Automation has paved its way into almost every field now. From car assembly to prediction systems to testing software, automation is everywhere! Actually, we want it to be everywhere 🤩 We keep on inventing new methods to replace manual processes with automation. Why is automation so important? To just briefly put here, automation is an error-free and time-saving method and people love processes that do not make mistakes and save their time. You don’t have to pay for a computer on a per-hour basis for working on a project, you can make it work for as many hours as you want. Just a set of fixed instructions and the machine performs its tasks without explicit shoutout that too in non-business hours. In addition to it, there are additional advantages of automation that are really hard to ignore especially in DevOps and Agile environments where there is no scope for rest 🤯 With such a hectic environment in DevOps, CI/CD comes to our rescue and splits the responsibility of integrating the newer versions and deploying them continuously and automatically. This post is dedicated to the same phenomenon of CI/CD and talking about its white and black shades during implementation as well as looking at some best practices you should use.
CI/CD is abbreviated for continuous integration and continuous delivery or continuous deployment. Both of these processes are a part of developing software through an Agile methodology which is one of the popular SDLC methodology in the industry. While working with agile, we are bound to push newer changes very frequently (week or fifteen days). With every code push, a chain of processes has to be triggered to check the consistency and quality of our code. We call this process of continuous integration of new code into the older one as, well, continuous integration! The need for CI is simple. Manually testing your integrated code again and again after every fifteen days is not only time-consuming but repetitive as well. Repetitive processes often result in a lot of errors and hence should be avoided at all costs. Fortunately, our machine loves repetitive tasks and where repetitive tasks exist, automation exists de facto.
The next phase is continuous delivery / continuous deployment. Once we are done with integrating the new code, we need to test it for any errors. A fixed set of tests are a good start to execute on the integrated code. If we get a green light from the testing phase, the machine can deploy the code or deliver the code to the end-users automatically. Else, revert back with the error messages to fix them as quickly as possible. A big advantage here is that the code does not get piled up for testing. As soon as the new code is integrated (which could be however small), the testing is performed on it after integration. The errors are therefore easier to rectify and the process becomes smooth. In the industry, you would often refer to these processes as build-test-deploy or CI/CD pipeline. But there is more to CI/CD than just “integrating” and “deploying”. Let’s dissect the advantages CI/CD offers and how we can leverage them in our SDLC 🤓
Benefits of CI/CD
Using the CI/CD methodology in our software development cycle provides us with the following advantages:
- Time-Saver: CI/CD is a huge time saver as the process is automated and can be performed at any time for as long as you want. On the other hand, manual testing has a lot of time constraints.
- Cost-Saver: CI/CD pipeline cuts down the manual efforts and can be implemented at any odd hours. Since automation often incurs a one-time cost, CI/CD saves a lot of bucks in the long run.
- Improved code quality: CI/CD involves regular checks, even for small changes, the code is error-free at every stage. These regular checks contribute to the quality of the code and make it extremely good. This is in contrast to manual testing where sometimes a smaller change can be skipped presuming the code would be error-free.
- Increased Efficiency: Without a CI/CD pipeline, the smaller errors that do not have a significant impact on the quality of code are often ignored until piled up. When the time comes to rectify those errors, they often take a lot of time and decrease the productivity of different teams. With CI/CD pipeline, these errors are rectified as soon as they occur. This takes less time and QA and development teams can focus on their respective responsibilities.
- Improved Management: CI/CD process returns a report in each phase of the build, test and deploy section. These reports are common and can be viewed by every team for a better understanding of errors and share their common views. This keeps the overall process transparent and up-to-date in the SDLC.
- Frequent Feedback Management: Since the CI/CD works on continuous delivery methods, the feedback received from the users can be implemented sooner into the product. As a result, the user sees their suggestions been taken quickly leading to greater overall satisfaction.
Along with the above-said points, you would discover a lot of advantages when you start working on a CI/CD pipeline. As for me, I was amazed when I built a CI/CD pipeline on Amazon AWS and set a trigger through the GitHub repository where my code was saved. Every code push automatically triggered the pipeline without any manual efforts or even opening up my AWS account. For those who are wondering about CI/CD tools, they are not confined to just AWS. Learn more about Top CI/CD tools and their benefits and feel free to share with us the one tool you like the most!
Similar to any other thing in this world, CI/CD pipelines too have 2 sides of the coin. In this section, we discovered the benefits of using them.
