Curious about DevOps CI/CD? We explain the continuous integration and continuous deployment pipeline and why it’s important to the DevOps process.
DevOps CI/CD is the practice of continuous integration, delivery, and deployment. CI/CD relies on automation in many of the moving parts when pushing new code or releases into production, enabling teams to release reliable software more quickly.
When we talk about DevOps more broadly, the underlying goal is to break down silos between development and operations teams. DevOps is about adopting a set of practices that blend people, processes, and tech to create synergy across the organization.
But within that context, what are the best practices to ensure that these process steps that teams follow, automated or not, maximize efficiency? That's where continuous integration (CI), delivery, and deployment (CD) fit in.
While CI tends to be the more straightforward, CD can refer to either continuous delivery and/or continuous deployment. You'll likely see them used interchangeably, even though they are slightly different. Continuous delivery refers to automating code changes into testing or production environments, whereas continuous deployment relates to code changes going straight to customers from the production pipeline.
So now that we have a better understanding of what the CI/CD pipeline is, why does it matter? The goal of DevOps is to reduce silos across teams, mainly development and operations teams. Fundamental to achieving DevOps is the effort to reduce manual toil by introducing automation where appropriate in the software development lifecycle (SDLC). CI/CD is a best practice in DevOps because it frees up resources. Teams can quickly integrate changes, test as needed, and deploy to customers right away using automation. Without CI/CD, these tasks would require separate processes which take more time and effort. CI/CD can be incredibly beneficial for businesses looking to ramp up improvements and ensure consistent delivery for customers. It helps standardize building and testing while automation ensures consistency.
Another reason why CI/CD is important in DevOps is because it balances out development and operational goals. For example, development teams may want to push out improvements more frequently but often end up at odds with operations teams aiming for stability. CI/CD helps bridge that gap. Dev teams can push changes out faster using automation, while ops teams see more stability since there is a standardized and automated process for testing. The goal is to establish an automated way to build, package and test applications consistently.
However, to better understand the CI/CD pipeline, looking at each part of the process in more detail can help understand the overall picture. Let's look at continuous integration, continuous deployment, and continuous delivery individually to better understand the process itself, benefits, and challenges of each.
Continuous integration is when development teams implement small code changes and continuously merge their work to a shared repository. With continuous integration in place, code changes happen at a more frequent pace. The coding work is broken down into smaller parts, making it easier to spot bugs and issues before releasing to customers.
That's on a broad level, but how do teams approach the “continuous” aspect of it? How do they manage all of these changes continually merging into one project?
That's one of the challenges teams need to work through when making this a (successful) working practice. Additionally, the DevOps CI/CD pipeline needs to consider version control configuration to ensure teams don't work over each other. For example, teams might use different mechanisms as part of the process, such as feature flags and version control branching, to manage and test specific features.
With continuous integration as the working standard, the best practice is to commit code into the version control repository at specific time points. The frequency will vary from team to team, but at the minimum, code needs to be committed at least daily for the practice to work. Other teams may choose to commit at higher frequencies, such as twice-daily or even hourly, but that's an individual decision based on development needs and resources.
Using DevOps CI/CD tools, CI allows teams to work more nimbly with defined build schedules and code commits based on collaborative decision-making. As a result, it benefits team members since there is more structure to the workload and more automation to reduce manual work. Everyone has a clear understanding of what they need to do and the process they are following.
Plus, more collaboration with continuous integration leads to better software quality and a more stable delivery process when the changes are released to customers. CI ensures that your service can adapt to customer needs as quickly as possible. However, the frequency of code commits can be challenging for dev teams if not established correctly, leading to a lot of pressure for teams to manage commits. A lot of automation goes into the CI process to keep it running smoothly, including automation tests for changes and a dedicated CI server to run the tests. That can be a challenge for teams, especially in the beginning when the practice is being established.
But on the flip side, that can also lead to reduced testing time and costs. While it can take some time to figure out the right frequency of CI for teams, adopting the DevOps CI/CD pipeline makes spotting and resolving issues before release far easier.
After CI, we move to continuous delivery. It's the natural next step after CI, as the changes made during CI need to be delivered to the customers or a sub-set of them. This is the staging and testing environment where the code is automatically reviewed for deployment readiness through tests, and where issues are flagged.
