Innovation Case Study: Test Automation & Ambit Enterprise Upgrade

A business case of how technology innovation successfully integrated into the business operations an improved the way of working that supported business success.

  
Areas of Science and TechnologyData Engineering, Computer Science
R&D Start DateDec 2018
R&D End DateSeptember 2019
Competent ProfessionalRenier Botha

 

Overview and Available Baseline Technologies

Within the scope of the project, the competent professionals sought to develop a regression testing framework aimed at testing the work carried out to upgrade the Ambit application[1] from a client service solution to a software as a service solution (SaaS) operating in the Cloud. The test framework developed is now used to define and support any testing initiatives across the Bank. The team also sought to automate the process, however this failed due to lack of existing infrastructure in the Bank. 

Initial attempts to achieve this by way of third-party solution providers, such as Qualitest, were unsuccessful, as these providers were unable to develop a framework or methodology which could be documented and reused across different projects. For this the team sought to develop the framework from the ground up. The project was successfully completed in September 2019. 

Technological Advances

The upgrade would enable access to the system via the internet, meaning users would no longer need a Cisco connection onto the specific servers to engage with the application. The upgrade would also enable the system to be accessed from devices other than a PC or laptop. Business Finance at Shawbrook is comprised of 14 different business units, with each unit having a different product which is captured and processed through Ambit. All the existing functionality, and business specific configuration needed to be transferred into the new Enterprise platform, as well as the migration of all the associated data. The competent professionals at Shawbrook sought to appreciably improve the current application through the following technological advances:

  • Development of an Automated Test Framework which could be used across different projects

Comprehensive, well executed testing is essential for mitigating risks to deployment. Shawbrook did not have a documented, standardised, and proven methodology that could be adopted by different projects to ensure that proper testing practises are incorporated into project delivery. There was a requirement to develop a test framework to plan, manage, govern and support testing across the agreed phases, using tools and practices that help mitigate risks in a cost-effective and commensurate way.

The test team sought to develop a continuous delivery framework, which could be used across all units within Business Finance. The Ambit Enterprise Upgrade was the first project at Shawbrook to adopt this framework, which lead to the development of a regression test pack and the subsequent successful delivery of the Ambit upgrade. The Ambit Enterprise project was the first project within the Bank which was delivered with no issues raised post release.

The development of a regression test pack which would enable automated testing of future changes or upgrades to the Ambit platform

Regression testing is a fundamental part of the software development lifecycle. With the increased popularity of the Agile development methodology, regression testing has taken on added importance. The team at Shawbrook sought to adopt an iterative, Agile approach to software development. 

A manual regression test pack was developed which could be used for future testing without the need for the involvement of business users. This was delivered over three test cycles with the team using the results of each cycle (bugs identified and resolved) to issue new releases. 

173 user paths were captured in the regression test pack, across 14 different divisions within Business Finance. 251 issues were found during testing, with some being within the Ambit application. Identifying and resolving these issues resulted in the advancement of Ambit Enterprise platform itself. This regression test pack can now be used for future changes to the Ambit Enterprise application, as well as future FIS[2] releases, change requests and enhancements, without being dependent on the business users to undertake UAT. The competent professionals at Shawbrook are currently using the regression test pack to test the integration functionality of the Ambit Enterprise platform.

  • Development of a costing tool to generate cost estimates for cloud test environment requirements

In order to resolve issues, solutions need to be tested within test environments. A lack of supply was identified within Shawbrook and there was an initiative to increase supply using the Azure cloud environment. The objective was to increase the capability within Business Finance to manage an Azure flexible hosting environment where necessary test environments could be set up on demand. There was also a requirement to plan and justify the expense of test environment management. The competent professionals sought to develop a costing tool, based on the Azure costing model, which could be used by project managers within Business Application Support (“BAS”) to quickly generate what the environment cost would be on a per day or per hour running basis. Costs were calculated based on the environment specification required and number of running hours required. Environment specification was classified as either “high”, “medium” or “low”. For example, the test environment specification required for a web server is low, an application server is medium while a database server is high. Shawbrook gained knowledge and increase its capability of the use of the Azure cloud environment and as a result are actively using the platform to undertake cloud-based testing.

