Monday, June 3, 2019

Book Review: How to Build a Performance Testing Stack From Scratch

Writing a technical book is a difficult undertaking. As a technical author myself, I know that writing well is both arduous and tedious. There are no shortcuts. Over the last 40 years or so, computer-based tools have been developed to help authors write printed textbooks, monographs and technical articles. LaTeX (pronounced lar-tek) reigns supreme in that realm because it's not just word processing software but, a full-blown digital typesetting application that enables authors to produce a single camera-ready PDF file (bits) that is fit for direct printing. Not only does LaTeX correctly typeset characters and mathematical symbols but it can generate the Table of Contents and the corresponding Index of terms, together with correctly cross-referenced callouts for numbered chapters, sections, figures, tables and equations.

In the meantime, over the past 20 years, the nature of the book itself has become progressively more digital. The ability to render the book-block on digital devices as an "e-book" has made printed hardcopies optional. Although purely digital e-books make reading more ubiquitous, e-book file formats and display quality varies across devices, i.e., laptops, phones tablets, and various e-readers. Any reduction in display quality is offset by virtue of e-books being able to include user interaction and even animation: features entirely beyond the printed book. In that sense, there really has been a revolution in the publishing industry: books are no longer about books, they're now about media.

Recently, I became aware of an undergraduate calculus textbook that makes powerful use of animation and audio. The author is a academic mathematician and he published it on YouTube! Is that a book or a movie? Somehow, it's a hybrid of both and, indeed, I wish I'd been able to learn from technical "books" like that. Good visuals and animations can make difficult technical concepts much easier to comprehend. Progressive as all that is, when it comes to technical e-books, I'm not aware of any single authoring tool that can match the quality of LaTeX, let alone incorporate user-interaction and animation. If such a thing did exist, I would be all over it. And Markdown doesn't cut it. But, digital authoring tools are continually evolving.

Matt Fleming (@fleming_matt on Twitter), the author of How to Build a Performance Testing Stack From Scratch, opted to use a static e-book format—not because it produces the most readable result, but because it is the best way to reach a wider audience at lower cost than a more expensive print publisher. The e-publisher in this case is (the relatively unknown) Ministry of Testing Ltd in Brighton, UK and is available on Amazon for the Kindle reader. I was also able to read it using iBooks on Mac OS X.

The range of topics covered is very extensive. I've included the Table of Contents here because it is not viewable on Amazon:

Part 1
  • Step 1: Identify Stakeholders
  • Step 2: Identify What to Measure
  • Step 3: Test Design
  • Step 4: Measuring Test Success and Failure
  • Step 5: Sharing Results
Part 2
  • Understanding Statistics
  • Latency
  • Throughput
  • Statistical Significance
Part 3 The Benchmark Hierarchy Picking Tests Validating Tests Part 4
  • Use a Performance Framework
  • Ensure the Test Duration is Consistent
  • Order Tests by Duration
  • Keep Reproduction Cases Small
  • Setup The Environment Before Each Test
  • Make Updating Tests Easy
  • Errors Should Be Fatal
Part 5
  • Format
  • Use Individual Sample Data
  • Detecting Results in the Noise
  • Outliers
  • Result Precision
  • If All Else Fails Use Test Duration
  • Delivering Results
The overall e-book presentation of "Performance Testing Stack" seems underdeveloped. Most topics could have been greatly expanded. But, as Matt informed me, this is probably due to the content amounting to a concatenation of previously written blog posts. As I said earlier, there are no shortcuts to writing well. The paucity of detail, however, is offset by the shear enthusiasm the Matt brings to his writing: an aspect that deserves separate acknowledgement because performance testing is a very complex subject which can otherwise appear dry and mind-boggling to the uninitiated. And it's the uninitiated that Matt wants to reach. He has written this book in order to encourage the uninitiated reader to seriously consider entering the field.

Some points that could have been developed further, include:

  • Plots and tables can be expanded for legibility by double clicking on them
  • The term "benchmark" needs better explaination
  • Section 2.1 discusses the Harmonic mean but there's no discussion of the Geometric mean.
  • Section 3.3 on Distributions does not clearly distinguish between analytic (parametric) distributions and sample distributions (which usually have no analytic form).
  • Section 5 (p.85) on Result Precision needs to discuss the difference between accuracy, precision, and error.

Conversely, Matt's enthusiasm may have gone a bit overboard in his choice of title. The book promises:

This book will walk you through designing and building a performance testing stack from scratch; step by step from planning and running performance tests through to understanding and analysing the results. If you’re new to performance testing or looking to expand your understanding of this topic then this book is for you!
Unfortunately, this book doesn't provide enough details to actually build a test stack—which would've been very cool. Rather, it presents a comprehensive overview of all the major concepts that one needs to absorb in order to develop a running performance testing stack. But even with the more limited scope, this book is still important because, off hand, I don't know of any other source where one can be introduced to performance testing without drowning in a sea of terminology, procedures and architectures.

Ultimately, this e-book is a great starting point for newbies, as well was being a good reminder for seasoned testers about what should be done in good performance tests.

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