If your business is thinking of switching over to an integration and continuous deployment/delivery (CI/CD) model of software production, the first thing you may wonder is whether this move is good for business. Migrating and training your team will take time and money, but sometimes it’s not clear what the payoff is and how and when you’re going to start seeing any ROI.
It’s reasonable to be cautious and not leap to embrace whatever the latest buzzword happens to be. But CI/CD has been around for the better part of 20 years and has proven its value as part of the DevOps culture, which encourages a much faster release cycle and is more responsive overall to business needs.
CI/CD has also managed to prove itself not only in terms of speed—which is not in itself a metric of success—but in terms of driving concrete business value, such as shortening time to market with new applications, features, and services, as well as improving metrics like customer satisfaction and loyalty.
That’s why it’s important for business decision-makers to push past the hype to fully understand from the ground up what CI/CD actually is and what it has to offer an organization. That way, there will be maximum buy-in—not just within IT and operations, but throughout the entire organization.
To help your organization get informed before deciding whether or not to invest in CI/CD, let’s take a look at some of the benefits and challenges CI/CD pipelines introduce.
CI/CD Pipelines: The Basics
Understanding the CI/CD pipeline requires a shared grasp of some foundational concepts and terminology:
- Continuous integration. As code is changed, it is automatically and seamlessly merged with the central repository, or “mainline.” This is done frequently to eliminate the possibility that some or all of the development team is working with out-of-date copies of the code, which could cause an application to break.
- Continuous delivery. When checked-in mainline code is ready for deployment to end-users, it is then alpha and beta tested in “staging,” or non-production environments, and then manually released to production.
- Continuous deployment. While with continuous delivery, customers do not receive the update until it is manually released, continuous deployment extends the use of automation in the testing environment and automatically releases the newest changes to production as soon as they have passed all required tests.
- DevOps. This term is ubiquitous in the CI/CD world and is often treated as if the two were identical. Dev/Ops refers to the underlying mindset more than to a particular methodology. It refers to the cultural change required to foster a faster release cycle, create collaborative interdisciplinary teams (comprising developers, operations, quality assurance, and management), and introduce automation into the process.
Before CI/CD, software development generally took place according to the “waterfall” model, where each stage took place completely separately. Code for new features, services, libraries, or applications would be developed and perhaps unit-tested separately. Then, they would be integrated, potentially creating a large number of failures all at once. Then, pre-release testing would take place simultaneously near the end of the software development life cycle (SDLC).
It’s easy to understand how, with this model, moving an application from development to production was a major undertaking that companies were not willing to do very often. This is especially true because, with each release, new bugs would be discovered—since regardless of which model you’re using for development, it’s impossible to release error-free software.
With the waterfall model, discovering a bug once the software was in production often required taking apart the software to track and troubleshoot, potentially requiring the company to begin the cycle all over again.
By focusing on smaller, incremental changes to code, and a faster release cycle, CI/CD provides greater agility. With this approach, if bugs are discovered in post-production, a mechanism is already in place to perform rapid fixes or implement new features, leading to greater customer satisfaction. Over the last decade, study after study, such as this recent research article from the University of Johannesburg, has shown vastly more positive outcomes for this style of software development over waterfall-style development.
Today, organizations using a CI/CD approach generally release daily or every few days—but new releases can occur multiple times a day if needed.
Together, CI and CD are referred to as a “pipeline” because the goal is to keep functional, fully integrated code flowing through the pipeline and ultimately into the hands of end-users.
Many large vendors are now offering tools for CI/CD software development: Microsoft, AWS, IBM, Red Hat, and others. But since organizations’ needs vary widely, most end up creating a custom “tool stack” rather than embracing an end-to-end solution from a single vendor. Tools required include source code management (such as GitHub), a CI server (such as Jenkins), provisioning (such as Ansible), and deployment (such as Terraform).
One final term you may encounter that is also important to understand:
While DevOps and CI/CD are not synonymous, setting up a CI/CD pipeline is by far the most common way businesses can achieve a DevOps transformation in modern software development.
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Business Benefits of CI/CD Pipelines
When it comes to business benefits, we need to cut through the high-tech buzzwords and focus on concrete deliverables that take the company strategically in the direction it needs to go. Here are just a few of the benefits companies have found from implementing CI/CD:
- Better quality software. With CI/CD, your developers are handling smaller sections of code, meaning that if problems do emerge, it will be simpler and quicker to find a resolution. It also lowers the chance that errors make it into the production environment. Additionally, by incorporating automated testing, CI/CD can resolve many bugs before they make it into end users’ hands, boosting user satisfaction.
