Remove stress from your software delivery lifecycle by following DevOps release management best practices

Producing secure and robust software at speed is an undeniable must-do for business success today. Whether a startup pivoting during the pandemic, or a tech company, keeping up with nimbler competitors — they all need the most advanced release management practices. This is where DevOps comes in. According to the latest statistics, the DevOps market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 21% during 2021–2026 — a significant amount.

We’ve already written about how to start leveraging DevOps, transforming it into a company’s best friend for when product owners and executives are trying to get stuff done and delivered on time. But what about DevOps release management? DevOps offers some great capabilities for interacting between teams, coordinating interdependencies, and helping people understand what they need to look for to get the release process smoother, making it just like breathing. How so? Let’s dive deeper to find out.

Why is it important to manage your releases and deployments better?

With a growing number of releases, deployment management becomes critical. According to the 2020 DevOps Trends Survey, 74% of companies consider the frequency of deployment as the best option to estimate DevOps efficiency. Here’s what DevOps release management offers:

Increased deployment frequency

Developers don’t deliver one massive project. They release small improvements to their long-lived products all the time within a continuous integration phase. Also, there’s continuous testing, which allows to avoid regression prior to the production phase.

Reduced MTTR

The adopted Mean Time to Repair (MTTR) metric helps get a more comprehensive, accurate, and nuanced story of application and infrastructure productivity. For example, together with other metrics, such as the “error budget”, it can spot the true cost and impact of downtime. To identify the MTTR threshold and pinpoint the issues, you can use different alerting and monitoring tools. A well-organized DevOps process allows for quick deployment of fixes to reduce MTTR.

Decreased lead time for changes

Focusing on lead time allows developers to organize continuous delivery and reduce time to production. That’s why a product team is able to assure more frequent and smaller releases, which lets users realize new value faster.

Lower change failure rate

The team tests the product in a testing environment as they go. Doing that iteratively means the minimization of error issues upon the submission of a project on production. This results in fewer defects overall.

As part of release management, DevOps provides a holistic view of product delivery that everyone strives to have from the very beginning. It is about getting a deeper understanding of the end-to-end system, including value stream mapping and management.

Apart from this, DevOps release management focuses on the constant optimization of value. This way, businesses become more product-centric, and the teams migrate from a project-oriented to product-oriented work culture.

How is the DevOps release process different from traditional release management?

Comparing traditional release management to DevOps release management is almost like comparing a horse and buggy against 21-century electric cars.

Traditional release management uses a waterfall framework known for big heavy releases. In this approach, the project is approved at the very end of the final delivery, despite months the development process took.

The efficient release management in DevOps enables frequent delivery of small batches, leading to more frequent deployments and faster cycle times. This results in decreased lead time, which means delivering value to end-users as soon as possible.

Manual work with manual reviews and approvals is ‘onerous and erroneous’. This is what sabotages feedback cycles in traditional release management. Also, long wait times, multiple discussions, and the burgeoning bureaucracy bog people down. DevOps practices, on the other hand, provide real-time feedback and metrics that are driven by automated workflows, including tracking, reporting, and data collection.

Now, as for change requests, in traditional release management, the protocol implies process-heavy and time-intensive management of change requests. Product owners have to provide context to approvers who are not directly involved in the work. The DevOps scheme encourages collaborative software development, automated delivery pipelines, and change-advisory boards giving pre-approvals because they know all the steps to be managed.

Last but not least, in traditional software development, teams are organized by functional boundaries. There are manual handoffs between siloed teams, which lead to misaligned incentives. DevOps addresses this by migrating from a control hierarchy to a place where leaders distribute authority to the teams. Developers get rid of all the handoffs and delays that come with these silos. As for core stakeholders, they are involved in every stage of the delivery lifecycle (design, build, deploy, monitor and maintenance). Therefore, teams are cross-functional, collaborative, and aligned to business goals.

The shift from traditional release management to DevOps release management

Symptoms of a poor release management process:

Now, how to assess the current state of your release management against efficient DevOps release management? Let’s scan through the symptoms below.

  • Releases are infrequent and happen whenever, usually, not during working hours. If your company needs to make a release schedule, notify all the employees about the new deployment in advance, or stop all the operations during the release. A failure to do so is the first sign your release management process requires enhancement.
  • Your release process is manually configured. Some release managers have to perform the same manual activities over and over again. They start to write a script, and then they write another script, and then another one. Also, they might be checking in a spreadsheet for calling someone and asking if they’ve done it.
  • There’s only one person on your team that everyone relies on when it comes to deployment. Organizations have a release manager spread across 20 different teams. These teams are trying to cobble together a picture from lots of different sources.
  • You’re not sure that the feature/software will work, you just hope it will. This happens due to many reasons. One of them is making the production environment the source of truth. But it’s the version control system that is. To remind, the version control allows tracking changes and versioning data. Thus, the upcoming release stays compliant, and the teams can meet the business requirements of the auditors.
  • New releases tend to negatively affect users if a team didn’t fix blind spots in deployments and proceeded to production. The latter is the result of the lack of actual data, metrics of delivery, metrics around flows, work in progress, defect rates, types of work that are being done, efficiency, cycle time, lead time, a lot of other value stream metrics.

