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Bare Metal Blog: Testing for Numbers or Performance?

What you test can say a lot about you

Along the lines of the first blog in the testing portion of the Bare Metal Blog series, I’d like to talk a bit more about how the testing environment, the device configuration, and the payloads translate into test results.

One of the problems most advanced mass education systems run into is the question of standardized testing. While it is true that you cannot fix what you have not determined is broken, like most things involving people, testing students for specific areas of knowledge does kind of guarantee that those doing the teaching will err on the side of preparing students to take the test rather than to succeed in life. The mere fact that there IS a test changes what is taught. It is of course possible to a make this into a massively positive proposition by targeting the standardized tests at the most important things students need to  learn, but for our discussion purposes, the result is the same – the students will be taught to whatever is on that test first, and all else secondarily.

This is far too often true of vendor product testing also. The mere fact that there will be a test of the equipment, and most high-tech markets being highly competitive, makes things lean toward tweaking the device (or the test) to maximize test performance, in spite of what the real world performance will be.

The current most flagrant problem with testing is a variant on an old theme. Way back when testing the throughput of network switches made sense, there was a lot of “packets per second” testing with no payload. Well, you test the ability of the switch to send packets to the right place, but do not at all test the device in a manner consistent with the real world usage of switches. Today we have a whole slew of similar tests for ADCs. The purpose of an ADC is to load balance, optimize, and if needed secure the passage of packets. Primarily this is for application traffic because they’re Application Delivery Controllers. Yet, application traffic being layer seven kind of means that you need to do some layer seven decision-making if the device is to be tested in the real world. If the packet is a layer seven packet, but layer four switching is all that is performed on it, the test is completely useless to determining the actual capabilities of the device. And yet there is a lot of that type of testing going on out there right now.  It’s time – way past time – to drive testing into the real world for ADCs. Layer seven decision making is much more complex and requires a deep look at the packets in question, meaning that the results will not be nearly as pretty as simple layer four switching packets are. While you cannot do a direct comparison of all of the optional features of two different ADCs simply because the level of optional functionality support is so broad once a solid ADC platform is deployed, but you can test the basic capabilities and responsiveness of the core products.

And that is what we, as an industry must begin to insist on. I use one single oddity in ADC testing here, but every branch of high-tech testing I’ve been involved in over the years – security, network gear, storage, application – all have similar “this is not good enough” testing that we need to demand is dropped in favor of solid testing that reflects a real-world device. Not your real-world device unless you are running the test lab, but a real-world device that is seeing – and more importantly acting upon – data that the device will encounter in an actual network, doing the job it was designed for.

As I mentioned in the last testing installment, you can make an ADC look astounding if your tests don’t actually force it to do anything. For our public testing, we have standards, and offer up our configuration and testing goals on DevCentral. Whether you use it to validate the test results F5 uses, or to set up the tests in your own environment, publicly talking about how testing is performed is a big deal. Ask your vendor for configuration files and testing plan when numbers are tossed at you, make certain you know what they’re testing when they try to impress you with over-the-top performance numbers. In my career, I have seen cases where “double the performance of our nearest competitor” was used publicly and was as close to an outright lie as possible, since the test and configuration were different between the two products the test claimed to compare.

When you buy any form of datacenter equipment, you’re going to be stuck with it for a good long while. Make certain you know how testing that is informing your decision was performed, no matter who did the testing. Independent third party testing sometimes isn’t so independent, and knowing that can make you more cautious when hooking your company with gear you’ll have to live with.

Bare Metal Blog Series:

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More Stories By Don MacVittie

Don MacVittie is currently a Senior Solutions Architect at StackIQ, Inc. He is also working with Mesamundi on D20 Ultimate, and is a member of the Stacki Open Source project. He has experience in application development, architecture, infrastructure, technical writing, and IT management. MacVittie holds a B.S. in Computer Science from Northern Michigan University, and an M.S. in Computer Science from Nova Southeastern University.

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