Get Healthy: Pre-Production Tips to Help Developers Thrive
The process of writing code has evolved—is your organization ready for the demands of today’s software development?
The individual development steps haven’t changed much. Code is still written, tested, integrated, and released. But the way these steps are accomplished, how code is handed off from one stage to another, and how it is released, is vastly different.
The goal today is to get applications out the door faster. A recent Forrester survey found that higher release frequencies were associated with higher revenue growth. However, while modern methodologies definitely work, nearly 85% of organizations reported facing obstacles on the way to implementing them, according to the Atlassian 2020 DevOps Trends Survey.
Often, those obstacles emerge during the pre-production stage: the period between when code is written and when it’s put into production. During pre-production, code passes through several staging environments in which developers can safely create, test, and integrate it.
Many organizations find themselves struggling with unhealthy pre-production processes that actually create bottlenecks instead of taking advantage of the optimization promised by today’s development methods.
Let’s take a look at how pre-production works in the modern software development life cycle (SDLC), along with a few best practices to create a healthy pre-production environment for your organization.
The CI/CD Pipeline
Probably the biggest change from older SDLC models is the emergence of CI/CD. Continuous Integration/Continuous Delivery reflects the range of methods and strategies engineering teams have adopted to be able to take code to live as efficiently and reliably as possible.
If you’re not already working in a CI/CD framework, you probably should be. CI/CD involves two components: continuous integration and continuous delivery, each of which offers unique advantages.
Continuous integration involves integrating all changed code from all developers to a shared repository consistently and at frequent intervals.
The goal is to introduce and strengthen consistency and automation in the process of application building and testing. Rather than large changes at wider intervals, which require more extensive testing, the small changes of CI, with clear tracking of all changes, let the overall project move forward at a faster pace and with better visibility when you do encounter roadblocks.
The CD in CI/CD, which stands for either continuous delivery or continuous deployment (depending on the degree of automation), is what keeps this pipeline moving along toward the customer.
Together, CI/CD acts as a complete code integration and delivery pipeline, ushering the product through pre-production and into the production phase.
CI/CD takes code through the development environment, where coding takes place and software engineers perform unit tests, and on to the test environment, where more intensive test cases put the product through its paces before it moves into production.
Historically, testing was often manual and could be very time-consuming. Today, tools have been introduced that can not only speed the process along but also provide development teams with deeper insights into the source of problems so that they can be remediated faster.
Containerization & Microservices
Another important difference between legacy software development and the modern SDLC is the rise of microservice architectures and containerization.
Rather than building your entire project as a monolith, microservices let you define developer responsibilities for a single area of code and keep that code separate and distinct from the rest of the project.
Containers come hand in hand with microservices: Each microservice is usually packaged in its own container, creating a self-contained and isolated unit consisting of the code itself along with all of its dependencies. For developers, the use of containers, with or without microservices, lets them divide up large projects, allowing for concurrent releases from smaller, more agile coding teams. Containerization also makes it easier to push code to various layers because all the libraries and dependencies the code requires to run are self-contained.
However, while microservice architectures and containerization will almost certainly make life easier for developers, one of their major drawbacks is that the complexity of the code, with its numerous interconnected microservices, can make visibility difficult, creating problems when it comes to tracing and monitoring later on.
Therefore, in order to make microservices and containerization work well in pre-production, you’ll need tools that provide the needed visibility and tracing functionality during the debugging phase.
Best Practices to Turbo-Charge Pre-Production
Many organizations, when they’re transitioning from older development models to modern development practices such as CI/CD, containerization, and microservices, find themselves overwhelmed by the large-scale demands of these practices.
Much of the pressure comes in the pre-production phase. The tools your team uses during pre-production can have a powerful impact on the entire software development life cycle—and even the quality of the product that reaches end users’ hands.
Two best practices that can help take that pressure off are monitoring and automation.
Monitoring has become a valuable tool for production systems, tracking key metrics to keep an eye on performance over time so you can make sure you’re delivering the quality experience that users expect. But its use shouldn’t be confined to production; monitoring can be a vital part of pre-production as well.
