Releasing software can be a painful and time-consuming process. One involving weeks of manual integration, configuration and testing while the ever-present risk of discovering a showstopper threatens to force everyone back to square one. The time commitment involved in getting code ready for release can mean changes are delivered every few months at best. But there is another way.
Continuous integration, delivery and deployment (CI/CD) have enabled many organizations to release on a more frequent basis without compromising on quality. With CI/CD, code changes are shepherded through an automated pipeline that handles the repetitive build, test and deployment tasks and alerts you about any issues.
If you’re wondering whether the benefits of continuous integration and delivery are worth exploring, or you need help convincing your stakeholders, read on to find out what a difference a CI/CD pipeline can make to your organization.
The primary goal of a CI/CD pipeline is to deliver working software to users quickly and frequently. Tech giants may have led the way, adopting Agile and DevOps techniques to transform their development processes and deliver constant improvements to their users, but with many smaller organizations following suit the landscape is becoming increasingly competitive.
Understanding your users’ needs, coming up with innovative features, and turning them into robust code is not necessarily enough if your competition is moving more quickly. With an automated CI/CD pipeline you can ship changes weekly, daily or even hourly.
New features can be launched faster, with deployment strategies giving you the option to experiment and collect feedback, which you can then incorporate into the next update. Being able to push changes out quickly and with confidence means you can respond to new trends and address pain-points as they emerge.
Having a shorter time to market doesn’t just help you keep up with the competition. Rapid releases provide an opportunity for product managers and marketing professionals to engage more closely with the development process.
Being able to test your innovations with users early and often – either with test participants in a pre-production environment or with real users in live – means you can validate your approach before investing months or even years working on a feature that doesn’t actually solve a problem for your users.
With continuous integration, developers are encouraged to commit their code changes more frequently – at least once a day as a rule of thumb. Sharing code with the rest of the team regularly not only ensures everyone is building on the same foundation, but also results in faster code reviews and makes it easier to integrate changes.
Working with smaller increments means that – as a code reviewer – there is less to get your head around. As smaller commits tend to produce more specific commit messages, you can more easily see how the logic progresses. And if something does need to be changed before a commit can be merged, there is less code to rewrite and fewer conflicts to resolve.
Testing your code’s behavior is an essential step in the software release process but doing it thoroughly can also be extremely time consuming. A central part of any CI/CD pipeline is a series of automated tests that are run on each and every build. Although writing automated tests requires an investment of time and expertise, doing so pays significant dividends.
As anyone who has had to follow a manual test script knows, testing is a repetitive process demanding high levels of concentration. Even the most committed tester can be forgiven for the occasional yawn as they reset their environment to perform the same steps with a single small variation for the tenth or twentieth time.
Automating tests ensures they are performed consistently, making the results more reliable. Because automated tests are quicker to run then their manual equivalents, it becomes feasible to test much more frequently.
Testing your code regularly and thoroughly means you’ll discover bugs sooner, making it easier to fix them as less functionality has been built on top of them. Over time this results in better quality code.
Once you’ve invested in a first layer of automated tests, the time you save on running those tests manually can be spent developing additional layers of automated tests – such as end-to-end or performance tests – and on manual exploratory testing.
The latter puts your quality assurance or test engineers’ creative skills to use identifying new failure modes while their findings can be used to extend your test coverage.
As we all know, practice makes perfect, and what’s true of shooting hoops or mastering scales also applies to software releases. Adopting CI/CD is best done incrementally, starting with CI practices and building up your pipeline over time. As you start deploying changes more frequently you’ll identify pain points and steps in your current process that slow you down, such as refreshing data in a test environment or having to reconfigure parameters before deploying on a particular machine.
Adding automation for builds, tests, environment creation and deployments makes each step consistent and repeatable. Having broken it down, you can keep optimizing each stage to make your process more efficient. From being a significant event that occupies multiple teams for several days, with CI/CD releasing matures into a familiar and predictable occurrence.
Even with improved code quality thanks to automated testing, bugs will still occasionally sneak their way through to production. If you’re committing changes regularly and shipping frequently, each release to production will contain a relatively small number of code changes, making it much easier to identify the cause of an issue. As your commits are more granular, if you decide to back out the change, you’re less likely to take other useful changes with it.
