service, and the risks that would accompany its failure. The detailed planning of the testing and the design of the tests can then be conformed by the strategy into a business-focused activity that adds real business value and provides some objective assessment of risk at each stage of the development process. Plans should include measures of risk and value and incorporate testing and other quality-related activities that ensure development is properly focused on achieving maximum value with minimum risk. Real projects may not achieve everything that is planned, but the metrics will at least enable us to decide whether it would be wise to release an application for live use.
Principle 2. Know the value of the applications being tested. To manage risk effectively, we must know the business value of success as well as the cost of failure. The business community must be involved in setting values on which the risk assessment can be based and committed to delivering an agreed level of quality.
Principle 3. Set clear testing objectives and criteria for successful completion (including test coverage measures). When testing an e-commerce site, it would be very easy for the testing to degenerate into surfing, due to the ease of searching related sites or another totally unrelated site. This is why the test programm must be properly planned, with test scripts giving precise instructions and expected results. There will also need to be some cross-referencing back to the requirements and objectives, so that some assessment can be made of how many of the requirements have been tested at any given time. Criteria for successful completion are based on delivering enough business value, testing enough of the requirements to be confident of the most important behavior of the site, and minimising the risk of a significant failure. These criteria—which should be agreed with the business community - give us the critical evidence that we need in deciding readiness to make the site accessible to customers.
Principle 4. Create an effective test environment. It would be very expensive to create a completely representative test environment for e-commerce, given the variety of platforms and the use of the Internet as a communications medium. Cross-platform testing is, naturally, an important part of testing any multi-platform software application. In the case of e-commerce, the term ‘cross-platform’ must also extend to include ‘cross-browser’. In order to ensure that a site loads and functions properly from all supported platforms, as much stress and load testing as possible should be performed. As an absolute minimum, several people should be able to log into the site and access it concurrently, from a mixture of the browsers and platforms supported. The goal of stress and load testing, however, is to subject the site to representative usage levels. It would, therefore, be beneficial to use automated tools, such as Segue’s SilkPerformer or Mercury Interactive’s LoadRunner, for performance/load testing.
Principle 5. Test as early as possible in the development cycle. It is already well understood and accepted in the software engineering community that the earlier faults are detected, the cheaper the cost of rectification. In the case of an e-commerce site, a fault found after shipping will have been detected as a failure of the site by the marketplace, which is potentially as large as the number of Internet users. This has the added complication of loss of interest and possibly the loss of customer loyalty, as well as the immediate cost of fixing the fault. The fact that e-commerce development is rapid and often based on changing requirements makes early testing difficult, but testing strategies have been developed by the RAD community, and these can be mobilised for support. Perhaps the most important idea in RAD is the joint development team, allowing users to interact with the developers and validate product behaviour continuously from the beginning of the development process. RAD utilises product prototypes, developed in a series of strictly controlled ‘timeboxes’—fixed periods of time during which the prototype can be developed and tested—to ensure that product development does not drift from its original objectives. This style of web development makes testing an integral part of the development process and enhances risk management throughout the development cycle.
Principle 6. User Acceptance Testing (UAT). The client or ultimate owner of the e-commerce site should perform field testing and acceptance testing, with involvement from the provider where needed, at the end of the development process. Even if RAD is used with its continuous user testing approach, there are some attributes of an e-commerce site that will not be easy (or even possible, in some cases) to validate in this way. Some form of final testing that can address issues such as performance and security needs to be included as a final confirmation that the site will perform well with typical user interactions. Where RAD is not used, the scope of the provider’s internal testing coverage and user acceptance testing coverage should be defined early in the project development lifecycle (in the Test Plan) and revisited as the project nears completion, to assure continued alignment of goals and responsibilities. UAT, however, should not be seen as a beta-testing activity, delegated to users in the field before formal release. E-commerce users are becoming increasingly intolerant of poor sites, and technical issues related to functionality, performance or reliability have been cited as primary reasons why customers have abandoned sites. Early exposure of users to sites with problems increases the probability that they will find the site unacceptable, even if developers continue to improve the site during beta testing.
Principle 7. Regression testing. Applications that change need regression testing to confirm that changes did not have unintended effects, so this must be a major feature of any e-commerce testing strategy. Web-based applications that reference external links need regular regression testing, even if their functionality does not change, because the environment is changing continuously. Wherever possible, regression testing should be automated, in order to minimise the impact on the test schedule.
Principle 8. Automate as much as possible. This is a risky principle because test automation is fraught with difficulties. It has been said that a fool with a tool is still a fool, and that the outcome of automating an unstable process is faster chaos, and both of these are true. Nevertheless, the chances of getting adequate testing done in the tight time scales for an e-commerce project and without automation are extremely slim. The key is to take testing processes sufficiently seriously that you document them and control them so that automation becomes a feasible option—then you select, purchase and install the tools. It will not be quick or cheap—but it might just avoid a very expensive failure.
Principle 9. Capture test incidents and use them to manage risk at release time. A test incident is any discrepancy between the expected and actual results of a test. Only some test incidents will relate to actual faults; some will be caused by incorrect test scripts, misunderstandings or deliberate changes to system functionality. All incidents found must be recorded via an incident management system (IMS), which can then be used to ascertain what faults are outstanding in the system and what the risks of release might be. Outstanding incidents can be one of the completion criteria that we apply, so the ability to track and evaluate the importance of incidents is crucial to the management of testing.
Principle 10. Manage change properly to avoid undoing all the testing effort. Things change quickly and often in an e-commerce development and management of change can be a bottleneck, but there is little point in testing one version of a software application and then shipping a different version; not only is the testing effort wasted, but the risk is not reduced either. Configuration Management tools, such as PVCS and ClearCase, can help to minimise the overheads of change management, but the discipline is the most important thing.
E-commerce is both familiar and novel. Some of the technology is relatively novel, and the application of that technology to a complete business is certainly novel, but the problems of creating business processes to operate a business in a wholly new environment overshadow all of that novelty with some familiar and intractable problems. Paradoxically, it is in the more familiar areas of the technology that the most serious problems arise, because the emergence of e-commerce has placed new and challenging requirements on this relatively old technology that was designed for a quite different purpose.
Testing is crucial to e-commerce because e-commerce sites are both business critical and highly visible to their users; any failure can be immediately expensive in terms of lost revenue and even more expensive in the longer term if disaffected users seek alternative sites. Yet the time pressures in the e-commerce world militate against the thorough testing usually associated with business criticality, so a new approach is needed to enable testing to be integrated into the development process and to ensure that testing does not present a significant time burden.
The very familiarity of much of the technology means that tried and true mechanisms will either be suitable or can be modified to fit. Rapid Applications Development (RAD), in particular, suggests some promising approaches. Like most new ventures, though, e-commerce must find its own way and establish its own methods. In this paper we have suggested some testing principles that have stood the test of time and intermingled them with some lessons learned from similarly challenging development environments to give e-commerce testers a staring point for their journey of discovery.