With the complexity of modern software development, especially in light of the increased reliance on microservices, tracing user paths and bugs have become much more difficult. Even if test cases pass, introducing monitoring to your pre-production environments can provide insights that let you rapidly find the source of problems later on when code goes into production.
Keeping tabs on the health of your development environment is crucial for today’s agile development teams, letting you push changes quickly and confidently knowing you have your finger on the pulse of your development project.
While smaller organizations might be able to get away with using manual CI/CD processes, accessing and pushing changes to code repositories, bigger teams can’t get away with this—and shouldn’t even try. This is such a crucial phase of pre-production that relying on fallible human processes will inevitably waste time and effort. Save your developers’ time for coding improvements and code fixes.
Another area where automation is crucial is the testing phase. Rather than having QA engineers and testers manually running individual tests or even batch files, tools designed to automate testing can work much faster and provide actionable reports that allow your team to quickly find and fix bugs at the source—before they reach users.
As an example of building automation into the CI/CD pipeline, unit-tested code that has been integrated into the project can then be pushed through testing environments where QA test engineers have predefined test cases and where testing can take place hands-off. If problems are discovered, the CI/CD model can quickly identify the source of the bug and the coder responsible so errors can be resolved faster.
Automated testing, logging, and bug tracking are the backbone of a smoothly functioning debugging and testing setup. Fortunately, modern cloud-based tools have made a high degree of granularity possible without the hassle of maintaining manual or on-site systems.
Foresight, for example, gives developers essential capability for monitoring, debugging, and analyzing CI/CD pipelines more efficient than before.
Especially when you’re working in cloud-based environments, these benefits will help streamline your pre-production processes, letting you release more rapidly and more confidently.
Creating a Healthy Pre-Production Environment
Finally, in a complex pre-production environment, where you have multiple developers constantly accessing repositories, environments can unsync leading to problems down the line. Therefore, several basic practices also include making sure you maintain several layers of protection around your pre-production environment.
- Automation: Implement automated testing to be certain all layers are synced as needed, e.g., automated processes to scan databases and codebases, as well as to track and flag changes to files and data.
- Derisking: Keep pre-production and active production environments synced by ensuring that your team never edits code in production and test environments. This may sound obvious, but there can be grey areas, so make sure everyone knows what’s off-limits.
- Versioning: Tracking a project through its iterations lets you understand the source of each section of code and roll back if necessary to previous versions and ensure that all changes to your codebase are properly authorized.
Overall, these extra layers will help you make sure you have the healthiest possible pre-production environment.
Creating a Healthy Pre-Production Environment
A healthy, organized pre-production environment is essential to success in modern software development. With some of the best practices covered here, along with purpose-built tools in place to handle your code integration and delivery without the hassle, your team can get back to doing what it does best: creating reliable code.
In particular, the health of your pre-production process depends on maintaining and automating your team's CI/CD process wherever possible, along with setting up pre-production monitoring so you have the insights you need to debug and fix errors.
Foresight is a comprehensive monitoring solution that provides insights and analytics for both CICD pipelines and tests furthermore automatically assessing the level of risk of software changes and suggesting optimization and prioritization tips for automated tests in CI pipelines.
How Do Pre-Production Environments Impact Your Developers
There are several steps between writing code and putting it into production. These steps often fall under the umbrella of “pre-production.” Pre-production refers to the various staging environments that help developers safely develop, test, and integrate new code.
You might expect these extra steps to slow down development and progress. But pre-production environments—when set up correctly—can drastically improve the performance and time it takes for developers to push code.
In this article, we’ll explore the various pre-production environments and discuss what components are required to create an ideal one.
The Primary Pre-Production Environments
Pre-production environments are usually built before applications go into production. The two primary environments include:
- Development environment: The development environment provides a layer on which software engineers can build and test their code. These tests are usually limited and focus mostly on unit-style tests.
- Test environment: Test environments are usually where QA engineers will run a long list of test cases to make sure the code acts as expected.
In the past, much of this was done manually, but some of these steps are starting to meld together. In order to understand how this is happening, we’ll cover some other concepts, like CI/CD and environment monitoring.
Key Concepts to Consider When Setting Up Your Environment
Setting up pre-production environments is a critical step for any business that maintains the software. How your development team organizes their pre-production environments impacts the speed and ease with which they can maintain their code.
