Category Archives: DevOps

Ignoring Warnings in Log Files

I know that many people think along the lines of ignoring warnings in log files. But I am responsible for an environment where we  run applications that are sort-of business critical. So I need to take warnings seriously, especially if their wording is not really clear. The consequence is that any unnecessary warning causes operational problems. Because who can tell me, kind-of “written in blood”, that I can absolutely always and forever ignore this warning? Only in that case could I consider adding an exception to the log monitoring system and of course to the system documentation, the operations manual, etc. So for me, and from my consulting past I know many customer think the same, this is not just a small nuisance but a real issue.

On the other hand I have had many discussions with people who told me that I could just ignore this or that entry. In many cases it turned out after some discussion, that the log level was actually chosen badly and INFO would have been more appropriate. In that respect the semantics of the commonly used log levels deserve a closer look. Here are two good links (link 1, link2) for definitions. When I first read them, my initial thought was that I might have overreached with the first paragraph of this post. But looking at the example from link 1 about WARN a bit closer, I think my concerns are still valid.

So what can be done? Reality is that you rarely have the ability to get a log statement changed. So you do need a scalable approach to deal with log messages that you consciously choose to ignore. It involves primarily two things: Firstly, you need to have documentation why the decision was made that a given log message is not critical. Secondly, there should be an automated link with your log file monitoring system, that configures an exception in it. Depending on your business this whole area might also be regulated, so the legal side may very well play a role as well. But that is outside the scope of this post.

I know this post is not really actionable, but still wanted to share my thoughts.

 

Starting with Continuous Integration

In this post I look at things to consider when an organization wants to introduce Continuous Integration (CI). As in so many other situations the non-technical challenges are more difficult to solve than some nitty-gritty details.

Start Small Right Now

If ever there was a place for the proverb “the better is the enemy of the good” it is here. Waiting days, weeks, or months because you have not sorted out all details is the worst you can do. Instead you should start immediately by just installing a CI server (Jenkins is the de facto standard) and set up a simple job that does nothing but check out the source code from the VCS and compile it.

More advanced stuff like test automation, setting up delivery pipelines, integration with binary repositories like Artifactory or Nexus is not needed in the beginning.

Agile Automatically?

Most development teams that have not used CI so far are probably operating in a more or less non-agile fashion. That is fine and can stay as it is! Because while CI is virtually a prerequisite for agile development, that does absolutely not mean that teams following a waterfall model will not benefit considerably from CI.

So establishing CI can but does not have to be the first step of moving towards agile development. In fact I would argue that introducing CI is a large-enough step for an existing development organization. Only when this has been “digested”, you should think about moving towards agile. Otherwise too many things would be changed in parallel, similar to combining a new release of your own software with an upgrade of the underlying platform, e.g. the database server.

Frequency of Builds

This is the only part where I strongly recommend that you start at full throttle. What I mean by that is that you resist the temptation to run your builds only once a day or even less frequently. Ideally, every commit into the VCS triggers a build via a post-commit hook (here is more information for Git and Subversion). But polling the VCS every e.g. 10 minutes is a good-enough approximation in most cases. And it is also a little bit easier to set up when you just start on the whole topic.

Why am I so adamant on this particular point? I think that almost-instant feedback is at the very core of CI and the only way to deliver it is by running the build. All the points below change the amount of details that are provided or reduce the risk of introducing bugs into the code. But this hugely powerful feeling you get after your first commit triggers a build, is the important aspect for successful adoption in my view.

Test Automation

Start with “compilation works” as the lowest common denominator. When you want to start adding the use of “proper” test frameworks, feel free to do so. But is nothing you need on day one.

When you are ready to do more, you need to focus on those parts of your code that are most relevant for the business. Resist the temptation of striving for large test coverage of your code for the sake of it (having a KPI on this is a really bad idea). Otherwise people will start writing test for trivial helper functions, testing which on their own is of low relevance.

Instead take the critical parts of the business logic and develop a way to test them end-to-end (if possible without the GUI yet). With this approach you will implicitly cover all the lower-level stuff underneath automatically. Unless you have someone on your team with practical experience on integration testing frameworks (e.g. Citrus), I would not start with a full-blown approach but rather develop a few custom scripts.