Let’s see what challenges we might have to face while implementing these pipelines 🤔
Challenges to implementing CI/CD pipelines
CI/CD pipelines don’t come as smooth as they may look. The following challenges persist in implementing the CI/CD pipeline:
- Large Project Dilemma: A single CI/CD pipeline is often not recommended for a large project, the projects that are developed on a global level in big companies. The reason being that as the project grows, every single module starts to become complex in nature. If CI/CD pipeline is run on every single change of every single module, it would take forever to find the source of error in such a large codebase. As a result, the recommended method is to use multiple CI/CD pipelines for each module so that the error source is clear and can be fixed quickly.
- Security Issues: Security mishaps are bound to happen in CI/CD pipeline which is evident through the survey done through 451 research. The research survey shows that not only security issues are a problem but false positives slow down the process in CI/CD pipeline to a good extent. This becomes a challenge in CI/CD as security is the main concern for most clients and organizations as well. Therefore, tests such as static application security tests and software composition analysis tests are a good way to start. CI/CD security tools are also available which can increase the overall productivity but only if the integration is smooth and the report analysis is consistent. A small glitch in integration can put the system under pressure more than before.
- Resource Management: Resource management is generally not an issue while working on a smaller project. But if the project starts to take shape, the pipeline becomes big. In certain cases, we may have to work with multiple pipelines. Such a large architecture consumes resources at very fast rates and sometimes unnecessarily. For example, if there are smaller changes to be considered, the complete pipeline is run again taking an extra amount of resources, especially during integration. Therefore, resource management persists as a problem in CI/CD implementation which is difficult to tackle.
- Lack of Experience: CI/CD pipelines are not as hard to implement but only if you are already experienced with the level of project you are dealing with. CI/CD pipelines have nested sections such as build, test, and deploy. Then, in the test section, you need to have perfect test cases that do not break the process. In addition to it, the team members authorized with the pipeline should be well trained to keep the pipeline optimized with time by making necessary modifications.
The challenges we face while implementing a CI/CD pipeline can be overcome by smart decisions and careful administration.
The next stage to consider is the construction of a “good” CI/CD pipeline and the little things to keep in mind.
Best practices to building a good CI/CD pipeline
CI/CD pipelines consist of various elements that should work in sync to push the final changes to the production. A good pipeline gives equal importance to each of these elements and implements them in the most efficient way possible. In this section, we will see what elements make a CI/CD pipeline and dig each of them to understand their importance.
Commit – Version Control System
A version control system is a centralized storage of codebase which takes care of storing every little change in the code and preventing the members from downloading the complete project again and again. Version control systems save different versions of the project to roll back to any stage at any time you want. Apart from this basic feature, the rest of the features depend on the type of version control system your team is using. For example, Git is a great VCS and the most popular one on the internet too.
Git is free to use and brings a lot of features like release versions, collaboration management, and much more. In a CI/CD pipeline, the first stage starts with a commit. A commit is confirming your changes done to the code that you are ready and want these changes to be incorporated. To incorporate these changes into the main repository on VCS, we make a push with our code. This “push” of code is the trigger of the CI/CD pipeline. A good pipeline starts with a good VCS and generally all the popular VCS tools do the job. The only thing to remember is, use the tool that is most familiar to the team members. A wrong command on a VCS can cause a bit of trouble otherwise.
Build The System – Continuous Integration
Once the code is committed and pushed, there is an alert that a new change has arrived and has to be integrated into all the modules and functionalities. This is called continuous integration or generally referred to as the “build” phase of the pipeline. The continuous integration brings up the pieces together and makes them ready for the next phase. A CI/CD pipeline directly shifts from the commit phase to the build phase but a good CI/CD pipeline performs a set of unit tests on these blocks and enhances the quality of the overall system.
Unit tests play an important role before building the project again. Performing tests on smaller units can help us identify the errors quickly and target specific modules. In the absence of unit tests in the pipeline, tracing back the errors becomes extremely difficult. The build phase is also responsible for uploading the artifacts that contain the server information to be used in the next phase.
Test the System – Mimicking the Production Server
After passing the build phase, the artifacts are then read and the integrated code is then pushed to the test server. This process that starts from the artifacts can be made easy with tools like Docker. Docker can help you manage different images and services on the platform your CI/CD pipeline is running. For example, on AWS, ECS is a great module that manages Docker and all the functionalities. This is one of the most important phases in the pipeline as the system’s capabilities are checked after the integration is done.
