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Testing and planning for new products

Putting new solutions in place can be a frustrating and costly experience. Following some simple rules can avoid mistakes.

Testing and planning for new products

By Neil Plotnick

Product testing is a critical topic for network engineers. This article will outline some of the proven strategies that I have adopted based on the numerous "trials by fire" I've experienced.

Putting new solutions in place can be one of the most frustrating and costly experiences for an IT department. Introducing updated hardware, new operating systems or applications can certainly reap many benefits for the workers you support. However, it can also be an unmitigated disaster rendering existing systems non-functional or requiring an inordinate amount of time to complete. Following some simple rules can help avoid the most common mistakes and ensure a smooth transition.

Testing of any proposed solution is the first step. Making sure that the test is fair and realistically represents what an actual load or user experience will be like can be difficult. You should include a group of people that will actually be using the solution you are testing. While IT staff may know how to open, print and manipulate corporate application files, only the end-users will truly know how well everything works. Armed with their experience, only your users can indicate if the response time is satisfactory, data entry is clear and logical, information is formatted correctly, and dozens of other items that IT staff may otherwise overlook.

Make certain that the systems you use accurately reflect the types being used in the field. End-users are probably not blessed with the faster systems and generous memory that most IT workers have on their desks. Differences in the operating systems should also be addressed. If the corporate standard for desktops is Windows 98, then testing on a Windows 2000 Professional workstation may not yield accurate results.

Most companies maintain a clean network dedicated for system testing. This is the best way to isolate trial systems and guard against the potential for screwing up your existing systems. Remember that the test network will be hard pressed to replicate the level of traffic and variety of packets that exist on a production network.

Once you deem that a solution is ready to be introduced to the general user population, be prepared to run systems in parallel for some time. While IT may want to quickly pull the plug on the old stuff, end-users typically like to be slowly weaned from solutions that they have depended on for years. This period will allow them to slowly acclimate to any new procedures and guard against problems that were not discovered during the testing process.

A great predictor of any IT project success is a pre-existing familiarity with the systems involved. It is much simpler to add a process to an already functioning system than to deliver a new one from scratch. It is vital to consider not just the capabilities of a particular type of application, but also the ability of your staff to support the product once it is installed. For example, a business that extensively utilizes Novell Netware for file and print service will likely find greater ease adding Web server services with Novell software than it could by deploying a Linux or Microsoft-based Web server.

Be cautious in declaring an IT project victory. Certain problems may only show up after a period of time as the solution is being used for production purposes. Issues may also be uncovered during periods of high loads that were never reached during a testing period. Whenever possible, try to preserve your old hardware and software in case something goes wrong later. There is no greater security than knowing you have a working solution ready to go at a moment's notice.

This was last published in November 2005

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