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8 Lessons in Deployment Tooling Lessons Learned

03.04.2013
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It didn’t take long. A few months after we released an open source continuous integration tool (Anthill) in 2001, we were asked, “It’s great that I have the build setup, now how do I deploy to the test lab?” That email started a clear transformation in our thinking. Lesson 1: Builds generally exist to be tested or released to customers.The corollary is: Continuous integration is not about build, it is about quality and checking quality generally requires a deployment or six.

In 2005, we updated our AnthillPro 2.5 with a shiny new deployment capability. It worked ok, but with that generation of tool being so build oriented, it was never a clean fit. Lesson 2: Deployments are a serious challenge, and can not be bolted on to a build tool. This lesson has been reinforced over the years as we’ve watched the results of various tools tacking on deployments.

In 2006, we released AnthillPro 3. Oh boy, what a change. Now deployments and other stuff you do to builds days and weeks later were their own thing. Demonstrating a stunning lack of marketing savvy, we called them “non-originating workflows” (processes that don’t make builds) and declared a new type of tool, an “Application Lifecycle Automation Server”. Today, you’d call it a Continuous Delivery tool (thank you Jez and Dave for the better name).

To my knowledge, AnthillPro was the first tool to really take a build lifecycle or build pipeline seriously and had the ambition to manage from continuous integration build through to production release quickly and with a solid audit trail. That brings us to Lesson 3: When you come from the development side of the house as either an engineer or a vendor, you have a lot to learn about audit and security.

Around the same time we also learned a great deal about the Dev / Ops gap. While some of our customers implemented the tool as intended, most of the time it was used either by a dev organization doing continuous integration and deployment to the early test environments or a production support / release management group that only did the “official” builds and focused on the production release. The failure of the developer initiated efforts to get to production provided a key insight. Lesson 4: When it comes to deployment automation, start with production, and work your way to the lower environments, treating them as a simpler case of the hard problem.

We also learned about the limitations of a build pipeline approach in complex applicationsLesson 5: Deployments of complex systems often require a coordinated release of many builds. 

The need to start at production style deployments (and not care as much about the build) and the emphasis on deployment time dependencies focused our efforts on a deployment centric tool, uDeploy to compliment the pipeline approach in AnthillPro.

Production and scaled usage come together to make the deployment tool a critical piece of infrastructure. If you lose a datacenter, can you recover the tool and use it to recover other applications into a backup datacenter?Lesson 6: Your release and deployment systems need to be configured with high availability and recoverability in mind. 

For the better part of the last decade, we’ve been trying to streamline deployments and kill off the release weekend. Many of customers have eliminated or shrunk those big events down to a more manageable size. Big releases though still can require the coordination of dozens of people across various teams. One time events like configuring the deployment tool with the password for a new database in each environment, or routine manual steps like putting eyeballs on the new production system before putting it out to the public still need to be managed. Lesson 7: Deployment is still just one part of release. With that in mind, we’ve added uRelease to the portfolio.

Different people in the application delivery value chain need different tools. Developers need continuous integration and great testing. Change management needs great auditing around production deployments. Testers need their environments to be not broken, updated regularly and close enough to production to make their testing worthwhile. The patterns and needs overlap. Everyone needs deployments that work. Everyone benefits from understanding the lifecycle of a build (or other version) as well as what is in a given environment. Everyone benefits when release planning meetings are shorter. Lesson 8: No single tool is enough. An integrated toolchain that exchanges information is required. 

So there you go. Twelve years of tooling, eight with deployments. Summed up in six over-simplified lessons. I’m sure we’ll be updating this next year.

  • Lesson 1: Builds generally exist to be tested or released to customers.
  • Lesson 2: Deployments are a serious challenge, and can not be bolted on to a build tool.
  • Lesson 3: When you come from the development side of the house as either an engineer or a vendor, you have a lot to learn about audit and security.
  • Lesson 4: When it comes to deployment automation, start with production, and work your way to the lower environments, treating them as a simpler case of the hard problem.
  • Lesson 5: Deployments of complex systems often require a coordinated release of many builds.
  • Lesson 6: Release and deployment systems need to be configured with high availability and recoverability in mind.
  • Lesson 7: Deployment is still just one part of release
  • Lesson 8: No single tool does “DevOps”. An integrated toolchain that exchanges information is required.

What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned about deployments in the last few years? Share in the comments below!

Published at DZone with permission of Eric Minick, author and DZone MVB. (source)

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