The above constitutes an advance in knowledge and capability in the field of Data Engineering and Computer Science, as per sections 9 a) and c) of the BEIS Guidelines.

Technological Uncertainties and activities carried out to address them

The following technological uncertainties were encountered while developing the Ambit Enterprise upgrade, mainly pertaining to system uncertainty:

  • Implementation of the new Ambit Enterprise application could disrupt existing business processes

The biggest risks for the programme of change, was the potential disruption of existing business processes due to the implementation of the change without validation of the upgraded application against the existing functionality. This was the primary focus of the risk mitigation process for the project. Following the test phases set out in the test framework would enable a clear understanding of all the residual risks encountered approaching implementation, providing stakeholders with the context required to make a calculated judgement on these risks.

When an issue was identified through testing, a triage process was undertaken to categorise the issues as either a technical issue, or a user issue. User issues were further classified as “training” or “change of business process”. Technical issues were classified as “showstoppers”, “high”, “medium” and “low”. These were further categorised by priority as “must haves” and “won’t haves” in order to get well-defined acceptance criteria for the substantial list of bugs that arose from the testing cycles. In total, 251 technical issues were identified.

The acceptance criteria for the resolution of issues were:

  • A code fix was implemented
    • A business approved work around was implemented
    • The business accepted the risk

All showstoppers were resolved with either a code fix or and an acceptable work around. Configuration issues were within the remit of Shawbrook’s business application support (“BAS”) team to resolve, whilst other issues could only be resolved by the FIS development team. When the application went live, there were no issues raised post release, and all issues present were known and met the acceptance criteria of the business. 

  • Business processes may no longer align with the new web-based application

Since the project was an upgrade, there was the potential for operational impact of existing functionality due to differences between the Ambit client server solution, and the upgraded Ambit Enterprise web-based solution. The BAS team at Shawbrook were required to make changes to the business processes in order to align with the way the Ambit Enterprise solution now operated. Where Shawbrook specific issues could not be resolved through the configuration of the application with the business processes, changes were made to the functionality within Ambit, for example, additional plug-ins were developed for the Sales Portal platform to integrate with the Ambit Enterprise application. 

Because Ambit Enterprise was a web-based application, application and security vulnerabilities needed to be identified so that the correct security level was achieved. Because of this, performance and security testing, which was currently not being executed, needed to be introduced to the test framework. Performance testing also needed to be executed so that speed and stability requirements under the expected workloads were met.

Summary and Conclusions

The team at Shawbrook successfully developed a test framework which could be used across all projects within Business Finance. The development of the test framework lead to the generation of a regression test pack for the Ambit Enterprise upgrade. By undertaking these R&D activities, Shawbrook gained knowledge in the use of Azure Cloud Environment for testing, and increased its automated testing capabilities, enabling the transition to a continuous delivery framework whereby the majority of testing is automated.


[1] Ambit is the asset finance application operating within the business unit, 70-80 percent of transactions on all lending is captured and managed through Ambit

[2] FIS is the Ambit Enterprise vendor

Release Management as a Competitive Advantage

“Delivery focussed”, “Getting the job done”, “Results driven”, “The proof is in the pudding” – we are all familiar with these phrases and in Information Technology it means getting the solutions into operations through effective Release Management, quickly.

In the increasingly competitive market, where digital is enabling rapid change, time to market is king. Translated into IT terms – you must get your solution into production before the competition does through an effective ability to do frequent releases. Doing frequent releases benefit teams as features can be validated earlier and bugs detected easily. The smaller iteration cycles provide flexibility, making adjustments to unforeseen scope changes easier and reducing the overall risk of change.

IT teams with well governed agile and robust release management practices have a significant competitive advantage. This advantage materialises through self-managed teams consisting of highly skilled technologist who collaborative work according to a team defined release management process, that continuously improves through constructive feedback loops and corrective actions.