Small teams might use manual processes to push changes to code, such as manually pulling code from their repo and replacing the old code with it. This isn’t sustainable for large companies with large development teams and complex software—and this is where setting up a pre-production environment is key.
Here are some concepts that can improve your pre-production environment.
Continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) represents a combination of best practices and operating methods that allow engineering teams to push code quickly and reliably.
Continuous integration’s technical goal is to develop, establish, and maintain a consistent and automated process to build and test applications. The keyword being consistent. Having a consistent integration process in place ensures the code being tested and packaged is reliable. With a solid CI system, teams can switch to pushing more commits because they aren’t waiting for manual processes.
Continuous delivery takes over where continuous integration leaves off.
CI/CD act as a complete code integration and delivery pipeline. The CI portion helps automate integration and then CD finishes the process by pushing the applications to the targeted environments. For example, as the code is pushed through the testing environments it is automatically tested by prewritten test cases. This is much easier than a QA engineer manually testing the code changes and recording the output in a spreadsheet.
Monitoring is not just for your DevOps production systems. Setting up monitoring in your pre-production environments can provide multiple benefits.
Chief among them is knowing that developers haven’t accidentally altered the way the monitors work with their code changes. In particular, monitoring your testing environments, test cases, and possible user paths can provide a lot of insight into what could go wrong when your code goes into production.
It’s difficult to track every possible user path and bug in modern software. Monitoring ensures that you can trace future errors more easily. Even if the test cases pass.
The ability to conditionally monitor various environments is key for your agile development teams and well-orchestrated DevOps processes. Above all, it helps push lots of code changes quickly.
Debugging and Testing Setup
Developing a solid testing and debugging process helps your team constantly push out high-quality code. This means implementing automated testing and intentional logging, as well as tracking for bugs.
Many of these systems used to be onsite and/or manually managed. However, with the current cloud-driven development environments and the push for automated testing, new tools have arisen.
All of these benefits can help make your pre-production processes smoother, especially in cloud environments.
Modern Design Considerations
The concepts referenced above can help improve your pre-production environment best practices. But there are new concepts that play a role in simplifying pre-production and making deployment of code simpler. In particular, the practices of containerization and microservices have been focused on trying to improve the pre-production process.
Containers give developers the ability to create isolated modules that are contained in single units. Companies are moving to containers because that shift allows them to break up large software projects into concurrent releases from multiple small agile teams.
In theory, containers simplify the process of pushing code to your various layers. This is because the container itself should already have all of the libraries and dependencies required for the application to function. Of course, there is still the issue of databases and technical components like codebases, servers, and infrastructure that need to be managed.
Another modern development practice is using microservice architecture. This design method allows teams to build isolated, manageable services. This practice should make pushing code through your various environments somewhat easier. However, it also adds a layer of complexity because tracing and monitoring become more difficult if you don’t have the right tools in place.
In short, microservices can work well in your pre-production environment as long as you’ve developed a system around it.
Maintaining Your Pre-Production Environment
Pre-production environments are not static. They don’t remain pristine with multiple developers constantly testing, editing, and updating them. This can lead your various environments to unsync and cause problems in the future.
There are several tools and best practices your team can use to ensure that you are maintaining a robust pre-production environment.
- Automation: Your pre-production processes should have automatic checks to ensure that each layer is staying in sync as required. For instance, implementing automated processes that scan your databases and code bases for changes in the files or data.
- Code repository practices: This is one of the simplest ways to ensure that both pre-production and active production environments are staying in sync. Your team should not be editing code in production or test environments. This allows developers to edit code in the development environment and see, at least theoretically, how it will interact once live.
- Version control: Tracking the many iterations of a single project allows you to revisit previous versions and ensures that your codebase doesn’t change unless it’s meant to.
Overall, these extra layers help you maintain a robust pre-production environment.
The Take-Away: Don’t Neglect Your Pre-Production Environment
A successful development process includes an organized pre-production environment. Having the right tools and best practices to manage your code integration and delivery ensures your team is always able to put out reliable code. Maintaining your team's CI/CD process and setting up pre-production monitoring will have a huge impact on your team's performance.