A Start-Up is Born

Learn everything there is to know about NWC Inc. -- dedicated to business applications testing.

December 2, 2002

7 Min Read
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We get hundreds of press releases like this every month at Network Computing, so we couldn't resist announcing our new lab in Green Bay using the same kind of hyperbole. In our case, the company, NWC Inc., is fictional (its products sound great, though, right?). But the IT infrastructure we've been building for this unique application-testing environment is very real. We think our hard work will pay off in helping you and your company make smart application-purchasing decisions.

Network Computing has always tried to make its testing as real-world as possible. With five distributed labs, some collocated on business and university sites, we can build cross-lab tests and do testing on live networks. For example, executive editor Bruce Boardman has performed extensive network-management testing at Syracuse University. However, with the ugly things we do to our test beds, using someone else's network isn't always feasible. In those cases, we set aside equipment for a particular review, configure switches, provision servers with operating systems and applications software, design test beds that include multiple "client" machines or dedicated test equipment, and develop test protocols that we test and deploy. Then that equipment is wiped clean and we start all over again with the next review. This process usually works very well. Over the years we've learned the tricks of the trade when it comes to provisioning equipment with minimal muss or fuss-- critical when deadlines are tight.But what if we want to test employee portals? Say we're especially interested in seeing how well they work with a company's legacy data, HR and CRM (customer relationship management) applications and accounting software. That would mean that in addition to the installation and configuration work required for the portal applications, the reviewer would need to generate legacy data, install and configure HR, CRM and accounting software, and tie all the systems together for the review. That would make for a great review, but it would also be prohibitively time-consuming and expensive.

But what if the legacy data were already online and available, gathered as part of the ongoing operation of NWC Inc.? What if the HR, CRM and accounting applications were already installed and running simulated transactions 24x7? Furthermore, what if these systems weren't subject to the normal rip-and-replace process inherent in testing labs? Then we'd be able to do the portal review and much more--testing the vital interoperability features that are critical to your business. The switches, routers, servers, storage, operating systems and applications software installed at NWC Inc. are dedicated to the IT needs of the fictitious company. We'll treat NWC Inc.'s networks and servers as if they are production systems to ensure they're there when we need them. The applications and data will also be available to do the kind of in-depth, comprehensive reviews we need to do.

The core application infrastructure will maintain databases with financial, inventory, customer and order data. Our Microsoft Active Directory Server and Exchange implementations maintain a list of employees and access rights. The applications and data served by our infrastructure won't go away: They'll expand and change over time. When we bring in a product to review, we'll pit it against the real-world data and applications residing in the existing environment. Business-intelligence tools will need to analyze existing, real-time data. CRM applications will need to integrate with our customer and order data. HR applications will have to interoperate with our existing authentication mechanism, and Web-based products will have to play nice with our Apache/IBM WebSphere/DB2-based Web infrastructure. (For more infrastructure particulars see "Building Blocks" and "Software Focus".)

We'll use NWC Inc. to test business applications from a unique angle, looking hard at integration capabilities as well as feature sets and product life-cycle issues, such as those involved when performing critical system upgrades. How does the new software affect and interact with not only our current data but other integrated applications? If the pieces don't fit together, we'll tell you. If there are particular pitfalls to avoid, we'll let you know.Because we've designed NWC Inc. as a company with a significant Web presence, we'll also use the new production environment to do in-depth Web services reviews and workshops. During the past year we've been saying that Web services will be an important new tool that can drop dollars to your bottom line. NWC Inc. will let us explore the strengths and weaknesses of Web services so you can make better decisions about when and how to deploy them.

Vital Statsclick to enlarge

Ramped Up

We've got a number of plans for using the new lab. For example, business tools like enterprise application integration and CRM will be introduced to the NWC Inc. infrastructure this year, plus we'll run a Workshop on upgrading common business applications. Associate technology editor and storage guru Steve Schuchart plans to explore offsite backup in the context of NWC Inc., and SNMP wiz Bruce Boardman will leverage the new infrastructure to dig even deeper into the world of proactive network management. When we look at portal software, we'll test integration with NWC Inc.'s "legacy" applications.

To learn more about the day-to-day operations of NWC Inc., and the product and integration decisions we made, read on. Share the details of NWC Inc.'s physical infrastructure, including air conditioning, premises security and power, as well as our hardware implementation and the software systems. Also visit NWC Inc. online, at inc.networkcomputing.com, for a blog and a live Web cam. As we use the lab to hammer business applications, you can follow along step by step online.

Ron Anderson is Network Computing's lab director. Before joining the staff, he managed IT in various capacities at Syracuse University and for the Veteran's Administration. Write to him at [email protected].

Back in January we had an idea: Build an extension of our Real-World Labs® in Green Bay, Wis., to handle business-application testing, so we'd be able to pound on business software as hard as we bang on network hardware. That way we could evaluate integration and deployment issues in a true 24x7 business environment. Just shy of a year later, we're standing in the middle of that lab, looking at some sweet hardware supporting the production environment of NWC Inc.We've set up a bona fide enterprise environment, warts and all, where business applications under test will have to play nice with our installed infrastructure and data sets. That's important because, no matter what application vendors tell you, software integration and interoperability are way, way behind hardware standards compliance. In fact, this endeavor gave new meaning to the term real-world lab. Got politics? So did we. Got red tape? Yup. Got hardware that breaks the first time you plug it in? Oh yeah. Got integration issues? Do you really have to keep asking? But the worst part was having a camera watch us constantly so our online team could stream us live. If you've checked out the NWC Inc. cam (at inc.networkcomputing.com/), you've probably seen some pretty impressive temper tantrums!

Still, despite all the frustration and caffeine consumption, we're glad we did it. NWC Inc. is as real as it gets without actually being part of an enterprise. As NWC Inc. grows as a "company," its data set and the complexity of its hardware and software infrastructure will grow right along with it. And that's going to make for some kick-ass reviews. Stay tuned.

click diagram to enlarge

Here is a diagram of NWC Inc.'s Business Applications Lab Network. Click on the thumbnail to view the image full screen. Then click your browser button back to return to the article.

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