31 Jan

Looking for Outsourced Web QA

I’m a fan of services neatly packaged as products that answer a very well defined need. A good example is psd2html: you know what you put in the box, and you know what you’re going to get at the other end. Great way to complement your own resources. We’re coming to a point where our quite informal internal QA is showing its limits, and we need to reinforce our development methodology to include proper regression tests and some level of automation. What should we use, JMeter? Zend? Empirix?(Yeah I know those are apples and oranges to some degree.) Application health monitoring (especially for transactions) is also something we need to investigate as low level monitors such as CPU or RAM consumption don’t give the whole picture. Many of the tools in this space are too expensive, and more importantly, too cumbersome for our organization size and project scope. I need to research leads such as this QaTraq lite approach. Byrne Reese‘s Test Run seems targeted for people like us.
Now, tools is only part of the answer. Even though we’re growing our in-house development resources, we’re still a publisher at heart and at our scale, I can’t justify a full-time QA person. What I’d like to find is an external resource we can use when we need it, with a very predictable output and cost. Poking around the web, there’s uTest, but they’re working off their own environment. I need someone to work within our Trac system so that we don’t multiply systems and tools with overlapping purposes.
Please email any advice or suggestion as my comments are still broken (sigh). I really need to overhaul my whole blog.
Update: there doesn’t seem to be much that integrates with Trac (Test Run and QaTraq don’t), except for a beta plugin that’s not very user friendly.
02/03/08 update: TestLink 1.7.3 was released last month with Trac integration. Now I need to look how well this integration is done. I love how Trac tickets and Subversion changesets can very easily be linked together (you’ll have to scroll down to Vidar Hokstad’s entry since LinkedIn hasn’t implemented comment permalinks yet — sheesh why does every site that rolls out community features have to make the same design mistakes again and again?) thanks to the common wiki syntax.
03/28/08 update: Oracle buying Web app test tools from Empirix (another successful software company coming from outside the silicon valley).

30 Jan

The Web App Orchestration Dance

As of early 2008 besides the basic LAMP stack we use the following to run our business: Salesforce.com, Trac, Subversion (hosted at CVSdude.com), Basecamp, Fusemail (don’t run your email off your web servers), Authorize.net, WordPress, Feedburner, OpenAds, Bronto, Google Analytics, Google Web Optimizer, Cacti, Nagios, and I’m probably forgetting a couple other services we may be using less frequently. A few applications are resisting webification, mainly spreadsheets (online spreadsheets are just sluggish toys compared to my Excel pivot tables and charts) and Quickbooks (QB Online has plenty of foibles so we’ve passed).
Some of the web apps in the list above are great – we couldn’t live without SFDC for instance. Others have shortcomings that we’ll probably want to address at some point. Replacing GWO with Offermatica comes to mind as GWO requires a boatload of traffic to provide conclusive data, which is not so great in B2B because any test takes weeks to complete. More generally speaking, what I’ve come to realize is that the process of selecting, adopting, and integrating these applications together is really a core competency for an internet business. Then you need to milk them for all they’re worth, which is a lot of work in its own right (Google Analytics is a good example here).
For all the “no software” claims, you’re pretty much in software up to your neck, all day long. There’s still a lot of configuring, learning, training, and scaling going on. People just getting started running an online business need to realize that just because you don’t install software doesn’t mean the whole thing is a free ride. There is still a significant learning curve.

25 Jan

Don’t Pretend Gravity Doesn’t Apply

A few months ago, a rep at Rackspace (one of our two hosting companies at the time) laughed at me when I unfavorably compared their bandwidth rates to Amazon’s. I mean, he actually laughed. I probably got started in the IT business before the brat even got out of high school. They chose to have a different business model than Amazon, told me the smug fuck. Well dude, when a behemoth such as Amazon, which probably spends more on IT each year than your company is making in revenue, choses to enter your market, you pay attention rather than dismiss it outright. I guess your business model is “charge ten times what Amazon charges for the pretty much the same bandwidth, only insult your customers for the privilege.” How about paying a little respect?
So Racketspace at the time strong-armed me into renewing for another six months to avoid bandwidth overuse that was mostly their fault because of poor application monitoring. They wanted to charge us thousands of dollars for traffic between a web server and a database server that we had put on the same LAN on purpose! The bottom line is, we’ll be finished with Rackspace in a few weeks (still a few domains to migrate) and I’ve made it company policy not to do business with them from now on. Memo to Rackspace: Economics that are impossible to stop. (Well firing the biz dev people in charge of our account would do the company well too, but I suspect their behavior was par for the course for a company whose support reputation is way oversold.) I’m sure Rackspace works for some people, if you like being gouged with bandwidth rates from 2003 that is.
For people looking for hosting, if you don’t have your own sysadmin, Pair.com is a much better host than Rackspace. We have our own sysadmin now though, so we’re in the process of leaving pair.com too since they don’t provide root access on dedicated leased servers, which if you ask me is crazy. We get much more powerful servers for the same price at Canvas Dreams and can fully administrate them, save for remote rebooting I’m told, which should be rolled out soon (insert protocol name I can’t remember).

25 Jan

Barrens Chat

This WowWiki entry explains well the utter silliness of most discussions in the main public channel in the beginner’s area for the Horde faction in World of Warcraft. What is really interesting is that a confluence of factors in the game (for instance geography, player level) lead to very similar chat patterns across servers, from country to country, month after month (I’ve been witness to Barrens chat myself a couple years ago with Horde lowbie rerolls). See, WoW is not a single universe, it’s actually hundreds of servers functioning as silo’ed replicas of the same universe. Characters from one server don’t interact with those from other servers except in instanced PVP zones and arenas, or when they migrate from one server to the other (usually because of over or under server population). Yet the same behaviors happen again and again.
WoW shows how mechanistic human groups can behave. Guild drama for instance is highly replicable from guild to guild. Once you’ve been through it a couple times, you may feel like you belong to a species quite close to ants or bees.

