Serious Websites Need Serious Test Environments

For any serious production web site, I sincerely recommend having four different environments in which newly developed features as well as existing, old featues are tested: development, testing, staging and production.

Development Environment

Each developer should have (and normally always have) a software/server stack that is a bare minimum of running the web site application. This normally includes a database and application/web server.

Systems, such as Escenic systems, will require other server components to be present as well, such as LDAP and cache servers, however some developers may choose to not have these installed if or when they're not working on components which doesn't require them to function.

Suggested architecture

Each developer has his/her own database and web/application server. Many like virtal servers running on the development machines for easy re-use, however I'm in favour of natively locally installed components for minimal memory/CPU footprint.

Testing Environment

The purpose of the testing environment is to be able to frequrently test your latest builds of your portal software.

This environment needs only one host and may very well be virtualised, but must feature all the server components that production has, with the notable exceptions of things like memory caches and native library wrappers which improve performance of your application but are not required to make all the features work.

Suggested architecture

One host running all server components. Daily or weekly deployment of the latest code.

Staging Environment

The purpose of the staging environment, is to enable you to see how your new features will look and act when going live, and even more importantly, to debug any problem you encounter with your website in production without inteferring with your existing users in any way.

This environment should be as similar as possible to the prodcution environment. The only exceptions I'd say you don't need are the full number of web facing servers.

This means that you need the same kind of load balancer in your staging environment as your production environment. If you don't have this, the environment is not similar enough to debug all scenarios that your production environment will encounter.

Database redundancy is something that many folks would let out in a staging environment, for reasons I can well understand. However, if you encounter database replication problems in production, there is no place you can debug this - except, well, in production. So again, I'd recommend that you also have this redundancy in the staging environment. But of course, it depends on how mission critical you believe your web site is, as well as your budget, server space and so on.

Another comment about the staging environment: since it's to ressemble your real environment, the machines need to be so as well. If you're not using virtualisation in production, don't do it in staging either. I've had customers desperately wanting to debug I/O problems they face in production, but are left up the creek without a paddle since they don't have a staging environment which features a credible test environment for them.

I cannot stress this enough: having a real, credible, trustworthy staging environment is a sound investment for your company.

The staging environment should also have real content and not test content. Many bugs on your web site will be triggered because of the particularities of the content produced/presented or the way the site is used. Hence, to catch these bugs, be sure to populate your staging environment with real content. One way of doing this, is to do weekly database imports from the production environment.

Suggested architecture

Load balancer, real hosts (if your production environment uses this), two DBs, two cache servers and two web/application servers. Deployment of RCs of your portal software, i.e. not that often.

Production Environment

The environment serving your website. Whateveer site you have, you should at least have: a load balancer, two cache servers, two web and/or application servers and two database servers.

Since the usage scenario is very different of the web facing servers and that of the application server and database servers, I recommend having these components on physcially separated hosts. This way, you can tweak the OS on the different hosts to specially cater for the server software running on it. See e.g. my article on optimising the TCP connection handling for an example of this.

All critical services, such as the DB, should have a virtual IP (VIP) with a heartbeat checking the availbility of those servers and shifting the VIP to the hot standby server for that component.

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