If getting an evaluation server on site isn't one of the chief obstacles to producing new applications, you're among the very fortunate few. Computer hardware vendors find that giving developers an opportunity to use new server technology or to test their applications on new hardware/operating system combinations is increasingly difficult and costly. Helping to improve the process, hardware vendors have seeded developer groups with an evaluation server to build prototypes and test applications.
The trouble nowadays with this straightforward process is that project groups are often distributed across multiple sites. This reduces the value for placing server hardware at a single customer site. Many projects are managed as open source, with no clear discernable revenue source. As such, hardware companies see less justification and ROI for loaning the seed equipment, as there is often little chance of this leading to an actual sale.
The movement toward Java/J2EE development introduces another factor. IT groups have high expectations that the enterprise solutions they've invested in can easily be redeployed on new platforms as they become available from vendors. This also reduces the probability for vendors that evaluation equipment expenses will actually pay off.
The bottom line is that operating systems in general, as well as increasingly popular open source systems such as FreeBSD, OpenBSD, and the many distributions of Linux also make testing these environments on various hardware products very difficult and time consuming.
Answers Not Always Obvious
The changing server development and deployment environment described above is reducing the viability of existing hardware seeding methods, and making it more difficult for potential customers and developers to test their software on new server platforms. The good news is that hardware vendors are growing more creative in addressing the problems of seeding equipment and beginning to provide Internet-based server evaluation services. This strategy involves providing developer access to evaluation server configurations via the Internet. Access to the servers is generally provided via FTP to enable developers to transfer their project files to the servers, and then TELNET to log in, build, and run applications on the server. This strategy not only eliminates installation cost and effort, but also reduces management of the hardware and operating system. Growing broadband Internet access is a key enabling factor in making Internet access to evaluation servers effective. Developers often are accessing many of their resources via an Internet connection, and using evaluation servers via the Internet is rapidly becoming an easy and natural part of many development projects.
This approach effectively allows hardware manufacturers to enable many more developers to effectively experience new hardware/operating system combinations. An entire range of developers from students, open source contributors, ISVs, and corporate developers can utilize these evaluation servers.
Also, open source and Java developers can test their applications on a much wider array of hardware/operating system configurations. This produces a win/win situation where server vendors can get their products into the hands of more potential developers and customers, and developers and customers can utilize these services to produce better software.
Several vendors provide Internet-based access to their servers. Developers should look carefully into the differences. Many vendors make specific platforms available, such as Intel and IBM, while SourceForge makes systems available for their open source developers. HP makes their entire range of products available along with a large assortment of operating systems.
|HP Test Drive||http://testdrive.hp.com|
Run the Numbers
The value of an Internet-based server evaluation program centers on usability and cost. Even though the cost of evaluation servers does not show up explicitly on the invoice of each server sold, the expense must be factored into the price for hardware companies to make a profit. Sharing these evaluation servers among potential customers is an efficient strategy for reducing this cost, enabling hardware companies to keep prices lower. This service should save vendors a bundle, while also enabling developers a quick and convenient solution for building and testing proof of concepts, and getting access to new applications and platforms.
The remaining question is usability for developers and potential customers. The first factor to consider is whether this service provides access to the hardware/operating system combinations that users want to test. Shaun Connolly, HP's Developer Marketing Programs Manager, noted that, "for user testing nowadays, you can't do small. Vendors have to support the full scope of operating environments for testing and evaluation." This means that developers logging in to an evaluation portal should expect to see a wide range of hardware and operating system combinations.
On the hardware side, this means access to servers based on various processors such as Pentium4, Xeon, Itanium, Itanium2, PA-Risc, Alpha, Sparc, PowerPC, Power4, and so forth. It is also useful to access multi-processor configurations and clustered configurations. Sharing servers via the Internet access makes this possible, as it would obviously be impossible to create this array of configurations for very many individual evaluators.
The other side of this is operating system access. Modern times include having options for deploying the right operating system for each situation. These have to include FreeBSD, OpenBSD, several Linux distributions including RedHat, Caldera, SuSE, TurboLinux, and Debian, as well as Tru64 Unix, HP-UX, OpenVMS, Windows 2000, Windows XP, and others. "By my count," Connolly adds, "this will total more than 65 different hardware/platform configurations."
Now that we've looked at platform availability, users need to be able to perform tasks that lead to a good evaluation of the server environment. Typical programs enable users to build and test their software across the many platforms mentioned above. Users may have access via Telnet FTP, and/or secure access using SFTP and SSH. Broadband Internet access facilitates the transfer of software builds and the running of test suites and/or applications remotely. Beyond these basic features, developers will begin to see differences in Internet-based test drive programs. Some machines are also equipped with standard tools such as Oracle 9i, Oracle 9iRAC, Java, C++, C, and GNU just to name a few, while some vendors charge for these accessories and other popular or more advanced tools. While evaluating these differences, also consider allotments of storage. Make sure that your evaluation account provides enough hard drive space to do what you need to do. Users should expect to be allocated from 1 to 2 gigabytes of hard disk space to use for building and running their tests.
Limitations? Starting at the top, vendors do not want you to run a Web site or Web application on evaluation servers. That is not their purpose, and the economics and logistics of allowing free Web hosting would eliminate these programs very quickly. These shared evaluation servers are usually not targeted for performance evaluations, largely because the server usage cannot be guaranteed during the test. However, vendors do support performance testing via the Internet through developer programs such as the HP Developer and Solutions Partner Program. These programs often provide access to TCP/IP ports for fully testing all types of applications as well as access to controlled server environments, which are better for performance testing. Another common benefit of developer programs is are the availability of secure access via SSH and SFTP.
"Clearly, Internet-based server evaluation is a growing strategy," observed Connolly. "Our own Test Drive site has seen over 3 million hits since July, and over 45,000 users have registered." The motivation for developers is extreme. It's far faster and less disruptive for both parties than making all the arrangements for shipping and configuring temporary hardware into the network, for example, just to be able to test on all different types of products across many environments. The strategy exactly fits this Internet age.
About the Author
Dan Sparks is Business Development Manager for the Hewlett-Packard Developer and Solution Partner Program.