DevOps continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) is a set of practices that enables organizations to deliver software products to customers faster and more reliably. It is based on the concept that breaking down the silos between development and operations teams will achieve a collaborative culture where everyone works together toward the same goal. CI/CD is built on a foundation of four key principles: automation, versioning, continuous iteration, and build quality. While it is a complex and challenging approach to software development, it can be very rewarding; organizations that implement CI/CD effectively often achieve a significant competitive advantage.
What is CI/CD?
CI/CD is a form of software delivery automation that aims to increase the speed and simplicity of the product development pipeline, allowing a DevOps team to provide frequent and reliable updates and patches. Developers can work independently, creating and deploying small changes more quickly while using automation to test code and detect issues before deploying to the main codebase. It is an iterative framework that sees products as ongoing projects rather than finished pieces.
An important tool for a CI/CD pipeline is infrastructure as code (IaC), which allows infrastructure to be provisioned and managed through code. With IaC, "an application, regardless of its environment or where it's hosted, can be spun up with a predefined list of requirements entirely from scratch," The New Stack explains.
Any organization with an IT application that requires changes to an application that is then released, regardless of what that application is doing, can benefit from a CI/CD pipeline. These practices prioritize the service's availability to users while allowing businesses to keep maintenance and operational overhead low. Modifications can be made easily and released quickly; quality checks and testing are already integrated into the CI/CD pipeline, eliminating manual work and reducing human interaction. When paired with the power of cloud computing, applications can also be scaled with the click of a button.
Principles of CI/CD
With a CI/CD pipeline, businesses can drastically improve their development and integration processes while reducing overhead and downtime. To reap the benefits of the CI/CD framework, it is vital for organizations to understand the principles that undergird the process.
1. Repeatable automated processes: Any portion of the development pipeline that is repeated should be automated. This improves the efficiency of the development and delivery process and reduces the opportunity for human-introduced errors.
2. Versioning: Proper version control tags change and serves as a backup, if necessary. If a problem arises, the codebase is easily rolled back, reducing downtime. CI/CD principles treat development as an iterative, ongoing process.
3. Continuous release. A key part of the CI/CD pipeline is the ability to reliably and frequently update applications. Features and improvements are released with less downtime and less impact to the application on the front end.
4. Build quality: With CI/CD, building at volume supports build quality. As processes are repeated and automated, there is less room for error.
Limitations and Barriers
As beneficial as a well-designed CI/CD pipeline can be, there are limitations to every tool. First, any changes made to an application may need to be monitored and reported to adhere to compliance or governance requirements. Every organization will have requirements for their applications, whether related to security, product reliability, or product delivery. Because CI/CD aims to continuously release updates and changes, this monitoring may be arduous for some companies.
It's also important to understand that no single solution will fit every architecture. Some microservices integrations may have restrictions with a CI/CD framework. While add-on scripts can minimize the impacts, there are constraints. With certain architectures, CI/CD may work in a limited fashion rather than end-to-end.
Organizations that utilize outside products may also find that a CI/CD framework simply isn't ideal, depending on the products used. Companies have no control over the outside products they rely on, which could make implementing CI/CD extremely difficult. Outside products are external variables that need to be defined, and there may be additional application downtime to ensure all details are correct before updates can be deployed.
Even when conditions are ideal, if an organization doesn't have a CI/CD pipeline, there is a significant upfront effort required to implement the process. Of the multiple teams working within the organization, not all may be prepared for this kind of shift. It falls to the management team to attempt to align the teams and processes to implement CI/CD.
The Future of CI/CD
Although the CI/CD process has early roots in the 1990s, it has continued to evolve in the decades since.
According to a McKinsey study, approximately 60% of developers surveyed reported a nearly two-fold increase in deployment speed thanks to practices like CI/CD. The report, which looked at technology trends and next-generation software development, included CI/CD as a trend worth watching, stating, "Fully automated CI/CD pipelines enable lower disruption, higher code quality, and drastically shorter development cycles."
Cloud computing has hugely benefited CI/CD implementation, providing greater flexibility and the ability to ramp resources up or down as needed. The technology supports rapid deployment of developer's changes and allows additional resources to be provisioned ahead of demand.
There is also significant potential for artificial intelligence (AI) in DevOps. One of AI's strengths lies in its ability to analyze data in creative patterns to make better decisions. The McKinsey report noted the potential for AI within various parts of the CI/CD pipeline, including in performance testing and software checks. While many of the AI features aren't available yet, they will be able to be embedded into the CI/CD pipeline. The primary strength of the CI/CD pipeline remains its ability to adapt and evolve. Regardless of the industry's new technologies and changes, CI/CD is a framework designed to integrate new tools and practices.
Technological advancement never slows down; tools like AI and cloud computing that were seen as cutting-edge and out of reach for most businesses are becoming more ubiquitous, and new technologies will continue to emerge. The CI/CD process is a proven method for improving business costs by lowering overhead and reducing opportunities for human error. When implemented properly, it can ensure businesses are prepared to effectively leverage new, cutting-edge technologies while minimizing downtime. While no solution is without limitations or challenges, the CI/CD process continues to evolve with the industry and offers enough benefits that organizations that do not consider CI/CD risk being left behind.