The man who built his house on sand

You are probably familiar with the proverb about the man who built his house on sand, if not read this. It’s important to have a solid foundation to work from when you want to start considering Continuous Delivery (CD) or Continuous Integration (CI).

From an IT perspective this would be like a CTO dictating that CD is the only way to do things; which when poorly managed leads to something that is poorly tested, poorly structured and hard to innovate on. By the time the pessimistic IT bod mentioned it to his boss and it was turned into management speak, then translated to senior management speak it ended up being mistranslated into something completely different.

IT bod “It’s taking ages because the puppet manifests are a complete mess where we had to keep rushing stuff”
IT Bods’ Manager “It’s taking longer than expected as the work is more complicated but it will be done soon”
IT Director “We are spending our time making sure we do this right, we don’t cut corners”
CTO “We have a really stable well produced system”

Yay. I’m 90% sure this is how it works… People become afraid to say how bad it is, but from experience I can honestly say when you start telling people bluntly they stop hassling you, they also stop talking to you so it is a hard thing to make better, it’s harder when the whole train of people desperately want to come across as having done an awesome job.

Imagining that situation, and adding in people that are brought in to deliver just that, while being asked to do lots of other stuff that isn’t in scope, you can end up with something that with lots of careful hand holding produces a build, maybe it even builds an environment with only 2 or 3 hours hand holding, maybe it’s good enough for production using virtual box Who knows.

Typically these nightmarish situations exist only because someone wasn’t clear in defining what the problem was, or when they did they allowed themselves to be pushed over. Well I’m saying it’s not good enough, everyone in the chain has a responsibility to make sure they communicate in clear and uncertain terms what the problem is so there is no ambiguity about how bad a situation is.

foundations

The latest trend at the moment is all towards Continuous Delivery (CD) and Continuous Integration (CI) and all these over wonderful DevOps words. Although it is possible for you to take code and deploy it automatically it is stupid to do so without a sufficient understanding of what the consequences could be. As such it is important to identify what you need to be able to deliver effectively before working out what you need to do to achieve CI or CD.

So before considering CD or CI you need to be able to do the following things, minimum:

  • Easily differentiate between each configuration release
  • Easily differentiate between each infrastructure release
  • Easily differentiate between each application release
  • Be able to build each application server from scratch
  • Be able to build the infrastructure from scratch
  • Be able to track work through a process i.e. request to release for new Infrastructure, Application code or configuration
  • Have an agreed process for peer review of changes
  • Have an agreed release process
  • Be able to manually follow the processes that are in place
  • Adequate test coverage of infrastructure
  • Adequate test coverage of Configuration
  • Adequate test coverage of Application

Once you have those basics in place you can start to look at automating each step, Skip the list at your peril. Let’s touch on a few for clarities sake. “Easily differentiate between XXX” The reason for these is that at some point someone will say “it’s not working and you broke it” and you want to turn that from an opinion based approach into a factual one, and the easiest way to do that is a simple diff between the previous and the current release, no ambiguity, only facts.

Lets look at the “Be able to build XXX from scratch” This is really important, the only way to guarantee that your box is in the state you know it to be in is to build from scratch, use an golden disk, AMI or plain OS, it doesn’t matter as long as you bring that box up from scratch and build it through to a working state (ands off). I’ve had conversations with people that don’t get it, some times the arguments go like this… “We don’t need to because everything is is puppet” well, Lies… No one puts everything in puppet and even if you did, I logged on and stopped the process or I installed a package that wasn’t in puppet or I started a service or I changed a file that was’t etc etc etc… No excuses, build from scratch; it’s really important for the message this sends to the rest of the business which is consistency through process.

Processes are important, they describe the things you will and won’t do, they need to be public, they need to be really simple and they can then be automated, Starting without a process is just going to mean re-working steps as others in the business have different opinions about how it should be done so it’s good practice to sort that out as soon as possible.

The last set “Adequate test coverage of XXX” This needs to be in place beforehand, these tests will become your computerised approver so at the very least it should do everything the human counterpart does to check the system and they need to evolve as time goes on to include more and more tests, when the confidence is in the testing it shouldn’t matter when you release or ho often as you have a set of tests that you and the business trusts.

Summary

It’s important to try and not rush into the final solution, everybody wants it, it’s everyone responsibility to check and cross check that the process is being done sensibly and to call foul if anyone tries to change the process or the requirements. The only way to do this is with some sort of consistency and that should be the driving force, the business needs to accept that if the pipeline is broken the releases don’t happen. but when the pipe line is fixed they should all go fine. This turns the whole release cycle into a maintenance process rather than an active involvement in each release and that will over time be more and more stable and beneficial to the business as a whole. So before trying to do CD or CI, make sure you can put ticks next to the bulleted list above else you’re just wasting time.

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