The process of implementing such agile practices, can be challenging as building software becomes increasingly more complex due to factors such as technical debt, increasing legacy code, resource movements, globally distributed development teams, and the increasing number of platforms to be supported.

To realise this advantage, an organisation must first optimise its release management process and identify the most appropriate platform and release management tools.

Here are three well known trends that every technology team can use to optimise delivery:

1. Agile delivery practises – with automation at the core 

So you have adopted an agile delivery methodology and your re having daily scrum meetings – but you know that is not enough. Sprint planning as well as review and retrospection are all essential elements for a successful release, but in order to gain substantial and meaningful deliverables within the time constraints of agile iterations, you need to invest in automation.

An automation ability bring measurable benefits to the delivery team as it reduces the pressure on people in minimising human error and increasing overall productivity and delivery quality into your environment that shows in key metrics like team velocity. Another benefit automation introduces is consistent and repeatable process, enabling easily scalable teams while reducing errors and release times. Agile delivery practices (see “Executive Summary of 4 commonly used Agile Methodologies“) all embrace and promote the use of automation across the delivery lifecycle, especially in build, test and deployment automation. Proper automation support delivery teams in reducing overhead of time consuming repetitive tasks in configuration and testing so them can focus on the core of customer centric product/service development with quality build in. Also readHow to Innovate to stay Relevant“; “Agile Software Development – What Business Executives need to know” for further insight in Agile methodologies…

Example:

Code Repository (version Control) –> Automated Integration –> Automated Deployment of changes to Test Environments –> Platform & Environment Changes automated build into Testbed –> Automated Build Acceptance Tests –> Automated Release

When a software developer commits changes to the version control, these changes automatically get integrated with the rest of the modules. Integrated assembles are then automatically deployed to a test environment. If there are changes to the platform or the environment, the environment gets automatically built and deployed on test bed. Next, build acceptance tests are automatically kicked off, which would include capacity tests, performance, and reliability tests. Developers and/or leads are notified only when something fails. Therefore, the focus remains on core development and not just on other overhead activities. Of course, there will be some manual check points that the release management team will have to pass in order to trigger next the phase, but each activity within this deployment pipeline can be more or less automated. As your software passes all quality checkpoints, product version releases are automatically pushed to the release repository from which new versions can be pulled automatically by systems or downloaded by customers.

Technologies:

  • Build Automation:  Ant, Maven, Make
  • Continuous Integration: Jenkins, Cruise Control, Bamboo
  • Test Automation: Silk Test, EggPlant, Test Complete, Coded UI
  • Continuous Deployment: Jenkins, Bamboo, Prism

2. Cloud platforms and Virtualisation as development and test environments

Today, most software products are built to support multiple platforms, be it operating systems, application servers, databases, or Internet browsers. Software development teams need to test their products in all of these environments in-house prior to releasing them to the market.

This presents the challenge of creating all of these environments as well as maintaining them. These challenges increase in complexity as development and test teams become more geographically distributed. In these circumstances, the use of cloud platforms and virtualisation helps, especially as these platforms have recently been widely adopted in all industries.

Automation on cloud and virtualised platforms enables delivery teams to rapidly spin up/down environments optimising infrastructure utilisation aligned with demand while, similar to maintaining code and configuration version history for our products, also maintain the version history of all supported platforms. Automated cloud platforms and virtualisation introduces flexibility that optimises infrastructure utilisation and the delivery footprint as demand changes – bringing savings across the overall delivery life-cycle.

Example:

When a build and release engineer changes configurations for the target platform – the operating system, database, or application server settings – the whole platform can be built and a snapshot of it created and deployed to the relevant target platforms.

Virtualisation:The virtual machine (VM) is automatically provisioned from the snapshot of base operating system VM, appropriate configurations are deployed and the rest of the platform and application components are automatically deployed.

Cloud:Using a solution provider like Rackspace to deliver Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS), new configurations can be introduced in a new Rackspace instance is produced, instantiated, and configured as a development and test environment. This is crucial for flexibility and productivity, as it takes minutes instead of weeks to adapt to configuration changes. With automation, the process becomes repeatable, quick, and streamlines communication across different teams within the Tech-hub.

