Fish leaping to a larger pool

Leaping to larger pool

So, who’s afraid of continuous deployment? I am, for one. And I’m not alone. I taught hundreds of people in AWS courses over the past two years. We often discussed continuous delivery and deployment and I asked if this was practiced at their places of work. I’d say about 5-10% of folks said yes. I conducted a very informal survey across two technical slacks as well. Unfortunately I had my terms wrong and asked about continuous delivery:

Wanted to do a quick poll. Can you please give a thumbs up to this message if you or your team does continuous delivery of your software product, and a thumbs down if you don’t. And a :penguin: if it doesn’t apply?

The results were:

  • Did CD: 27
  • Did not do CD: 25
  • Does not apply: 3

In the poll, I defined continuous delivery as “if a change is merged to the mainline branch and passes all the tests, it is deployed to production (or whatever environment your customers see) without human involvement”. This was actually a source of discussion, as some folks were very close to this (they deployed to beta environments where only a few customers saw it, or required one human to push a button to actually release, but everything up to that point was automated). Also, someone shared this link about the difference between continuous delivery and continuous deployment. Turns out I was using the term continuous delivery incorrectly. What I defined as continuous delivery was actually continuous deployment. Whoops!

That said, it was interesting that a large number of folks did not deploy code automatically, almost half (note that I believe the poll had a bias because I asked in one slack on the #devops channel. The numbers from the other slack had less than half doing continuous deployment). I’ve worked at a number of small startups, some without paying customers, and I’ve never worked in a place with continuous deployment. I’ve been in jobs with continuous integration and continuous delivery (and this provides a lot of value) but not continuous deployment. I wanted to talk about some reasons why.

The first reason is that continuous deployment simply doesn’t apply. If you are building software that is deployed to customer sites (on-prem), or is tied to hardware, then it doesn’t make sense to work toward CD because there will always be a manual delivery component. Another reason why it might not apply is legal compliance. Folks in the slacks pointed out that in some regulatory regimes you legally are required to have a human ‘push a button’ to deploy because more than one person needed to be involved in a code deploy to satisfy the law and the auditors. These are totally legitimate reasons for not doing continuous deployment.

Next, let’s discuss the reasons based on fear or lack of software hygiene (automated tests or a robust type system). Before I step into this, I want to acknowledge that there may be times in the life of your business where such software hygiene is detrimental to your chances of survival–you need to get an MVP out and test your value in the market, for example. However, in my years of experience I find that following proper software hygiene is far easier to do if adhered to from the beginning. If you don’t, eventually the difficulty of changing the system will grow along with its complexity. You can bolt on testing later, but it is difficult.

I also want to emphasize that I’ve been in all these situations myself. In some ways this blog post is a warning for future me when I try to shirk these practices.

  • If you don’t have automated test coverage, continuous deployment is reckless. This often happens in systems where the testing was bolted on after the system had been developed for a while. The solution is to work towards having enough test coverage to give yourself confidence (it swaddles your code).
  • A system may have configuration deeply tied to a database. Many content management systems are in this boat, which makes it very difficult to roll new configuration forward automatically.
  • Not having an automated rollback strategy. If you are going to continuously deploy, you need to have a way to rollback with confidence, with one script. If you are on heroku, heroku rollbacks help here. If you are running rails code, you can use db:rollback but you’ll need to know how many steps to rollback (I couldn’t find anything that rolled all migrations back to a given timestamp) and you’ll want to be careful about losing data. It may make more sense to run migrations in a different release, and always have the code be backward compatible. Lots of interesting reading about that strategy in strong_migration’s docs. This solution will vary from application to application.
  • Not having enough users to safely canary. One way to know if your new release has problems is to do a blue/green deployment and send just a fraction of your traffic there (you could use a weighted DNS round robin solution). But if you only have a small number of users, the canary userbase won’t adequately run through all the code paths.
  • Fear of breaking key user flows. At a recent company we did basic manual regression tests just before deployment. These could have been easily automated via selenium and would have made sure that at least basic functionality was available. Also see this post from 2013 on smoke testing.

All of these are not really technical issues, they’re prioritization issues. At this point in time most web applications can be continuously deployed. The tooling and the knowledge is out there, given the business and technology teams commitment.

However, this in some ways sidesteps the real question. Why is continuous deployment a goal worth prioritizing, especially when the team has to spend time supporting that instead of giving customers more features? CD is extra work to set up, but once it is running then you can deliver features at a very rapid pace, and you never have a feature sitting around waiting for other orthogonal features. So, in a way, it will actually lead to more features and better development. There’s also the long term benefits of software hygiene for the ability of the system to evolve.

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