Developing and releasing software is a complicated process, especially now that teams and deployment infrastructure are themselves growing in complexity. As projects grow, the problem becomes even more pronounced. Fortunately, there is a way to develop, test and release software in a quick and consistent way.
Organizations now have 3 strategies they can use to manage and automate these processes.
#1 Continuous integration
This practice encourages developers to integrate their code into the main branch of a shared repository early and often. Instead of building out features in isolation and incorporating them at the end of a development cycle, code is integrated with the shared repository by each developer multiple times throughout the day.
The idea is to minimize the cost of integration by making it an early consideration. Developers can discover conflicts at the boundaries between new and existing code early, while conflicts are still relatively easy to reconcile. Once the conflict is resolved, work can continue with confidence that the new code honors the requirements of the existing codebase.
The end goal of continuous integration is to make integration a simple, repeatable process that is part of the everyday development workflow to reduce integration costs and respond to defects early.
#2 Continuous delivery
Continuous delivery is the extension of continuous integration and focuses on automating the software delivery process so that teams can easily and confidently deploy their code into production at any time. By ensuring that the codebase is always in a deployable state, releasing software becomes an unremarkable event without complicated ritual. Teams can be confident that they can release whenever they need to without complex coordination or late-stage testing.
Deployment pipeline is an automated system that runs increasingly rigorous test suites against a build as a series of sequential stages. This picks up where continuous integration leaves off, so a reliable continuous integration setup is a prerequisite to implementing continuous delivery.
Continuous delivery is attractive because it automates the steps between checking code into the repository and deciding on whether to release well-tested, functional builds to your production infrastructure. The steps that help assert the quality and correctness of the code are automated, but the final decision about what to release is left in the hands of the organization for maximum flexibility.
#3 Continuous deployment
As an extension of continuous delivery, IT automatically deploys each build that passes the full test cycle. Instead of waiting for a human gatekeeper to decide what and when to deploy to production, a continuous deployment system deploys everything that has successfully traversed the deployment pipeline. Keep in mind that while new code is automatically implemented, techniques exist to activate new features at a later time or for a subset of users. Deploying automatically pushes features and fixes to customers quickly, encourages smaller changes with limited scope, and helps avoid confusion over what is currently in production.
Continuous deployment also allows organizations to benefit from consistent early feedback. Features can immediately be made available to users and defects, or unhelpful implementations can be caught early before the team devotes extensive effort in an unproductive direction. Getting fast feedback that a feature isn’t helpful lets the team shift focus rather than sinking more energy into an area with minimal impact.What does continuous integration offer?
The immediate benefits of continuous integration are:
- Eradication of manual File Transfer Protocol (FTO) deployment
- Prevention and reduction of production and staging errors
- Generation of analysis and reporting on the health of the code base
How continuous integration provides quality assurance.
Continuous integration offers organizations a way to reduce risk, overheads associated with the development and deployment process significantly and can enhance a company’s reputation in six ways:
#1 Integrating code more frequently reduces risk levels on any project.
Once metrics are in place to measure the health of the application, code defects are detected sooner and fixed quicker. When a development team integrates their work frequently, it means there is less of a gap between the current state of the application and the state of the application as the developer has it. This also allows you to mitigate risk not only with testing but also by enabling production parity.
#2 Analyzing and reporting
Incorporating continuous testing and inspection into the continuous integration process is valuable to developers and managers alike. There are insights to be gained on the progressive health of the project. Also, it is useful to have a historical timeline of metrics to draw upon and look to for trends. The availability of these analyses tends to encourage a period of reflection after each integration which will underpin the direction of the project.
#3 Quarantining errors
Because continuous integration incorporates and runs tests and inspections regularly, there is a good chance that problems are discovered when they are introduced as opposed to during post-deployment testing, or worse, in the production environment. Having a good continuous integration system is akin to having a fire alarm in your house. It won’t fix your error for you, but you will rest assured that it will flag up the error as soon as it’s integrated and that the build containing the error will not make it into your staging or production environments.
#4 Validating assumptions
Continuous integration with unit testing gives you the chance to replace assumptions with knowledge. Referring back to the previous example, two continuous integration environments are used–one on Linux and one on Windows, each of which will integrate the work when it commits to version control. Under this system, there’s no way that those cross-platform errors would have made it past the development environment.
#5 Reducing overheads
The initial overhead of setting up a continuous integration system is outweighed by the working hours saved along the way. Finding a bug while it’s limited to the development level is the cheapest possible way to discover it. If that bug needs to be fixed in any other environments, then your costs will be higher.
#6 Automating processes
Repetitive manual processes are slow and prone to human error. Deployment tasks should be bundled up and automated. Reducing repetitive manual processes results in an ordered consistent process, and it runs every time code is committed to version control.
These assurances serve to facilitate:
- The reduction of labour on repetitive processes, freeing people to do higher-value work.
- Streamlined processes and the development of deployment scripts which run automatically upon deployment.
- The release of deployable software at any point in time. From a customer perspective, this is the most obvious benefit. Projects not embracing this approach are prone to delayed releases.
- The opportunity to notice trends and make informed decisions. It helps build the confidence to innovate new improvements. Projects suffer when there is no real or recent data to support decisions.
The bottom line is the effective application of continuous integration practices can lead to developers feeling more confident about the software they are producing. With each build, the team knows that tests are run against the software to verify behavior, that project coding standards are being adhered to, and that the result is a functionally testable product. Additionally, since continuous integration immediately informs you when something goes wrong, developers and other team members feel better about making changes.
To learn more about continuous integration check out Skillsoft’s extensive IT portfolio for courses.
Ananth Balasubramanian is a Solutions Principal, IT & Digital Portfolios at Skillsoft APAC.