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Performance testing improves Sigma-Aldrich's Web site quality

Colleen Frye

Sigma-Aldrich is committed to providing quality products, so it isn't surprising that it also wants its Web site to provide a quality experience for its customers.

"Our Web site brings in millions of dollars a day. If we have any outage, we lose orders -- we lose customers," said Rich Porter, Web administrator at Sigma-Aldrich, a life science and high technology company based in St. Louis, Mo.

About 35% of Sigma-Aldrich's business is conducted via its Web site, which supports more than 100,000 page views per day. Its Internet catalog and store offer more than 130,000 products.

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If we provide a good customer experience at the Web site then the customer overall has a better idea and sense that Sigma provides quality products and a quality experience.
Rich Porter
Web administratorSigma-Aldrich

That's why the company, which provides biochemical and organic chemical products and kits used in scientific and genomic research, biotechnology, pharmaceutical development and the diagnosis of disease, continues to evolve and enhance its Web site for usability and a quality experience for its customers. Predeployment automated performance testing is a key component of ensuring a good customer experience, and it will be particularly important as the company transitions its Web site to the IBM WebSphere platform. Its tool of choice is Borland's SilkPerformer for automated load, stress and performance testing.

Porter chronicled the Web site's approximately nine-year evolution, which started as a Lotus Notes platform and then moved to the Haht application server from Haht Software, now owned by Global Exchange Services (GXS). Sigma-Aldrich is now in the process of migrating to a WebSphere environment. The goal is to be able to scale the site to accommodate the company's growth, and reliability and stability are critical, he said.

Sigma-Aldrich has also gone through several evolutions in its quest to do predeployment performance testing, which the company has been doing for about six years, Porter said.

"Our first attempt at load testing, we chose a vendor that gave a good demo, a good sales pitch, was reasonably priced, and had a development team in St. Louis," he said. "But when we started using it, we found the interface difficult to use and the application was buggy. We had their developers here to resolve issues, but after six months we gave it up."

Fortunately, the company's second go at performance testing with a different product went much better, Porter said, but after a few years he was asked to reevaluate the product landscape. "I reevaluated about five vendors, including the one we were using, and SilkPerformer came out on top. It has proven to be more flexible, and I like the interface better. It's also a lot easier to customize the scripts," he said.

Performance testing resources
What is performance testing?

Performance testing in context

Measuring the performance of Web applications

Also, he added, "One of my pet peeves is support, and their [Borland's] support is probably best I've seen. Their software is good -- one problem we had was fixed by an update, and we've had no problems after that. It's very reliable, not buggy."

That's important to Porter: "I have scars from the first software we used."

Performance during peak times
Sigma-Aldrich has been using SilkPerformer for about a year and a half. Porter and a quality assurance person are involved with the testing. "We have peak times we have to be conscious about," he said. The company has experienced a lot of growth from the Pacific-Rim and Europe, he said, so when U.S. customers start coming on in the morning the site receives heavy traffic.

"Mornings are peak times," he said. "We have a lot of customers doing searches, ordering, and there's a lot of researching, so we have to be conscious about that time. Borland has made it easy to script for different applications very quickly, and test those apps along with the current environment to see if they have any impact."

For example, he said, the Sigma site provides a Java tool that researchers can use to draw chemical compounds and submit requests based on that image. "That's very CPU-intensive; it could take several minutes to come back based on options the researcher uses," Porter said. His job is to determine if those requests may impact other customers ordering or searching.

"We constantly have folks coming in and doing searches on a large variety of products on the Web site to get pricing and availability information," Porter said. "That information is live, so we're pulling from SAP systems. It's real-time data, so we have to make sure no one is being impacted by anything anyone is doing on the Web site."

Now the company is at the beginning of its WebSphere migration, and it is relying on SilkPerformer throughout that process.

"We do have WebSphere available to limited customers," Porter said. "SilkPerformer is helping to prove the WebSphere environment can handle, say, three times the load the current site can without an impact on the servers or performance."

WebSphere is available to B2B customers, he said, and Sigma hopes to expand that to its public customers going forward.

Sigma-Aldrich as a company is committed to quality and quality assurance systems, and states on its Web site that: "Every employee at Sigma-Aldrich is dedicated to defect-free work, following established procedures, and delivering products and services that are world-class."

Predeployment performance testing is in keeping with that quality commitment.

"It improves the quality of our Web site by improving reliability and performance," Porter said. "If we provide a good customer experience at the Web site then the customer overall has a better idea and sense that Sigma provides quality products and a quality experience. That's how SilkPerformer helps, in improving the overall user experience."


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