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Keys to Effective Release Management

Dan Holloran June 05, 2019

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Release management continues to change alongside the changing landscape of software development and IT operations. Microservices, serverless and containers are giving way to more complex, interconnected architecture. And, as continuous integration and continuous deployment (CI/CD) workflows become more common, releasing reliable services becomes more difficult. So, teams need to evolve their processes and tools to fit in with the modern world of agile release management.

A combination of Agile and DevOps methodologies are allowing teams to shorten feedback loops and release reliable software faster. An effective release management framework allows you to deploy faster and quickly remediate any issues that arise during release. From backend infrastructure to frontend applications and services, a well-built release management system allows you to build visibility into the pipeline – improving collaboration, speed and resilience throughout the entire release management lifecycle.

So, we put together this list of key release management practices as a tutorial for all DevOps and IT teams looking to improve the speed and resilience of product deployments. But first, we’ll look at the overall release management process flow in order to find ways to improve upon current practices.

Release management process flow

Basically, the release management process flow falls into 5 steps – plan, build, test, prepare and deploy.

Release Management Process Graphic

While breaking it down into five steps sounds simple, there are numerous areas within each section that can get blocked – leading to bottlenecks and missed deadlines. The unblocked flow of work through the release management lifecycle is essential to business and engineering success. But, a big problem with release management in traditional IT was the lack of controllable variables throughout the process.

Developers would write the code and throw it over the wall to IT operations. Then, IT would be in charge of deploying the service and keeping it up. Without any prior involvement, the IT team would have no historical knowledge of what went into development – making it much harder to fix any real-time release incidents or detect issues prior to deployment. Configuration management tools like Jenkins or Ansible, as well as other release management software, will make reliable deployments more likely – but the majority of resilience and speed will come from the way your people interact with your technology.

So, let’s dive into the key elements that make up an effective release management environment:

Death to Downtime

The keys to an efficient release management lifecycle

Building an effective release management process relies heavily on automation, collaboration and transparency throughout the entire process flow. Adhering to many DevOps principles and Agile development practices will inherently help you build a more effective release management system. From identifying incidents in your applications and infrastructure during release to setting up continuous automated testing, there are numerous ways to improve release management. So, let’s dive into the specific release management techniques your team can use to continuously deliver reliable products and services.

  • Reducing the bottleneck

While Agile practices can help teams quickly build and deliver value in the software development lifecycle, they can also help build a large deployment bottleneck. If you build products faster than you can deploy them – you’re not actually delivering customer value quickly – you’re simply building a large backlog of features and services. So, the more you can involve IT operations during the plan, build, and test phases of release management, the faster you’ll be when it comes time to deploy.

The IT and development team need to collaborate closely and share information throughout the development lifecycle in order to improve the speed of the release lifecycle. DevOps collaboration and transparency leads to developers who write more production-ready code, as well as IT teams who know more about what’s going on during development – allowing for rapid releases that run more smoothly.

  • Shortening feedback loops

Shortened feedback loops go along with reducing the release bottleneck and tightening developer and operations relationships. With involvement from IT professionals and software developers at every step of the development and release cycle, teams can improve visibility into work being done and communicate about concerns faster. Shortened feedback loops become the standard with improved methods for communication and transparency at every stage of product development and deployment. Identify blind spots in processes and human workflows to find areas for improvement.

Creating a blameless culture allows you to openly discuss any lack of transparency across the IT and development teams – helping you identify where you need to improve collaboration where you can. Shortened feedback loops are all about improving visibility and communication while work is being done, not after it’s already finished.

  • Continuous testing

While the release management process flow we listed above contains “test” as an individual piece of release management, a better way to drive efficiency is to constantly test throughout the entire lifecycle. If you try to deploy large chunks of code and only test at one point in the release process, you’ll start to build up a bottleneck. By continuously running tests, leveraging automated and manual QA, and keeping up-to-date staging environments for experimentation, you can actively test for problems. Continuous testing also makes the release management process easier because it’s easier to run tests on smaller releases than larger ones. As you deploy smaller services more frequently, continuous automated testing becomes imperative to system reliability.

  • Automation

In association with continuous testing, automation in the release management process is essential for speed and reliability. Standardizing workflows and automating tasks that could stop your people from moving work through the will lead to more time developing new features and less time fixing older ones. Automation can and should be worked into every stage of release management. From planning to deployment, reducing the amount of manual work for development, configurations and testing will lead to a highly effective, DevOps-focused release management framework.

  • Keeping organized staging and production environments

Developers and IT professionals need to keep buttoned-up staging and production environments. The more aligned your staging and production environments, the more you’ll be able to learn from testing and experimentation in staging. If services work in staging, they should work in production. Don’t allow your staging environment to fall into disarray – it will lead to tests that don’t work properly, poorly-written code, and misconfigured applications and infrastructure.

  • Limiting unplanned work

At a high-level, the more you can plan for the release management work you’ll need to do, the more you can strategically deliver value to the business. Being an excellent planner will allow you to focus on the priorities and initiatives that drive revenue and better customer experiences. A collaborative DevOps team that keeps a buttoned-up development pipeline will translate into a buttoned-up release pipeline. This helps engineering teams and IT strategically plan for future releases and communicate more accurate timelines with the business teams.

  • Know your business

Simply put, you need to understand your customers and the business environment you’re in. This allows you to prioritize projects and release the most important features and services first. Customer expectations and asks from the business should constantly drive the way you approach software development and release management lifecycles. In order to know your business, you need to build powerful, bidirectional channels for communication and transparency between business teams and engineering teams.

  • Post-release reviews

Just like we endorse conducting post-incident reviews after an outage or failure, you should conduct post-release reviews after deploying new features or services. If everything went according to plan, explain why that was the case. Were there any roadblocks with the release? Were there any blind spots or confusion that you could solve with new processes or tooling? A thorough analysis of what works and what doesn’t during a release can help you iterate on your strategy and develop better release management practices.

Continuous delivery and release management with the DevOps methodology

DevOps practices inherently lead to more efficient software development and release management. By bringing software developers and IT teams closer together, and exposing everyone to more of the software delivery process, you increase the likelihood of reliable releases – not to mention the speed of those releases. Continuous testing throughout development and release management will help you expose vulnerabilities and incidents before they get into production.

Automating tasks throughout the release process flow also lets the team spend more time building new features and services. Instead of creating bottlenecks in the pipeline, DevOps methodologies lead to faster feedback loops and a more collaborative workflow from start to finish. A DevOps-focused release pipeline allows you to not only plan and build products faster, but it allows you to actually release those products faster. Leaving finished work in the pipeline is a nightmare for release managers and a headache for developers.

Taking advantage of release management best practices

By following the above steps, you’re well on your way to driving business value through release management. Because every team is different, it’s hard to define specific release management best practices. But, every team’s software delivery and release management framework can benefit from heightened collaboration and transparency across the entire business. Don’t look at release management as a blocker to development speed – look at it as a filter for pushing the most valuable features and services for the success of your business.

Improve collaboration and build transparency into development and IT workflows with a single-pane-of-glass view into system health and release success. Try a 14-day free trial or get a free demo of VictorOps to learn how we help release managers identify problems faster, notify on-call users and maintain an efficient delivery pipeline for reliable services.

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