Start slow to go fast: That’s the essence of staging and testing in a complex technology deployment.
If done properly, staging and testing creates the kind of plug-and-play scenario that streamlines and speeds up the onsite installation process. Effective staging and testing:
- Identifies and removes potential issues before technicians arrive to install equipment. No one wants to do technology upgrades during business hours, so anticipating and avoiding problems is critical.
- Ensures that the proper equipment makes it to the right location, documented and in working order.
- Helps a team define the final installation guide so installations can be replicated over and over no matter whether one, 100 or 1,000 locations and technicians are involved.
In addition to those benefits, best practices in staging and testing mean grateful technicians, whose installation job is made faster and easier. More important, they result in satisfied clients with locations ready to serve customers and generate revenue with no interruptions for installing new or upgraded technology.
Staging and testing defined
In staging and testing, software and hardware solutions are completely assembled, loaded and tested in an environment that simulates that of a customer location. It involves multiple steps, but they boil down to:
- Assembling and configuring technology components
- Testing components separately and then together
- Kitting and shipping the complete technology suite.
While we could write a book on staging and testing, we’ll limit ourselves here to a few best practices and important considerations for each step.
Step 1: Assembly and configuration. In this first step, the golden rule is the golden configuration, or config. This is a standard, optimal configuration developed for each piece of equipment and then replicated across the hundreds or thousands in a large and complex deployment. Configuration files created in this step include all the information necessary for any given piece of equipment or functionality we stage and test: modems, routers, switches, firewalls, access points, VPN gateways, computers, cameras and more. The golden config is installed on identical pieces of equipment, creating many clones.
In an ideal situation, the golden config is the only file we need to load. However, equipment sometimes needs additional or customized configurations layered onto the standard. And security concerns may dictate that customers remote into equipment and add information themselves after the golden config is installed. Banks, for example, need to keep financial information private and often will assume responsibility for some elements of configuration.
One note: In addition to offering the ability to simulate customer environments, a state-of-the-art staging and testing facility includes electrostatic discharge (ESD) protection, in which special mats are grounded to eliminate static electricity discharge into equipment. Without proper ESD protection, static electricity from the technician’s body can ruin a component while it’s being assembled and prepared for testing.
Step 2: Individual unit and integrated testing. After files are installed, each piece of equipment is tested to make sure it’s operating properly. This is where the golden config comes in handy. If failures show up, we can compare them against the proper configuration to see what went wrong.
One important, but often ignored, step in the configuration and testing process is validation. After the golden config is loaded onto a device and it’s rebooted and functioning properly, we take a screen capture of the configuration and save it to a database. If equipment doesn’t work when it’s connected at a location during testing and turn-up, we review our database to make sure it was staged properly. If it was, we look at other avenues to troubleshoot if the file itself isn’t a problem.
When individual pieces of equipment function separately, you might assume that they would work well together, too. However, that’s not always the case. In integrated testing, we connect equipment and check that the entire unit operates as it’s supposed to in the customer’s environment. That’s an important step in all deployments, but it’s particularly crucial for locations that have both wireline and cellular service, where testing those disparate types of connectivity is critical.
(In fact, staging and testing for cellular connections is tricky in general. It involves extra steps, such as working with different carriers and making sure customers have given us the right to communicate with a carrier and activate a device. We work those steps into our plans to streamline those processes.)
Step 3: Kitting and shipping. Packing up equipment as a unit so it can be installed as a unit sounds obvious, but it’s surprisingly important. Sometimes location managers don’t get the word that they’re scheduled for a technology upgrade, and they don’t know that new equipment is coming.
To avoid it being accidentally thrown away, we package and ship equipment in one, well-marked and documented box with a packing slip so contents can be verified. We also include contact information included so those in charge at a location can call for more information if they need to.
Proper testing and staging smooths the path to the last step in our deployment process: Onsite test and turn-up by our technicians, with the help of our NOC. And like all steps in completing a complex technology deployment, when done well, it inspires confidence that you can deliver for clients, both now and in the future.
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