Cloud costs
January 8, 2021
min read

CI/CD Best Practices for DevOps Teams


DevOps is how teams work with people, processes, and technologies to deliver value to their consumers. In a DevOps lifecycle, teams aren’t just focused on getting their deliverables released, but rather, to succeed with DevOps, teams need to deliver value in a quick, safe, and repeatable manner. Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery (CI/CD) help cross-functional teams with their responsibilities by providing automation, governance, longevity, and security to the software delivery process. This blog post will discuss CI/CD in the context of DevOps practices and share the best CI/CD practices to implement for your DevOps teams.

The History of CI/CD and DevOps

In the 2000s, because of the advances and adoption of technology, Agile principles and practices gained popularity in different software development organizations. The agile mindset lowered the amount of time required to develop new application functionality, encouraging development teams to release early and often. However, certain catastrophic outcomes prevailed as deploying to production would still take weeks or months.

By 2010, the introduction of the cloud allowed for organizations and teams to quickly develop their applications and get a version deployed into production in a matter of hours or minutes. DevOps emerged to allow organizations to make this process routine and low risk.

Today, organizations are adopting DevOps principles and practices to deploy their changes multiple times per day. Competitive advantage depends on fast time to market and innovation, and at the heart of DevOps is CI/CD.

7 CI/CD Best Practices for DevOps Teams

Here are 7 CI/CD best practices to consider for your teams and common pitfalls that are related to building CI/CD pipelines.

#1. Fail Faster and Cheaper

Organizations that deliver with waterfall methodologies struggle to meet ever-changing landscapes and expectations. Failing fast in a pipeline is similar to borrowing the Agile and lean methodologies, and it is often the de facto mindset in software development teams. What we hope to do is shift responsibilities and activities left within the process of delivering software. For example, you may want to introduce developer environments to allow for early testing versus testing in an environment during a deployment process, weeks or months after the development team has made their changes. A ‘shift left’ mentality empowers and gives developers the skills and tools to move fast without breaking things.

The main purpose of a CI pipeline is to automate the build process. Your build process should involve version control and issue tracking. It should also integrate and run unit tests, so that builds fail for code that does not meet functional requirements. A common pitfall in CI is not having enough unit tests or code coverage. This can lead to builds that pass a CI pipeline but fail further into the software delivery process.

Failing faster within a CI/CD pipeline is beneficial in terms of cost and effort since end-to-end (E2E) tests are expensive and are difficult to debug and can require multiple services to be running on the infrastructure. Most product teams would prefer to catch an issue before it reaches a customer. Integrating a healthy suite of unit tests to your CI pipeline allows teams to fail fast in lower environments and avoid frequent production incidents. 

Organizations that deliver with waterfall methodologies struggle to meet ever-changing landscapes and expectations. Adopting a mindset to failing fast is a great way to succeed with CI/CD pipelines.

#2. Commit Daily

Software teams should integrate their code early and often to the main branch of their code repository. This prevents maintenance hell on both feature and main branches as developers progress on feature development. Even if feature development is still a work in progress, the work can remain invisible to any end-user or tester of the main branch. If you are having issues with minimizing merge conflicts and branching, I recommend looking at progressive delivery techniques like feature flag management, which can help enable your delivery pipeline.

#3. Fix the Broken Builds

The third practice involves fixing broken builds of code. Continuous integration assumes your software development teams are developing on known stable versions of code. If your teams are struggling to keep your application code stable and well-tested, I recommend ensuring that your build and test process is available and visible to your development teams.

Ideally, every version of code gets built by a CI pipeline only once so that failures and the corresponding code changes can be readily tracked and well-understood. Clean testing environments that are built on-demand and isolated from other application activities can also be useful enforcements that CI/CD pipelines can guarantee. Building CI/CD pipelines to provision and control quality assurance (QA) or testing environments can be really beneficial for software development and QA teams looking to deliver with quality and speed. 

#4. Continuously Automate the Delivery Lifecycle

Every organization has a process for creating and delivering code. This process may change over time due to new technologies, teams, or processes. An important practice is to continually evaluate which processes and tests need to be integrated or automated into a CI/CD pipeline. 

A continuous delivery (CD) pipeline is a reflection of our software delivery life cycle (SDLC). Typical delivery responsibilities include provisioning infrastructure, deploying applications, approving deployment changes, quality assurance/testing, and monitoring. Not all of these responsibilities and capabilities may be included in the first iteration of your CI/CD pipeline. 

There is no one templated CI/CD pipeline to rule over all deployment scenarios, and so in many cases it is common to have many CI/CD pipelines that support different kinds of deployments based on an application’s architectural design. For example, the CI/CD pipeline you use to deploy a monolithic application may be different from a group or collection of microservices.

