A Practical Field Guide to the Release Pipeline

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In the tech world, the term “pipeline” comes up again and again. We use it in a lot of different situations. But what actually is a pipeline? 

Generally, it’s a defined series of steps and processes that need to be executed to complete part of a software delivery process. Pipelines help software professionals collaborate more efficiently. Today, we’ll discuss release pipelines—a way to help your development and operations teams work smarter.

What Is a Release Pipeline?

It’s now a cliche that every company is a software company, but it’s also true. Software applications represent business value, and software professionals are entrusted with making sure it reaches users quickly and securely. To achieve this, many steps in the software development lifecycle have been automated. A release pipeline encompasses all the steps, automated and manual, that ensure users can access a reliable, secure version of a company’s software. It extends from code changes all the way through production, release and beyond, with a focus on getting changes into the hands of end users. It goes hand in hand with continuous delivery, which is the practice of ensuring your codebase is ready to deploy safely at any point in time. The release pipeline reduces the time that developers need to spend on toil and fixing what inevitably breaks—thus helping teams achieve continuous delivery.

Do You Really Need a Release Pipeline?

Now, you may ask yourself: Do you really need a release pipeline? It might seem like you can’t just easily build one following a tutorial from the Internet (because it depends on the tools your teams use and your organization-specific requirements). Well, I get your point, but things are simpler than you might imagine—and you have a lot to gain by adopting this process. 

The Benefits

Let’s talk about the benefits of a release pipeline. The most important one is that it will decrease the time to get to a new release while ensuring stability. This means your users will have access to new features (or bug fixes) faster, and you will have automatic rollback procedures and fail-safes in place in case something goes wrong. Release pipelines make things predictable and reliable. Another benefit is that developer productivity will increase. Auditability is accounted for, so developers don’t have to waste time proving their work or recreating builds long after the fact. They can focus more on writing the actual code—the work that delivers business value—instead of all the surrounding minutiae. 

Release pipelines also help operations teams, who are typically measured on release velocity, efficiency and effectiveness. Release pipelines increase velocity, and they use fewer resources than scripted deployments. They decrease risk, and build in automatic remediation measures for when things go wrong—eliminating the thorniest and most routine headaches of operations teams. 

These are just the top-level benefits. You’ll also find unique advantages to your company and situation as you customize. 

The Orchestrator for Your Software Delivery

A release pipeline works like an orchestrator for your software delivery. This means that it will decide based on inputs and data from the release, and it will fix common issues on the fly—or even automatically roll back the deployment if it detects some negative customer impact. Your release pipeline is custom-built to your specific needs and company structure. It can provide you with detailed feedback and useful metrics that will give you a more complete overview of the whole release process. This kind of visibility just isn’t possible any other way. Orchestrated release pipelines allow you to better predict the outcomes of initiatives and then prove their success or failure.

All of this means that release pipelines don’t need to be scary. In fact, a really well-designed pipeline will help you increase the quality of the software and decrease the amount of issues with a customer impact. Enterprises often choose third-party solutions like the CloudBees Software Delivery Platform to connect, automate and orchestrate tools and functions across development, operations and shared services teams. The CloudBees Software Delivery Platform can help automate your software development and delivery lifecycle from end to end, encouraging the sharing of best practices and governance while making sure teams have the freedom to work the way they need to work. 

A Quick Side Note on CI/CD vs. DevOps

We discussed the basics of release pipelines and what benefits they bring. Let’s talk briefly about how they fit into the DevOps methodology. When companies talk about DevOps, they usually mention faster and more frequent deployments. Automated pipelines for continuous integration/continuous deployment (CI/CD) are often seen as a synonym for “achieving DevOps,” but this isn’t quite right.

Indeed, one of the most common reasons for starting a DevOps journey is to shorten the software development lifecycle—and having an automated CI/CD pipeline definitely helps you do so. Let’s keep in mind, however, that DevOps is primarily a methodology, a mindset and a set of practices—not tools. Of course, we use some tools in DevOps environments more than others, but don’t forget that these tools are not shortcuts. If you just install a “DevOps tool” but don’t change the way your teams collaborate, you haven’t made the shift to doing DevOps.

Summary

No doubt your organization can benefit from a release pipeline. It can increase your productivity and velocity in amazing ways.

You may hesitate to move away from manual, scripted deployments if you’ve been working this way for a long time, or you may not want to involve more people in your deployments—but the advantages are significant for everyone involved. Moving to an orchestrated release pipeline will make your development teams more productive while helping you avoid broken deployments and increasing overall software quality. Using a solution like CloudBees Continuous Delivery, a capability of the CloudBees Software Delivery Platform, can help shield you even more by verifying performance and security. If you want to take the next step and learn more about innovation in software delivery, check out this blog post.

This post was written by Dawid Ziolkowski. Dawid has 10 years of experience starting as a network/systems engineer before moving to DevOps and more recently becoming a cloud native engineer. Nowadays he’s helping companies move to cloud and/or redesign their infrastructure for a more cloud native approach.

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