CD ensures that application delivery is automated to specific delivery and testing environments outside of production to resolve issues and bugs before full release. There are several types of automatic tests that run during this time on the code changes to find bugs and issues, including:
This isn’t an exhaustive list of tests, as continuous delivery revolves around making sure code changes can pass any tests the team sets up. Any requirements the team has for code in production should be achieved by the CD process.
Teams then go back to CI, working to fix problems and commit their code changes to be automatically pushed back to testing, and the cycle continues. Throughout the process, DevOps CI/CD tools can provide valuable insight in this phase. DevOps CI/CD tools can help with many aspects of the pipeline, including variable setting, dashboard, reporting features, and more.
Using DevOps CI/CD tools, developers can be alerted when builds or deliveries fail testing. Developers can quickly identify the code changes that teams must resolve before the build can move to continuous deployment. As with CI, the continuous part will change based on how often CI is being performed. CD can only deliver changes as quickly as changes are integrated with CI. Some may choose to do hourly, twice-daily, and others may choose to do daily.
Again, like CI, the continuous part needs to be based on individual teams and resources to get to the right place. After the code passes the automated tests, the validated code is moved into a repository for operations teams to deploy. Since developer changes are merged and automatically undergo tests, bugs are identified and resolved more quickly. With automated testing in place, it takes minimal effort for teams to build, break, and build again as needed. Identifying issues is much faster because there is a robust groundwork of automation set up. CD also makes the deployment process easier, allowing for more releases without lots of bugs and issues.
Finally, we move to the last piece of the puzzle - continuous deployment. While its implementation will vary, continuous deployment can hold a lot of value for resource-strapped teams.
Continuous deployment refers to when developer changes are automatically released from repository to production — straight into customers' hands. The pros of continuous deployment are that it can save a lot of time for operations teams and reduce much of the manual work needed to push releases to customers.
In addition, the pipeline is automated to move smoothly from dev changes to final release, which can benefit across different teams. Operations teams can rapidly release changes as they pass through testing, reducing workload for everyone. Plus, the release consists of small-batch code changes, which means that development teams can quickly fix problems even after deployment.
But of course, the caveat is that to reduce the manual gatekeeping, testing automation needs to be well-designed from the start. Without the initial groundwork that goes into smooth continuous integration and delivery, continuous deployment won't actually work in practice. On the continuous integration side, that means committing to (and adhering to that commitment) a coding frequency that works for the team. At the minimum, teams should be committing to code daily.
For continuous delivery, there is initial work of getting automated tests up and running. Additionally, servers need to be set up and tested so they can handle that load to make automation as smooth as possible. But if implemented well, customers will begin to experience benefits over time and teams will enjoy a smoother working process. Continuous deployment means that customers see improvements on a more consistent basis, which is always a good thing to increase product value for them. On the back end, there are a lot of quality improvements, and code changes are more structured.
For DevOps CI/CD to be successful, each part of the pipeline must be designed thoughtfully and collaboratively with teams. Doing so ensures that it's a realistic process and that customers and teams see tangible benefits from adopting this practice.
It can help make team roles more clear, with more improvements being made in small batches rather than pressuring teams with big code changes in one go. For customers, this means a more stable product overall, and improving the overall user experience.
Going from continuous integration to continuous deployment can be an adjustment for teams, so using the right DevOps CI/CD tools can help with the transition. Some CI/CD tools to consider include CircleCI, Jenkins, Codefresh, Bamboo, and CloudBees CodeShip.
Depending on how large your user base is, another aspect to consider is how fast you adopt the process. For newer applications with a smaller customer base, you can quickly ramp up CI and CD and set the groundwork for a solid continuous deployment process.
However, for applications with a larger user base, getting to the point of continuous deployment may be slower as you first tweak your CI and CD process to get your foundation right. That can mean working together to establish a frequency for continuous integration that works for teams, and working out what automated tests to prioritize and run for continuous delivery.
Work with your teams to lay out development team goals versus operational team goals and where CI and CD fit in. There will be a lot of collaboration needed on establishing priorities, practices, and technologies and what the right approach is based on existing bandwidth and resources.
CI/CD is best optimized when processes are automated and teams leverage tools to maximize efficiency during development, deployment, and testing. Blameless streamlines incident management by automating every stage of incident response. It also helps teams improve service reliability and boost development velocity by structuring service level objectives (SLOs) and displaying reliability insights. Interested in learning more? Request a demo today!
Writer & Researcher