When it’s urgent to get a fix out to production, it can be tempting to skimp on manual testing in order to save time, despite the risk of introducing a new failure to production. With a CI/CD pipeline, running automated tests is no longer a significant overhead, so there’s less temptation to compromise on quality.
Automation is a central part of any CI/CD pipeline, serving to make the release process repeatable and reliable. In the early stages of implementing continuous integration, your focus will be on automating the build process and on writing and running automated tests. Once you’ve established a solid CI foundation, the next stage is to automate deployment of your build to test and staging environments.
Taking an infrastructure-as-code approach involves automating the creation of those environments. Rather than managing individual servers manually, their configuration is scripted and stored in version control so that new environments can be brought online quickly without the risk of inadvertent changes and inconsistencies.
This not only makes the continuous delivery stage faster and more robust, but also allows you to respond quickly to requests for additional preview and training environments with minimal interruption to development work.
Many of the tools available to support an automated CI/CD pipeline also instrument the process, providing you with a whole host of metrics from build times to test coverage, defect rates to test fix times. Armed with this data you can identify areas that might need attention so you can keep improving your pipeline. Slower builds may indicate a need to increase capacity while an increase in mean fix times might be a sign of a process or cultural issue.
Conversely, metrics can also provide reasons to celebrate, and so they should; consistently extending your code test coverage, reducing your defect rate or increasing your release frequency all belong on the team’s collective brag sheet as signs of a great working culture. Being able to measure how your CI/CD pipeline is supporting your organization’s goals is another advantage of the practice.
Rapid feedback is a key part of the DevOps approach with applications throughout the pipeline. It starts with automated build and test steps to inform you of immediate problems, helping you to work more efficiently and effectively than if there is a long delay between the original work and the results.
Similarly, shipping updates regularly provides you with far more immediate feedback on what you’ve built than if you batch changes up for a large release every few months. By collecting feedback, observing user behavior and tracking key performance indicators you can identify what’s working well and prioritize modifications and improvements.
A frequent release cadence also gives you an opportunity to experiment with alternative designs or behaviors – whether by running side-by-side comparisons with A/B testing, or by deploying new versions and comparing results over time.
Feeding insights into a cycle of continuous deployment allows you to see how your changes perform soon after you’ve made them. That means you can keep iterating and tweaking without the loss of context that results from a long delay between coding and release.
DevOps is as much about building a collaborative culture as it is about new processes and tools. In order to get started with CI/CD you need to start breaking down barriers between teams and encouraging more communication.
Aligning around the overarching aim of delivering a product that meets user needs and understanding all the steps involved in reaching that goal helps everyone to focus on what needs to be achieved rather than being limited by their team’s remit.
Breaking down silos between development and operations is the start of a virtuous circle. A CI/CD pipeline provides an opportunity for the many functions and specialists involved in building a product – from security experts to marketing teams – to get better visibility of the software development process and to collaborate with each other more.
Many of the tools available to help manage your CI/CD pipeline also make it easier for non-developers to see what is in train, while access to staging environments allows them to engage with and provide feedback on what is being built. Sharing details of what is being released, usage metrics and the results of experiments opens the door to more communication which in turn fosters innovation.
As we’ve seen, building a CI/CD pipeline eliminates waste and helps create a leaner, more efficient software development and release process. By using computers to perform repetitive tasks, an automated process also frees up individuals to be creative. Instead of following manual test scripts, refreshing environments, or deploying updates, you can focus on solving problems and experimenting with solutions.
Having the scope to be more creative and add value in what you do leads to improved job satisfaction, which encourages people to contribute more, attracts more talent and improves staff retention. In turn that benefits your organization, your product, your users, and ultimately your bottom line.
The benefits of an automated CI/CD pipeline range from practical considerations like code quality and rapid bug fixes, to ensuring you’re building the right thing for your users and improving your entire software development process.
Despite the name DevOps suggesting a focus on developer and operations teams, building a CI/CD pipeline provides an opportunity for collaboration across a whole range of functions. By streamlining the steps to release your product, you provide your team with more insights into how your product is used and free up individuals’ time so they can focus on innovation.