A few types of tests are performed in this phase. First, a set of automation tests are done on the system. These tests are pre-written and are essential to run on every build to check the consistency and functionality of the system. Integration of the automation tests in the pipeline can be done with the help of any of your favorite too. On this link, we have curated 10 of the top CI/CD tools that can help you start the process. Next, alpha tests are performed by the developers to check the performance of the system and verify if the system is working correctly or not. At last, manual testing can also be done to manually check the system and run a few important tests. Sometimes the manual testing is skipped in CI/CD pipeline and sometimes it is shifted towards the unit testing phase. Any method is fine and it completely depends upon the project you are working on. For example, for a company working on OBD devices, it is extremely necessary to involve manual testing.
🔸 A very important point to remember in the testing phase is that the testing server should resemble the production server for efficient testing and perfect analysis. If the test server is less powerful, for example, it might look like our software is taking more time to service a few requests which would actually not be the case after deployment. Therefore, mimic the production server for the best results in the testing phase.
Deploying the Changes – Ready For The Customer
The last phase comes as the “deploy” phase where we deploy the changes to the end-user on the production server. There are no interventions needed in this phase. The deploy phase is only achieved when the feedback loops are closed and there are no more errors to be rectified. The deployed code is then made live to the users.
How To Identify A Good CI/CD Pipeline?
CI/CD pipelines are made to move things faster and deploy changes quickly to the production server. But how do you judge two different CI/CD pipelines and can come to the conclusion about which one is better than the other? Actually, it’s quite easy if we just carefully observe the basic goals we try to achieve by implementing the pipeline.
Is it fast enough? 🏃♂️
One of the primary aims of implementing a CI/CD pipeline is to move things faster – a lot faster. When we create a CI/CD pipeline, it will definitely speed up the overall process but we need to ask the question of whether each of the modules is contributing enough to the speed? I read once somewhere, “Your pipeline is only as fast as the slowest process in it.” Always try to optimize your slowest processes, making them faster and better.
In addition, calculate the time it takes when a few commits are pushed all together. Whether the pipeline is able to handle the commits sooner or not because practically, commits will happen frequently and our pipeline should be resistant to this. Speed is an important factor in CI/CD pipeline and should be given the most priority.
Is your automation perfect? 💯
Through the CI/CD pipeline, we constantly monitor our different phases and work on them as soon as the errors are raised. That’s the job of the automation phase in the pipeline. There are two certain cases though to understand in the automation phase. First, if there are frequently no errors shown in the automation, the test cases are probably not strong enough. This calls for a recheck and strict test suites to be implemented. Second, if manual checking is generating errors that should have been a part of repetitive tasks, it again indicates a failure of the automation system. The automation phase is very important in the pipeline as it verifies the strength of the software. A small failure at the user’s side can create a hassle in the development teams. Therefore, keep your automation perfect and work on it regularly.
Are feedbacks implemented? 📝
Feedbacks are an important part of the CI/CD pipeline and it is constantly flowing towards the respective teams from each module. From building to the testing phase, feedbacks are communicated as part of general checks or errors that are occurring in the pipeline. Feedbacks should always be listened to and implemented as soon as possible. Nothing is perfect in the software industry and the same is applicable to the CI/CD pipeline. By implementing this feedback, we are constantly improvising and optimizing our pipeline to make it better for future versions.
CI/CD pipeline is a combination of different modules that work together from committing to deploying the code. Since their inception into the industry, they have not only stuck in the process but companies have started to shift their deploying methods to CI/CD because of its effectiveness. For someone who has worked without a pipeline, the shift explores new opportunities and better software quality 💡 This post highlighted the CI/CD pipeline and the best practices associated with it. Implementing a pipeline and implementing a good pipeline can have different effects on the same software. Therefore, careful planning and structuring are absolutely necessary before making commits and building the projects. A lot of the key structures were highlighted in this post along with the strategies that the teams should follow while working with the pipeline. Whereas like anything in the industry, personal experience has its own value and we at TestProject would love to hear that. We know that you must have your own little hacks and practices that you pass on to your teammates as wisdom while working with the CI/CD pipeline so why not let the whole community know?! I hope this post brought out some hidden CI/CD practices and that the fellow testers and developers would use them wisely in their professional life.
⭕ Share your own little hacks while working with the CI/CD pipeline ⭕