DevOps techniques for release management:

Transitioning to DevOps release management best practices can be a game-changer. Here are the most effective techniques to implement.

  • Leverage Infrastructure as Code (IaC): Unlike manual configuration, IaC is not error-prone or hard to track. It suggests an automated process of installing and configuring software that leads to more reliable releases. Thus, deployments are well-tested and well-rehearsed, and the pipelines well-vetted. Release processes become more repeatable. Since the scripts are version-controlled, a manager can see how they’ve changed over time.
  • Make disaster recovery a part of your normal operating procedure by exploiting phoenix servers. In software development, adding configuration updates is a common practice. Phoenix servers help the team run the configuration drifts smoothly. These immutable servers allow new infrastructure changes without breaking existing functionality.
  • Ensure no disruption in service thanks to a Blue-Green deployment strategy. It suggests running two similar production environments — Blue and Green. At some point, only one of them is live and serves all the production traffic. The other one is idle. When preparing a new version of an app, deployment and the final phase of testing are held in an idle environment. This helps tackle downtime that could happen because of software deployment and reduce the risk of damaging a new version of the app if something unexpected happens.
  • Streamline CI/CD pipeline with “shifting left”, which enables quality assurance standards, continuous testing at all the phases of the development life cycle. DevOps claims to take over the traditional SDLC, mostly in terms of full automation.
  • Test, test, and then… test again. Developers, when building declaratively, make sure that what they build is right. To assure this, the team needs to have a testing plan. There’s an industry-standard guideline for implementing automated software testing, called the testing pyramid. It operates at three levels: unit tests, integration tests, and end-to-end tests. The bottom layer is presented by unit tests, the ones that need to happen most frequently. Intended to provide small units of code, they deliver value to the team multiple times a day, and are least expensive to write and maintain. This type of test is used to validate the functioning of individual components in isolated conditions. To check how this code interacts with other code, which forms the entire software, integration tests need to be done. They are slower than unit tests and require a pre-production environment. And, finally, to ensure that the entire application is working without a hitch, you need to run end-to-end tests. Beyond the testing pyramid, there are non-functional tests such as performance tests, load tests, stress tests, etc., which verify how well the software works. Having your testing strategy in place will help your team get the job done faster, achieve better results, and, consequently, increase ROI.
  • Don’t put quality over quantity. Businesses strive to release software as quickly as possible, yet Quality Assurance shouldn’t be an afterthought. It is still directly related to customer satisfaction. That’s why, to reach needed standards at the speed required, the team should embed QA in the specified requirements of any ongoing software development phase.
  • Automate release management processes. When release planning in DevOps, rating current pipelines based on their level of automation might be a game-changer. In DevOps, frequent releases are key, and enabling test automation throughout the pipeline can help significantly. Other types of automation include requirements, design, development, deployment, operations, etc.
  • Be proactive in tracking changes and fixing the issues. In the context of DevOps best practices, the developers use version control as the source of truth. It allows managing changes to code versions, splitting them into different threads to be routinely tested prior to its release to a production environment. This is where all the amendments are tracked. Thus, developers can still remain agile, declaratively configure, build, test, and fix bugs, and release changes while it’s all being tracked.

Best release management tools in DevOps according to *instinctools engineers:

The best tools for the DevOps methodology are business-critical, mission-critical, or, in other words, the lifeblood of your business to function. Here’s a shortlist provided by *instinctools experts.

  • Ansible allows teams to rapidly deploy, iterate, and test their systems in production. It also integrates with a large number of tools already used by DevOps teams.
  • Github Actions is all about optimizing workflows that are used to deploy code. It enhances continuous integration and release management and can be used for anything from triggering an alarm to orchestrating complex security test automations.
  • Octopus ensures reliable, secure, and automated releases of your .NET applications into various environments of your software development no matter whether they are: on-premises or in the public cloud. It provides audit information of all your past deployments which can further help in yearly audits for certificates and regulation.

How to get started with DevOps release management?

It takes a lot of work to put building blocks in place to effectively maintain the release management practice in an organization. Traditionally, IT companies have a business analyst or product owner who develops some large back-right PRDs handed off to a developer. Then they plan out the next six to eight months of development. But it doesn’t work well in today’s economic environment.
Fortunately, there are agile release management frameworks you can use to deploy faster and quickly remediate any issues that arise on the way. DevOps release management breaks down work into small chunks. The methodology ensures frequent releases and further testing for defect elimination, optimized lead time, reduced MTTR, and a full scope of automation.

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