I recommend investing in value stream mapping or metrics-based process mapping exercises to align key software delivery stakeholders with new or complex software initiatives or services. These exercises often help to shape the DevOps journey and the CI/CD maturity process.

In this context, Continuous Release, a practice where software updates are automatically prepared and ready to be deployed at any time, plays a pivotal role. It provides a robust mechanism for organizations to keep their software products up-to-date, efficient, and responsive to emerging demands. This approach minimizes the risk of deployment and reduces the time to fix any issues. By enhancing the release frequency, Continuous Release ensures that new features, bug fixes, and updates reach users more swiftly, thereby significantly improving user satisfaction and maintaining a competitive edge in the market.

#5. Define a Release and Rollback Strategy

The fifth practice is to define a release and rollback strategy. A software release is a distribution of software to the consumer. Anytime we release software, we introduce the risk of vulnerabilities, issues, bugs, and non-performant software. There could be any number of reasons for rolling back a deployment or producing a hotfix. Define a release strategy that works for your CD process to reduce the risk of deployments. 

Infrastructure as code or GitOps helps teams provision, configure, and manage infrastructure resources. Rollback strategies tend to mirror release strategies. Whether you decide to keep the current version of your application running while deploying a new instance is up to you. Just ensure you have a workflow that addresses any downtime and data loss. 

It’s also worth integrating your metrics, monitoring, and alerting solutions into your CI/CD pipeline to operationalize your deployments. Like how we leverage unit tests in the earlier stages of a CI/CD pipeline, it’s important to ensure quality after a deployment. Data-driven continuous delivery allows us to improve our delivery capabilities and amplify feedback to encourage continuous improvement in DevOps teams.

#6. Take a Security-First Approach

A common misconception about CI/CD pipelines is that their only purpose is to allow for your software changes to be available. Continuous deployment allows organizations to deploy their changes to production environments on demand. CI/CD practices focus on how we can continuously enable this outcome. Therefore, many DevOps teams should be encouraged and incentivized to take advantage of CI/CD pipeline capabilities now offered by platforms and solutions. 

Role-based access control (or RBAC) restricts user access in a system. A great mindset to have is that every user should only have enough access to perform their necessary responsibilities. These user groups can be defined based on roles or organization structures like teams. An example of access control within a CI/CD platform is to have read and execute permissions for specific pipelines or deployment resources created. 

Some security capabilities for your CI/CD pipelines may also involve leveraging secrets management to ensure sensitive deployment or environment information is properly stored and protected or introducing vulnerability scanning.

DevSecOps practices work well for CI/CD pipelines. DevSecOps is short for development, security, and operations, and it is how organizations deliver and make security decisions and actions within their valued deliverables. Just remember that security automation is a core tenet of DevSecOps. 

A great way to enable DevSecOps is through your Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery (CI/CD) pipeline. If your teams are able to integrate security in the software development lifecycle continuously, it’s a great mindset and way of working so that security is at the forefront of how our teams deliver business value.

#7. Amplify Feedback

Reliability is everyone’s responsibility, but sometimes this statement can feel like it is at odds with innovating and delivering features quickly. Site reliability engineering (SRE) was a hot topic last year as more guides around the role were shared and more people stepped into this role than ever before. SRE practices help us deliver reliably. Even if you don’t have an SRE team or individual, you can still leverage these practices that help you improve your software delivery process. 

A major practice to adopt is to amplify feedback. Oftentimes, software delivery or software development issues occur as symptoms caused by anti-patterns and practices. Targeting specific outcomes following a retrospective can be helpful for improving and alleviating pain points related to incidents, bugs, and defects. Some incidents are caused by known bugs or defects, and so even setting error or incident error can be helpful for better software delivery. It’s common to freeze or lock production deployments given a history of poor application performance or frequent incidents.

If you are looking for a solution to help facilitate retrospectives and team collaboration online, solutions like Google’s Jamboard, or Miro work well.

The difficulties in building CI/CD pipelines

There are many solutions today that engineers can leverage to create CI/CD pipelines. However, with today’s ever-changing cloud and container-native ecosystem, software delivery solutions need to quickly and easily scale alongside organizations and teams advancing their software delivery capabilities. Not every architecture solution is designed to scale with you. Some common difficulties in building CI/CD pipelines include:

  • Creation and management of deployment scripts
  • Lack of self-service delivery capabilities
  • The upgrade, configuration, and management of plugins
  • Platform stability and scalability

Consider CI/CD challenges and what it means to support your organization as application workloads scale horizontally and vertically.

Automate the build and test process with Harness

CI/CD pipelines define and automate our DevOps lifecycle. It establishes when, where, and how software reaches customers. This post focuses on the importance of building proper CI/CD pipelines as a DevOps team, but if you'd like to learn more on CI/CD, check out our post on CI/CD Challenges today.

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Continuous Delivery & GitOps