Tue, 19 Jan 2016

Automating Deployments: 3+ Environments

Permanent link

Software is written to run in a production environment. This is where the goal of the business is achieved: making money for the business, or reaching and educating people, or whatever the reason for writing the software is. For websites, this is the typically the Internet-facing public servers.

But the production environment is not where you want to develop software. Developing is an iterative process, and comes with its own share of mistakes and corrections. You don't want your customers to see all those mistakes as you make them, so you develop in a different environment, maybe on your PC or laptop instead of a server, with a different database (though hopefully using the same database software as in the production environment), possibly using a different authentication mechanism, and far less data than the production environment has.

You'll likely want to prevent certain interactions in the development environment that are desirable in production: Sending notifications (email, SMS, voice, you name it), charging credit cards, provisioning virtual machines, opening rack doors in your data center and so on. How that is done very much depends on the interaction. You can configure a mail transfer agent to deliver all mails to a local file or mail box. Some APIs have dedicated testing modes or installations; in the worst case, you might have to write a mock implementation that answers similarly to the original API, but doesn't carry out the action that the original API does.

Deploying software straight to production if it has only been tested on the developer's machine is a rather bad practice. Often the environments are too different, and the developer unknowingly relied on a feature of his environment that isn't the same in the production environment. Thus it is quite common to have one or more environments in between where the software is deployed and tested, and only propagated to the next deployment environment when all the tests in the previous one were successful.

After a software is modified in the development environment, it is
deployed to the testing environment (with its own database), and if all tests
were successful, propagated to the production environment.

One of these stages is often called testing. This is where the software is shown to the stakeholders to gather feedback, and if manual QA steps are required, they are often carried out in this environment (unless there is a separate environment for that).

A reason to have another non-production environment is test service dependencies. If several different software components are deployed to the testing environment, and you decide to deploy one or two at a time to production, things might break in production. The component you deployed might have a dependency on a newer version of another component, and since the testing environment contained that newer version, nobody noticed. Or maybe a database upgrade in the testing environment failed, and had to be repaired manually; you don't want the same to happen in a production setting, so you decide to test in another environment first.

After a software is modified in the development environment, it is
deployed to the testing environment (with its own database), and if all tests
were successful, propagated to the staging  environment. Only if this works is
the deployment to production carried out

Thus many companies have another staging environment that mirrors the production environment as closely as possible. A planned production deployment is first carried out in the staging environment, and on success done in production too, or rolled back on error.

There are valid reasons to have more environments even. If automated performance testing is performed, it should be done in an separate environment where no manual usage is possible to avoid distorting results. Other tests such as automated acceptance or penetration testings are best done in their own environment.

One can add more environments for automated acceptance, penetration
     and performance testing for example; those typically come before the
     staging environment.

In addition, dedicated environment for testing and evaluating explorative features are possible.

It should be noted that while these environment all serve valid purposes, they also come at a cost. Machines, either virtual or native, on which all those environments run must be available, and they consume resources. They must be set up initially and maintained. License costs must be considered (for example for proprietary databases). Also the time for deploying code increases as the number of environment increases. With more environments, automating deployments and maybe even management and configuration of the infrastructure becomes mandatory.

I'm writing a book on automating deployments. If this topic interests you, please sign up for the Automating Deployments newsletter. It will keep you informed about automating and continuous deployments. It also helps me to gauge interest in this project, and your feedback can shape the course it takes.

Subscribe to the Automating Deployments mailing list

* indicates required

[/automating-deployments] Permanent link