Building a strong CI/CD pipeline
Building a stronger CI/CD pipeline isn’t easy. It requires plenty of time, tools, and the contributions of many. However, when done correctly, it has potential returns that will are worth the time involved. Benefits including automated code testing, faster software iterations, satisfied customers, a competitive edge, and more productive teams, just to name a few.
More software development teams are moving to a more continuous integration (CI) and continuous deployment (CD) environment to one degree or another, whether that is on-demand or at least once a day. Organisations are now used to the need to deliver software in smaller amounts and more frequently, to help mitigate the risks ‘fail early, fix early.’ However, while adoption of CI/CD may be increasingly widespread, in practice delivering on the theoretical benefits remains a challenge for many.
A good starting point to building a stronger CI/CD pipeline is a quick reminder of those benefits. CI automates the process of building and testing code. All developers merge their changes into a version control tool and defects surface faster. CD is a DevOps practice where code changes are continuously passed along to testing or production, thus building on the work carried out by CI, and getting software out to users faster.
In practical terms, that is thanks to better visibility of the development pipeline, reduced manual errors, faster feedback, and saved time. A solid CI/CD pipeline should also support more stable code, better predictability, and therefore fewer code breaks. Integration means that all the working pieces of code fit together better.
Attributes of a strong CI/CD pipeline
It may sound obvious, but the key to a strong CI/CD pipeline is automation, not just to reduce errors and speed up the process but to also help overcome any cultural resistance. Without maximising what can be automated, integration will mean more time and work for teams. Teams need to merge changes frequently and verify them through automated testing. They need to prioritise what to include and automate in the pipeline. With multiple code changes every day, the test suite needs to be focused on what will have the most impact, rather than risk developers wasting time focusing on lesser issues and risking defects escaping into production.
In many organisations, the ‘health’ of automated testing is often a barrier to successful CI/CD. The test environment itself as well as code change acceptance needs to be automated, as well as applied to different types of testing: unit, build acceptance, and regression testing in particular.
By combining build-acceptance testing with proper CI practices, fast and timely feedback becomes much simpler to achieve. In turn, this leads to a reduced number of defects escaping into production, and teams being more confident that they can ship high-quality code as soon as it is ready. This approach also reduces the reliance on waiting for customers to provide feedback.
Other factors that can make the difference to a successful CI/CD pipeline include outdated environments, so before implementing a CI/CD strategy, it makes sense to review those and implement updates where needed. Other issues include blind spots in the pipeline. Examples include inconsistent job duration over time, inconsistent pass or fail test results being executed as part of a build acceptance testing job, and tasks that are being unnecessarily duplicated. So, identifying and addressing those is essential.
It is also important that any testing or other tools being used to support a CI/CD pipeline do not just fit the business, but also the skillset within feature teams. Plus, when introducing new tools, the team should be consulted and onboard (as is always the case), otherwise, there will inevitably be some resistance. Tools should also be matched to the specific ongoing development process, and fit the existing process rather than causing disruption or changes.
When implementing a new or updating an existing CI/CD pipeline, start with a small set of stable activities, identify and solve issues and only then build more layers and expand outwards. When implementing critical business scenarios, use test automation to ensure the tests are flawless, integrates small test suites into the CI pipeline, and tracks it for several cycles. Only then introduce the pipeline on a wider scale, and be careful not to push too many test scripts into CI without gaining confidence in them first.
Continuous monitoring as part of the shift-right of test automation should go hand-in-hand with CI/CD, not only to isolate recurring problems but to also analyse the impact on the business. From there, use that data to improve processes. Monitoring needs to be built into the entire CI/CD picture and not just as an afterthought, but with real-time observability and exportable data for smart root-cause analysis. It is vital to pinpoint test results that have an actual impact on the business, rather than being overwhelmed by test-result noise. Test value is the name of the game these days.
All the steps toward building a strong CI/CD pipeline are going to take time, focus, and probably additional investment across people, processes, and tools. However, the potential returns — faster software iterations, happier customers, better competitivity, and possibly more motivated teams knowing that what they are creating is what their market wants — are worth the effort.