This article seeks to provide an overview of some of the load parameters that you should consider when designing the test load to be used for performance testing a website.

The more accurate the load profile can be made, the closer the performance tests will be to modelling the real world conditions that your website will ultimately have to survive. Which in turn will lead to more reliable test results.

User activities

Many transactions occur more frequently than others and should therefore comprise a larger proportion of the test data and scripts used for performance testing.

In order to simulate the real workload that a website is likely to experience, it's important that the test data and scripts are a realistic representation of the types of transactions that the website can be expected to handle.

If your organisation typically only sells one product for every 50 visitors, it would be unrealistic to weigh two test scripts evenly (one mimicking a browser customer, the other an actual buyer). A better approach would be to use a 50:1 weight (50 browsers for every 1 buyer).

Think times

The time that it takes for a client (or virtual client) to respond to a website has a significant impact on the number of clients that the site can support. People, like computers, have a wide range of different processing levels and abilities.

Different users require various amounts of time to think about the information that they have received. Some users race from one web page to another barely pausing long enough to comprehend what they've seen between pages, others need some time to contemplate what they've just read before moving on to the next page.

The length of this pause is called think time. Think time is generally considered to be the time taken from when a client receives the last data packet for the web page currently being viewed to the moment that the client requests a new page.

In theory, a website that can support a maximum of 100 "10-second aggressive" clients should be able to support 300 "30-second casual" clients because both types of clients result in 600 transactions per minute.

Unfortunately, this theory only holds true for the most rudimentary of websites. The more interactive websites require resources for both active and dormant clients, meaning that the 300 casual clients are likely to require more resources than the 100 aggressive clients.

When recording or writing test scripts for performance testing, you should consider how much time each of the various types of clients might spend thinking about each page.

From this data, you can create a reasonable distribution of timings and, possibly, a randomising algorithm. Web logs can be a good source for estimating think times for web pages that have already been hosted in production.

Site abandonment

Basic test scripts/tools assume that a client will wait until a web page has been completely downloaded before requesting the subsequent page.

Unfortunately in real life, some users may be able to select their next page before the previous page has been completely downloaded (e.g. they may know where they want to go as soon as the Navigation bar appears).

Alternatively, some users will surf off to another website if they have to wait too long (i.e. terminate the test script before reaching the end of the script).

The percentage of users that abandoned a website will vary from site to site depending upon on how vital the content is to the user (e.g. a user may only be able to get their bank balance from their bank's website, but could get a stock quote from numerous competitors).

One thing is certain; the longer a user has to wait the more likely it is that they will abandon the website. Therefore, in order to model the real world, test scripts should include a randomised event that will terminate a test script execution for a particular client if the client is forced to wait too long for the page to download, the longer the delay, the more likely that the client will be terminated.

Usage patterns

Unlike typical mainframe or client-server applications, websites often experience large swings in usage depending on the type of visitors that come to the site. U.S. retail customers, for example, typically use a website in the evenings (7:00 p.m. EST to 11:00 p.m. PST).

Business customers typically use a website during regular working hours (9:00 a.m. EST to 4:00 p.m. PST). The functionality of a website can also have a significant impact on usage patterns. U.S. stock quotes, for example, are typically requested during market trading hours (9:30 a.m. EST to 4:00 p.m. EST).

When attempting to model the real world, you should conduct some research to determine when peak usage ramp-up and ramp-down occurs, peak usage duration and whether any other load profile parameters vary by time of day, the day of the week or another time increment.

Once researched, schedule tests that will run over the real internet at appropriate times of the day/week.

Client platforms

Different client-side products (e.g. Browsers and O/S's) will cause slightly different HTTP traffic to be sent to the web server.

More importantly, if the website has been designed to serve up different content based on the client-side software being used (a technique commonly referred to as browser sniffing) then the website will have to perform different operations with correspondingly different workloads.

Some browsers allow users to change certain client-side network settings (Threads, version of HTTP and buffer sizes) that affect the way the browser communicates and thus the corresponding workload that a browser puts on a web server.

While few users ever change their default settings, because different browsers/versions have different defaults, a more accurate test load would vary these values.

Client preferences

While most browsers allow users to change various client-side preferences, few users actually change their default settings. However, different products/versions of a browser may have different default settings.

For example, a browser with cookies disabled will reduce the amount of network traffic due to the cookies not being sent back and forth between the website and the browser, but might increase the resource requirements of the application server as it struggles to maintain a session with the user without the convenience of the cookie.

If encryption is going to be used to send and receive secure web pages, the strength (or key size) of the encryption used to transfer the data will be dependent upon a negotiation that takes place between the web server and the browser.

Stronger encryptions utilise more network bandwidth and increase the processing requirements of the CPUs that perform the encrypting and deciphering (typically the web server). Therefore users with low settings (e.g. 40 bit keys) will put less of a strain upon a web server than users with high settings (e.g. 128 bit keys).

By indicating that they do not want graphics or applets downloaded, a website visitor will not only speed up the delivery of a web page that contains these files, but will also consume a smaller portion of the website's bandwidth and fewer web server connections.

If present in significant numbers, these easy to satisfy clients can have a noticeable effect upon the performance of the website.

Client internet access speeds

The transmission speed or bandwidth that your web application will use can have a significant impact on the overall design, implementation, and testing of your website. In the early days of the web (circa Mid 1990's), 14.4 Kbps was the most common (e.g. standard) communications speed available.

Hence, 14.4 Kbps became the lowest common denominator for internet access. When 28.8 Kbps modems were introduced, however, they offered a significant performance improvement over 14.4 Kbps modems and quickly surpassed 14.4 Kbps modems in popularity.

When 56.6 Kbps modems were introduced, the performance improvement wasn't as significant. Consequently, 28.8 Kbps are still in use and unlike the 14.4 Kbps (which has nearly vanished) still comprise a significant (although decreasing) proportion of the internet population.

Many companies therefore use the 28.8 Kbps transmission speed when specifying the performance requirements of their website. 

Background noise

Unless the production servers and network are going to be dedicated to supporting the website, you should ensure that the servers and network in the system test environment are loaded with appropriate background tasks.

When designing a load to test the performance of a website or application, consider what additional activities need to be added to a test environment to accurately reflect the performance degradation caused by "background noise" created by: Other applications running that will also be running on the production servers once the application under test moves into production and other network traffic, that will consume network bandwidth and possibly increase the collision rate of the data packets being transmitted over the LAN and/or Wan (Internet).

User geographic locations

Due to network topologies, response times for websites vary around the country and around the world.

Internet response times can vary from city to city depending on the time of day, the geographic distance between the client and the host website, and the local network capacities at the client-site.

Remote performance testing can become particularly important if mirror sites are to be strategically positioned in order to improve response times for distant locations.

But, how can you effectively test the performance of your website from locations that are thousands of miles away? Possible solutions include:

  • Using the services of a third-party company that specialises in testing a website from different locations around the world
  • Utilising the different physical locations (branches) that your organisation may already possess, coordinating the execution of your test plan with co-workers at the offices
  • Using a modem to dial ISP telephone numbers in different cities and factoring out the additional time for the cross- country modem connection
  • Buy an "around the world" airplane ticket for one or more of the website's testers

Getting the right mix

When developing the load profile that will be used for performance testing, try to take into account as many of the previously mentioned parameters as feasibly possible. While a single parameter may only affect the test results by a few percent, the accumulation of several parameters may add up and have a signification impact of the test results.

This article is drawn from The Web Testing Handbook by Steve Splaine & Stefan Jaskiel and from SQE Europe's Web System Testing training course.