- Faster time to market. Whether your product is new or an update, CI/CD gives you a literal pipeline straight to your market while ensuring that thorough testing still takes place. And since requirements can change often during development, these changes can be incorporated easily, leading to a better-quality product once it’s released. This means you’re going to start seeing value sooner as well as maintain a competitive edge.
- Fail fast. It may sound undesirable to hope something will fail quickly, but this is actually one of the most important principles of CI/CD. When new functions and features go wrong, you’ll get immediate feedback and can fix the product quickly. Because of this, CI/CD is the perfect way to conduct various types of tests: A-B testing, canary launches, blue-green testing, and dark testing are all ways to deploy and test new product features prior to a full release. And if there’s ever a problem with a release, CI/CD guarantees that you can roll things back without any serious customer impact.
- Smashing silos. While the term “breaking down silos” is everywhere in today’s business world, CI/CD is probably its biggest use case. By creating collaboration among developers, product managers, testers, and operations admins, you’ll build a culture of agility and innovation throughout your entire organization along with boosting shared responsibility, keeping everybody on your team aware of the business mission and strategy.
- Happy workers. Coders love to code. Everything else is secondary, and many functions development, IT, and operations teams perform are tedious and can actually lead to burnout. CI/CD introduces numerous points where automation can take over, giving them more time for creativity and enhanced productivity, which leads to cost savings.
- Data stream. With its modern, business-oriented tooling, CI/CD offers the flexibility to generate, track, and report on valuable metrics across the entire SDLC. Some tools even provide ongoing monitoring and observability data from the production environment, which help your business leaders make important decisions when it comes to infrastructure, product roadmaps, team performance, and more.
- Ensuring observability. This is not only a function of CI/CD. Essentially, modern software development environments are distributed, meaning they may be spread across physical locations or in the cloud. With code changing often, it is possible that something that previously functioned properly may stop working, and then it can be tough to track down the issue that caused the application to break. This challenge can be solved by building observability into the CI/CD pipeline with tools that can correlate application performance with code merges to help you speed the time to fix problems.
- Too agile? Because a well-oiled CI/CD pipeline provides such superior agility, it may be tempting for execs and managers to demand one-off changes, potentially just on a whim, introducing features or “fixes” that don’t fit the organization’s overall strategy. Constantly introducing changes without keeping an eye on the strategic roadmap can make it tough to achieve the cost benefits promised by CI/CD.
Business Challenges of a CI/CD Pipeline
Let’s be honest, any type of change within an organization is difficult. While the development team will likely be satisfied overall with the benefits of CI/CD, here are a few challenges you could possibly encounter.
Beyond technological issues, CI/CD may raise cultural issues within your organization. For instance, developers and admins may fear that they are likely to put themselves out of a job thanks to all of its automation benefits.
It’s best to communicate to your employees that the move to CI/CD is part of a commitment to the DevOps mindset as a whole. Explore issues like end-user benefits and help these team members understand how essential their work is to your overall business goals.
You also need to provide training wherever necessary to help employees upgrade their skills and be able to use any new tools they are expected to work with. It is generally less expensive to train your existing workforce than find new hires with expensive cutting-edge skills. For example, project managers may need support in understanding today’s agile processes and tools in order to keep up with the velocity of CI/CD. This is also part of the up-front investment of CI/CD.
Metrics for Tracking CI/CD ROI
It may be hard to believe, but each year, around the world, failed IT projects wind up costing $260 billion (€210.84 billion) yearly in the U.S. alone. How do IT projects fail? Problems encountered could include non-completion, inability to release, failure to effectively address business needs, cost overruns, and missed timelines.
Therefore, the first metric of value in determining the ROI of CI/CD pipelines is ensuring that they have cut the risk and cost of IT failure with higher-quality code and highly functional products and systems. By automating and optimizing provisioning and testing workflows, your company should begin almost immediately to be able to reduce errors and lower costs.
Key performance indicators (KPIs) for your CI/CD pipeline’s effectiveness can be measured through tracking factors like deployment frequency. However, simply releasing fast isn’t an accurate indicator of effectiveness, so this metric should be combined with others such as deployment failure rate, change volume, the ability to meet availability and performance SLAs, mean time to recovery (MTTR), defect volume, and escape rate.
Earlier, we mentioned that CI/CD is not synonymous with DevOps. Yet the benefits of both are clear. While the older “waterfall” method encouraged a slow and cautious mindset—since a software release was by necessity a major and often traumatic event—today’s agile development models foster a mindset of speed and quality.
That mindset in itself can help your business tremendously. Developers who observe how simple it is to iterate the application will be quick to suggest improvements or flag problematic behavior before it lands in front of a customer.
As so many companies have discovered, a strategic move to CI/CD can offer you more innovation overall, along with clearer communication and better productivity throughout the entire organization. Which ultimately gives you a competitive edge.
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