Continuous Delivery is Not Continuous Deployment

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Every once in a while, it is worth revisiting a topic that flies under most people’s radar. The differences between continuous delivery and continuous deployment is one of those topics. While those steeped in DevOps are well-aware that software can be delivered daily (or even more frequently), deployment is less frequent, and more dependent upon both development and marketing cycles.

Most CI/CD tools can and do crank out “deployable” apps on a daily basis, or even each time that code is checked in. In theory, each of these builds is a candidate for deployment, and each has had at least some level of testing.

But setting up the environment to host these apps is a separate step. Quite often today, it is a step that is handled by scripts that configure/move everything to build the app environment into a comprehensive system with knowledge of network, data sources, storage, etc.

I’m revisiting this topic because new people often hear “CD” and assume that is the end state. Of course, it is not; the application has to be deployed—to Test and Production at least, and in many enterprises to Staging, also.

While these environments are almost invariably different (Test does not share IP space with Prod, for example), the deployments must mirror each other as much as possible to make Test representative of what Prod will look like.

As with any step in the DevOps toolchain, scripts to achieve continuous deployment are not a great solution. They are certainly a good first step—automating what previously was done by hand—but tools that make the experience easier and more dynamic are available, and should be considered.

Whether an explicit continuous deployment tool or an application release automation (ARA) tool (or an ARA that calls a continuous deployment tool, as we’ve seen some used), something to remove dependence on hand-edited scripts is useful for many reasons, starting with the fact that separate scripts are maintained for Test and Prod and changes must be made in two places when a change is made to an application (such as changing where the DB is located or switching to a dedicated AAA server). This makes scripting fragile. Tools can offer shared deployment and custom deployment sections so that multiple changes can be restricted to those things that truly need to be handled separately.

Deployment is very much a target exercise. The code has been built; deployment is simply giving it a home. Historically, this required agents be strewn about the data center to help target deployments. Increasingly, agentless tools are available that allow the adaptability of continuous deployment while not requiring agents to be installed on every machine that might participate in the deployment activity.

The other major benefit of moving beyond scripts and into a continuous deployment tool is huge: Everything else is version-controlled, which provides built-in rollback. A developer made a mess of fixing that bug, and things are worse? Roll back the update until the issue can be addressed. Tools such as Git make that particularly easy to do. On the deployment side, the same functionality is required. “Release 7.2 has been deemed to violate GDPR” might require moving back to the previous release. But script-based deployments are always forward-looking. It is enough to modify scripts to reflect the current environment, and it is a rare organization that requires parallel development of backout scripts. However, this functionality comes for free with a continuous deployment tool—that which it has built it can undo, because it is versioned automatically.

And the benefit of versioning goes beyond rollbacks: It allows multiple version deployments for AB testing and allows for skipping forward and back as far as necessary to meet current goals.

Is it a panacea? Of course not. Each technology brings new challenges. But continuous deployment solves more problems than it creates. And most of the problems it creates—a desire for greater integration with networking and storage services in non-cloud environments, for example—will be solved in a consistent and repeatable manner by these tools long before any scripting does. Because the tools are designed to create consistent and repeatable results.

While you are out there kicking it, consider implementing continuous deployment tools to tackle the DevOps last mile. They’ll make your life easier, and your environment less fragile.