3. Distributed version control systems

Distributed version control systems (DVCS), for example GIT, Perforce or Mercurial, introduces flexibility for teams to collaborate at the code level. The fundamental design principle behind DVCS is that each user keeps a self-contained repository with complete version history on one’s local computer. There is no need for a privileged master repository, although most teams designate one as a best practice. DVCS allow developers to work offline and commit changes locally.

As developers complete their changes for an assigned story or feature set, they push their changes to the central repository as a release candidate. DVCS offers a fundamentally new way to collaborate, as  developers can commit their changes frequently without disrupting the main codebase or trunk. This becomes useful when teams are exploring new ideas or experimenting as well as enabling rapid team scalability with reduced disruption.

DVCS is a powerful enabler for the team that utilise an agile-feature-based branching strategy. This encourages development teams to continue to work on their features (branches) as they get ready, having fully tested their changes locally, to load them into next release cycle. In this scenario, developers are able to work on and merge their feature branches to a local copy of the repository.After standard reviews and quality checks will the changes then be merged into the main repository.

To conclude

Adopting these three major trends in the delivery life-cycle enables a organisation to imbed proper release management as a strategic competitive advantage. Implementing these best practices will obviously require strategic planning and an investment of time in the early phases of your project or team maturity journey – this will reduce the organisational and change management efforts to get to market quicker.

SPHERE enables Two NHS trusts to deploy Citrix cloud services

Two London trusts are to deploy cloud-based services which are expected to be used by more than 7,000 staff.

Systems Powering Healthcare (SPHERE), a provider of IT systems and infrastructure to hospitals, is to deploy Citrix Cloud services at Chelsea and Westminster NHS Foundation Trust and The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust.

Chelsea and Westminster is one of NHS England’s global digital exemplars.

The trusts are currently piloting Citrix Workspace Service running on Microsoft Azure, but are expected to deploy fully within three to six months. Once fully live, staff will be able quickly and securely access data and applications from anywhere.

“The NHS healthcare organisations we service are faced with ageing IT infrastructure and little capital funds available to replace it”, Aaron Aldrich, vice president and head of operations at SPHERE told Digital Health News.

“We were tackling an inability to scale up or down rapidly to meet customer demands without significantly over-investing in technology kit.

“The Citrix-Azure cloud combination offers us rapid scalability. It also reduces time and spend on maintaining, producing, installing and configuring on-premise infrastructure.”

Aldrich added that cloud infrastructure will reduce the need for organisations to own and maintain large amounts of IT equipment.

“Requiring fewer devices and apps as well as less infrastructure and real-estate will allow NHS trusts to cut down cost per device and greatly reduce time and money spent on IT.”

In recent years, increasing numbers of healthcare organisations have been investigating the potential benefits of cloud-based software, infrastructure and platforms. Last month, Digital Health News reported that BT and East Sussex were partnering to create dedicated virtual networks.

SPHERE INVESTS IN ELASTIC CLOUD STORAGE

Systems Powering Healthcare (SPHERE) is investing in the future – our EMC Elastic Cloud Solution, or at least a portion of it, has arrived and is being installed.  This enhances SPHERE’s service catalogue to provide flexible storage service solutions to various systems.

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EMC Elastic Cloud Storage (ECS) is a software-defined object storage platform marketed by EMC Corporation. ECS was designed to adhere to several tenets of object storage, including scalability, data resiliency and to take advantage of existing or new commodity server hardware in order to manage costs. At an architectural level, EMC ECS offers Software-Defined Storage (SDS). This flexibility not only simplifies the deployment of ECS, but it also allows ECS to provide a single pool of data that can spread data across a variety of underlying infrastructure components, including commodity or ECS appliances, and even EMC and third-party storage arrays. In addition to the flexibility offered by the software-based architecture, ECS enables multi-head access, allowing different protocols, such as object and HDFS, to access the same data concurrently.