24 Jan

Innovation Outside of Big Cities

Jon Udell has a good conversation (with very good audio quality) with Neil Giarratana, the president of a small web shop based off Keene, NH. This stroke very close to home (so to speak!) since our HQ is based in Vermont but we have people all over the place: Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Georgia, Montana, Colorado, Oregon, California, and myself down here in Chile. We have people who sometimes spend time in London or the Florida Keys or wherever and don’t really skip a beat. Looking at Lucidus’ blog, I see we go through the very same issues, from how much can you rely on Vonage or Skype, to making sure wherever your people are, they’d better investigate their broadband options.
It’s interesting to see Giarratana has made his location choice in large part for family reasons, just like we did. From a practical perspective, there are many variables, but the bottom line is, where can you get good schools without paying an arm and a leg for real estate? The almost philosophical under-current is to define and pursue success and quality of life on your own terms, and go in big cities only when you want to enjoy what they offer without bearing with their noise, pollution, traffic, cost and crime on a daily basis.
As a business, this distributed MO has definitely its challenges, but I’m convinced we’ve been forced to develop a sense of focus and discipline whose lack is killing a majority of internet start-ups. For us, it’s all about outcomes, from new features to better content to, most importantly, satisfied customers and increasing revenue and free cash flow. There’s no water cooler and white board endless filler. Less banter, more writing. Not that we can’t have fun though!

20 Jan

Midi Madness

The key with digital music gear porn is to only wank to it and resist buying stuff you’re likely to play with for 30 minutes then forget in a closet. Still, here’s some fun stuff:

My fingers drool (controllerism anyone?) but the head and wallet say no. I may buy a Behringer BCF2000 later this year though, it’s a hell of a control surface for $200. We’ll see how Tascam reponds to it. (Maybe they did ? I haven’t followed the latest NAMM news yet.)
Only remotely related but I saw this while reading through a bunch of digital music blogs today: The eSession Experience: Online Recording for All.
Update: the devices I listed above betray my drummer bias, but there’s a bunch of DJ controllers coming to market too. I bought an XP10 a couple years ago but found that you really need to know your tracks before you dare mix them (duh), from their BPM to their mood to their key. See also:

  • Jazzmutant Lemur
  • reacTogon
  • Reactable
  • 16 Jan

    Jeff Bezos, Hero of All Free People

    Kudos to Jeff for standing publicly against the French Union of Expensive Books and France’s illiberal laws. He’s reading from the book written by Virgin retail stores kept open on Sundays even if that means paying a fine. Just the cost of business in a communist country where Guaranteed Unemployment is a dogma supported by all political parties.
    As an aside, you’ll notice that laws that help companies collude against consumers with tools such as price fixing are just fine for the EU. I don’t think Americans realize how bad European consumers have it.

    15 Jan

    How Much Background Needed to Write Decent Reviews?

    Pitchfork’s review of Burial’s Untrue is mostly on point, though it’s funny to see a music reviewer struggle (or at least only intuit around) with well-known concepts such what a half-time beat is. If you play half-time on the drums, then by definition your accented snare or rimshot will fall on the third beat. That, and the fact Reggae is one of the rhythmic foundations of UK garage make the writer’s puzzlement at this album’s rhythmic structures feel a bit noobish. Feels like someone reviewing a blues album without knowing what a shuffle is. Because I’m such a nice guy, here’s a homework assignment for Philip Sherburne: Gavin Harrison’s Rhythmic Illusions.
    It’s fun to see how often this record ended up in the “best of” 2007 lists. Not that it’s a bad album, but 2-step with IDM fishbowl production values (thank god, because garage can be so cheesy) is basically music from ten years ago. It reminds me of this guy I once heard define funk as a genre from the eighties led by Prince…
    Anyway, I didn’t mean to pick on Pitchfork, and I’m sure I’m sounding pedantic. My point is, if you’re paid to write about music, it helps to know the basics, not just name-drop sub sub-genres of little consequence, all things considered (“speed garage” anyone?).

    13 Jan

    Braindead Brainwashing

    I had a whole weekend rant in draft but Movable Type, obviously objecting to my Austrian economics, ate it. I don’t care to write again why and how Italy is going to start a domino chain that will push half of the countries belonging to the Euro out of it; or why Germany has better economic prospects than France. However, I’ll link to the original Foreign Policy article that inspired me to write on this in the first place: Europe’s Philosophy of Failure.

    11 Jan

    Payment Sandboxes: Not Quite for Grown Ups

    We’ve been working in the Paypal sandbox and Authorize.net test account lately and neither really feel like the real thing. Paypal’s sandbox is slow as molasses, among other very irritating foibles. Testers need to login separately in the sandbox, while this really should be done through code and be transparent to the users testing the frontend of a web application. The fake credit card numbers provided with the sandbox also most often don’t work properly. It feels like pulling teeth to test an end-to-end transaction.
    At the end of the day we decided Paypal was too amateurish in lots of ways. Their Payflow gateway has a dismal service reputation since they acquired it from Verisign so we’re going with the whole Authorize.net + merchant account shebang instead. Our tests there look better though, here again, you don’t get the feeling the test account behaves fully like the real thing. Also, despite being one of the leading payment gateways, Authorize.net doesn’t seem to have a health status page a la trust.salesforce.com.
    Web service vendors and API providers, if you’re providing a sandbox, please, make it work like your full-fledged product, and don’t run it off an old Pentium in your basement.