Sporadically delivered thoughts on Continuous Delivery

The Conflict Between Continuous Delivery and Traditional Agile

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In working with development teams at organizations which are adopting Continuous Delivery, I have found there can be friction over practices that many developers have come to consider as the right way for Agile teams to work. I believe the root of conflicts between what I’ve come to think of as traditional agile and CD is the approach to making software “ready for release”.

Evolution of software delivery

Waterfall A usefully simplistic view of the evolution of ideas about making software ready for release is this:

  • Waterfall believes a team should only start making its software ready for release when all of the functionality for the release has been developed (i.e. when it is “feature complete”).
  • Agile introduces the idea that the team should get their software ready for release throughout development. Many variations of agile (which I refer to as “traditional agile” in this post) believe this should be done at periodic intervals.
  • Continuous Delivery is another subset of agile which in which the team keeps its software ready for release at all times during development. It is different from “traditional” agile in that it does not involve stopping and making a special effort to create a releasable build.

Continuous Delivery is not about shorter cycles

Going from traditional Agile development to Continuous Delivery is not about adopting a shorter cycle for making the software ready for release. Making releasable builds every night is still not Continuous Delivery. CD is about moving away from making the software ready as a separate activity, and instead developing in a way that means the software is always ready for release.

Ready for release does not mean actually releasing

A common misunderstanding is that Continuous Delivery means releasing into production very frequently. This confusion is made worse by the use of organizations that release software multiple times every day as poster children for CD. Continuous Delivery doesn’t require frequent releases, it only requires ensuring software could be released with very little effort at any point during development. (See Jez Humble’s article on Continuous Delivery vs. Continuous Deployment.) Although developing this capability opens opportunities which may encourage the organization to release more often, many teams find more than enough benefit from CD practices to justify using it even when releases are fairly infrequent.

Friction points between Continuous Delivery and traditional Agile

As I mentioned, there are sometimes conflicts between Continuous Delivery and practices that development teams take for granted as being “proper” Agile.

Friction point: software with unfinished work can still be releasable

One of these points of friction is the requirement that the codebase not include incomplete stories or bugfixes at the end of the iteration. I explored this in my previous post on iterations. This requirement comes from the idea that the end of the iteration is the point where the team stops and does the extra work needed to prepare the software for release. But when a team adopts Continuous Delivery, there is no additional work needed to make the software releasable.

More to the point, the CD team ensures that their code could be released to production even when they have work in progress, using techniques such as feature toggles. This in turn means that the team can meet the requirement that they be ready for release at the end of the iteration even with unfinished stories.

This can be a bit difficult for people to swallow. The team can certainly still require all work to be complete at the iteration boundary, but this starts to feel like an arbitrary constraint that breaks the team’s flow. Continuous Delivery doesn’t require non-timeboxed iterations, but the two practices are complementary.

Friction point: snapshot/release builds

Many development teams divide software builds into two types, “snapshot” builds and “release” builds. This is not specific to Agile, but has become strongly embedded in the Java world due to the rise of Maven, which puts the snapshot/build concept at the core of its design. This approach divides the development cycle into two phases, with snapshots being used while software is in development, and a release build being created only when the software is deemed ready for release.

This division of the release cycle clearly conflicts with the Continuous Delivery philosophy that software should always be ready for release. The way CD is typically implemented involves only creating a build once, and then promoting it through multiple stages of a pipeline for testing and validation activities, which doesn’t work if software is built in two different ways as with Maven.

It’s entirely possible to use Maven with Continuous Delivery, for example by creating a release build for every build in the pipeline. However this leads to friction with Maven tools and infrastructure that assume release builds are infrequent and intended for production deployment. For example, artefact repositories such as Nexus and Artefactory have housekeeping features to delete old snapshot builds, but don’t allow release builds to be deleted. So an active CD team, which may produce dozens of builds a day, can easily chew through gigabytes and terabytes of disk space on the repository.

Friction point: heavier focus on testing deployability

Nobody likes cleaning up broken builds A standard practice with Continuous Delivery is automatically deploying every build that passes basic Continuous Integration to an environment that emulates production as closely as possible, using the same deployment process and tooling. This is essential to proving whether the code is ready for release on every commit, but this is more rigorous than many development teams are used to having in their CI.

For example, pre-CD Continuous Integration might run automated functional tests against the application by deploying it to an embedded application server using a build tool like Ant or Maven. This is easier for developers to use and maintain, but is probably not how the application will be deployed in production.

So a CD team will typically add an automated deployment to an environment will more fully replicates production, including separated web/app/data tiers, and deployment tooling that will be used in production. However this more production-like deployment stage is more likely to fail due to its added complexity, and may be may be more difficult for developers to maintain and fix since it uses tooling more familiar to system administrators than to developers.

This can be an opportunity to work more closely with the operations team to create a more reliable, easily supported deployment process. But it is likely to be a steep curve to implement and stabilize this process, which may impact development productivity.

Is CD worth it?

Given these friction points, what benefit is there to moving from traditional Agile to Continuous Delivery worthwhile, especially for a team that is unlikely to actually release into production more often than every iteration?

  • Decrease risk by uncovering deployment issues earlier,
  • increase flexibility by giving the organization the option to release at any point with minimal added cost or risk,
  • Involves everyone involved in production releases - such as QA, operations, etc. - in making the full process more efficient. The entire organization must identify difficult areas of the process and find ways to fix them, through automation, better collaboration, and improved working practices,
  • By continuously rehearsing the release process, the organization becomes more competent at doing it, so that releasing becomes autonomic, like breathing, rather than traumatic, like giving birth,
  • Improves the quality of the software, by forcing the team to fix problems as they are found rather than being able to leave things for later.

Dealing with the friction

The friction points I’ve described seem to come up fairly often when Continuous Delivery is being introduced. My hope is that understanding the source of this friction will be helpful in discussing it when it comes up, and working through the issues. If developers who are initially uncomfortable with breaking with the “proper” way of doing things, or find a CD pipeline overly complex or difficult understand the aims and value of these practices, hopefully they will be more open to giving them a chance. Once these practices become embedded and mature in an organization, team members often find it’s difficult to go back to the old ways of doing them.

Edit: I’ve rephrased the definition of the “traditional agile” approach to making software ready for release. This definition is not meant to apply to all agile practices, but rather applies to what seems to me to be a fairly mainstream belief that agile means stopping work to make the software releasable.