"Patch and pray" clearly is not a best practice for IT operations groups responsible for infrastructure availability and uptime — yet without dedicated, experienced testers, as well as tools and a budget, that's what happens in many organizations.
That is the problem StackSafe is targeting with its Test Center virtualized preproduction and testing solution. The latest release now includes automated import of virtual infrastructure components in addition to physical infrastructure stacks and external components.
When a patch or upgrade is introduced, the best practice is to build a staging environment and test it there before release.
"We've found that best practice, which IT ops groups understand, almost never happens outside of large financial institutions," said Jonah Paransky, vice president of marketing at Vienna, Va.-based StackSafe Inc. "The traditional approach of staging a production environment is incredibly expensive for IT teams. The IT ops groups typically don't have fulltime testers like the app dev world and QA with dedicated test tools. In operations, folks take on test responsibility without the time or expertise of a QA test person."
StackSafe launched Test Center early this year, and with the latest release it now enables testing across physical machines equipped with Windows, Red Hat Linux, and CentOS Linux; virtual machines on VMware ESX 3.x; and external infrastructure components such as large databases, and mainframes that cannot be virtualized.
Test Center utilizes virtualization as an enabling technology, Paransky explained.
"We make it easy for an operations group to make a copy of the production environment with single mouse click," he said. "We sell it as a turnkey software appliance; you have a virtual-enabled server, and Test Center installs on top of that."
The new ability to support virtualized components with the latest release of Test Center addresses customer needs, according to Dennis Powell, senior product manager at StackSafe.
"Customers are beginning to put virtualized environments in production, and they end up with set of physical environments with physical tools and methodologies to manage them. Then, with the growth of a separate virtual environment with separate approaches and tools, it puts IT in a position of managing the mix separately. We're trying to bridge that gap with Release 5," he said.
Now with the ability to automatically import the workload on a virtual machine, Powell said customers can manage the hybrid environment that runs in today's data centers.
"Obviously the goal is to have IT focus on testing the changes they have to put into production rather than spending time with the manual steps to establish a staging environment," he said. "Even with virtualization being used more often for the staging environment, it's still a fairly heavy effort for customers to set up on their own."
Focus on IT operations essential
StackSafe is addressing a new area in IT operations management (ITOM), according to Gartner Inc., which identified the company as one of several "Cool Vendors in IT Operations, 2008" in a recent report. According to the report, "StackSafe is addressing a new market in the area of release management for increasing the rigor of testing I&O [infrastructure and operations] changes, such as patching, infrastructure software upgrades and infrastructure settings changes — and their impact on production applications — at a modest incremental cost compared with building, dedicating, and maintaining a completely identical preproduction testing system."
Forrester Research puts StackSafe's Test Center in the "on fire" category, reporting that "StackSafe's solution is a direct complement to change control, as it provides much-needed validation before entering an application into production."
StackSafe is sold on a subscription basis as an on-premise turnkey software appliance, according to Paransky. This licensing model, according to Forrester, "effectively minimizes some of the obstacles to adoption: capital investment limited to one server, no dedicated resources, and on-demand availability."
The challenge for StackSafe, according to Gartner, is that the release management market is not yet well defined. Also, the market research firm said that testing budgets are not usually part of the IT ops area.
Paransky said StackSafe is in a green field. "There are a number of adjacent fields using virtualization as an enabling technology to solve other problems. In the QA world there are lab management tools to help build lab environments for QA teams. I don't see those as directly competitive," he said.
There are other products that are part a wider release management market, such as lifecycle management tools and products like VMware's Stage Manager, but Paransky said StackSafe takes a "unique focus on production infrastructure the way it is today and testing by IT ops teams."
And, he said, unlike traditional systems management products utilized by IT ops groups, Test Center, because it's a turnkey software appliance, has faster releases. "Every couple of months we're putting out a new chunk of functionality," Paransky said.
As part of StackSafe Test Center's subscription licensing model, the updated release of Test Center is generally available to current Test Center users at no charge.