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Dylan Maccora
Dylan Maccora

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How was I so wrong about CI and what I learnt about CD

My knowledge of Continuous Integration (CI) and Continuous Delivery (CD) had so far only been developed from discussions with colleges and my own assumptions on the topic. Only recently had I decided that I should actually put this knowledge to the test and started doing some reading. To my surprise I was well off...

Continuous Integration

First off I started looking into CI, you know the build machines and stuff yeah? Nope. Continuous Integration is exactly as its name describes, continuously integrating your code. For some unknown reason to me I had understood CI as the build pipeline getting kicked off every time someone makes a commit to the repository. In a way this isn't ridiculously off as this pipeline provides the means for CI but is not it itself. After watching a talk by Martin Fowler he described CI in such a raw, upfront manner that it has really stuck with me. I paraphrase but he states something along the lines of;

If you can answer yes to the following 3 questions, then indeed you **are* practicing continuous integration:*

  1. Are all engineers pushing to trunk/master on a daily basis?
  2. Does every commit run a solid suite of tests giving confidence the commit works?
  3. When the build is broken, is it typically fixed in under 10 minutes?

This is pretty far from a build pipeline tool right?

So what we are saying here is that CI is the practice of continually integrating developer's code in the repository, daily. That is, there is no never ending feature branches and no 'sub-master' branch that we all merge into before we go to our actual master, nope. Everything needs to be integrated and on the master branch. Period. I have definitely witnessed teams not practicing CI and seeing how things can gradually diverge over time and then when finally ready, bringing them all back together becomes feature work in of itself!

Next up, we are saying, cool you are all integrating but does the software still do what it is meant to? The easiest way to get peace of mind for this is a solid suite of tests. Now we are all well familiar with unit tests but through my readings I was introduced to so many different types of tests, all of which play a different role in building our confidence in our software. If you are interested in looking further into it have a read of this article by Atlassian. So what we really want here is a suite of tests, not only unit tests, that is kicked off every time some one delivers and definitely every time some on commits to the master branch.

The final question is directed more at the culture developed, than the actual practice. I feel that it is depicting the importance of the master branch. The notion of, if it fails, you drop everything and get that baby back to green! To achieve this there has to be a culture shift, as well as confidence in your build pipeline. The last thing you want is developers not thinking twice about a failed build because 'everyone knows this test is flaky'. If it is flaky and you can do something about it, fix that up, regain some confidence in your pipeline and get that pipeline to a strong green.

Continuous Delivery vs Continuous Deployment

The two CD's were a lot newer to my vocabulary than the wrongly understood CI, so I approached these with less of a tainted mind. Again Martin Fowler covered these topics in his talk. There is so much to talk about regarding these topics and it is really fascinating if you get the chance to read further into them but here I just wanted to look at what exactly is the difference?

Firstly I want to say that I am by no means an expert in regards to these but just want to share what I thought was a really simple explanation on differentiating the two. Both of these notions revolve around very similar concepts and both have similar end goals. They are looking at being able to get quality software out the door in an automated, reproducible manner, and of course, quickly. One of the biggest pre-requisites is to have an automated pipeline, script where you can, define your pipeline in source code, get everything moving with as little human interaction as possible! Once this is done we can look into getting the software into environments of closer parity to the production environment than our local development machine, again ideally in an automated manner. This is all so we can gain confidence that the release will work as well as be certain that it is done in the same manner every time.

So at this point we haven't really said much about what is the actual difference between delivery and deployment. Well that is because up until now there kind of isn't much of a difference. However when we get to the final stage delivering the software into production that is where it differs. Continuous Delivery is having the ability to deliver the current master at any given moment, Continuous Deployment is actually doing just that for every commit. You can see how the two can be easily confused, further how continuous delivery is sort of a requirement for continuous deployment.

Actually implementing these practices can have some unexpected side effects as I have seen. Applying only continuous delivery, teams had no problem practicing continuous integration as they had their master branch raring and ready, but only deployed when it was required. Whereas those practicing continuous deployment actually gravitated away from the continuous integration definition given earlier as they started having these sub-master branches so that they could be confident in their software before it was delivered to production. However I am sure this all depends on the scenario and what your team has in place, I am certainly not saying continuous deployment is bad as I am sure the big tech companies have definitely made this work well for them. Give it a go and see what works best for your team.

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