The point in time when to start with more advanced topics, especially automated performance tests, depends on your individual situation and I will not make recommendations about it here. But what you should do as soon as possible, is read up on the subject and get an understanding about the different types of test and what they are good for. You do not need to implement everything now, but this will allow you to make informed judgements about the path you choose.

In Closing

You should now have an idea how to get started with CI quickly and in a way that delivers positive results pretty much from day one. Gaining traction in the organization should be your first priority in the beginning. There is a widespread misconception that things like CI, while theoretically the right to do, slow developers down. Nothing could be further from the truth. But unless you fight this impression fiercely, sooner or later management will ask for by-passing that “nice new thing” and get code out of the code faster using the old way.

Related posts:

How to Implement Test-Driven Development

Test-Driven Development (TDD) is something I have long had difficulties with. Not because I consider it a bad concept, but found it very difficult to start doing. In hindsight it appears that the advice given in the respective books and online articles was not suitable. So here is the approach that finally worked for me.

It boils down to deviating from the pure doctrine. Instead of writing a test before starting on a new piece of code, I start with the actual code right away. Yes, that violates the core principle, although only for a while. But I have found that in most cases my understanding of the problem is still somewhat vague when I start working on it. So for my brain it is better if I do not have to split its capacity between solving the actual problem and thinking about how to devise a proper test and what all that means for the structure of the future code.

Once the initial version of the working code is there and manually validated, I do add the test. From then on I am in a position to refactor the code without the risk of breaking something. And of course this refactoring is needed because the first version of any code is never really good. While you could write “better” initial code, this would require spending more time upfront than you otherwise need for refactoring later. And it also ignores the fact that you only really understand the problem, when you have finished implementing the solution.

What I later realized was that my approach also helped me to write more testable code. But instead of consciously having to work on it, this sneaked in as a by-product of my modified way of doing TDD. For me this is a more natural way of learning and the results are typically better than following some formal approach.

Start Working with a Version Control System

Every so often I get asked about what to consider when introducing Continuous Integration (CI) to an organization. Interestingly though, most of the details discussed are about working with a version control system (VCS) and not CI itself. That is understandable because the VCS is the “gateway” for all developers. So here are my recommendations.

Use of Branches

It is important to distinguish between the goal (Continuous Integration) and the means (trunk-based development). Yes, it is possible to implement a system that facilitates frequent integration of code from various branches. On the other hand it is a considerably more complex approach than to simply work off trunk. So in most cases I would argue that simpler is better.

In any case I recommend to also look at using branches and can recommend this video on YouTube as a starting point. Whatever path you choose, it will always improve your understanding of the subject and you do not have to take my word for it.

Number of Commits

Most people that do not use a VCS will typically work through the day and create a file copy (snapshot-like) of their project in the evening just before they leave for the day. So it is a natural conclusion to transfer this approach like-for-like to the VCS. In practical terms this would mean to perform a single commit every day just before you go home. And the commit message would be similar to “Work for <DATE>” or “WIP”.

But instead of doing so, developers should commit as often as possible. In my experience 5 to 15 times for a full day of development work is a good rule-of-thumb. There will be exceptions, of course. But whenever you are far enough outside this ballpark-figure, you should analyze why that is.

Time to Commit

Instead of looking at time intervals, people should commit whenever the code has reached a stable state. Or in other words: It does not make sense to have people commit every 30 to 45 minutes. They should rather do this after e.g. having fixed a small bug (e.g. correction of a threshold). But for changes that require more than roughly 60 minutes of work, things need to be broken down. This will be looked at in detail in the next bullet point.

Especially when starting with a VCS, people will quite often miss to commit when they have completed a somewhat discrete piece of work. That is normal and happens to everybody. Even today, with more than ten years of experience on the subject, I still sometimes miss the point. Adding the step of committing a set of changes to your work routine, is something that really takes time. It is a bit like re-ordering your morning routine in the bathroom. Most people do things in the exact same order every day. Changing something there is just as difficult as performing a commit “automatically”.

What to do when you realize your miss, depends on the circumstances. If this is your personal pet project, you may just virtually slap yourself on the head and continue or do the infamous “WIP” commit. But if this a critical project for you organization and you collaborate with others, you need to undo the last couple of changes until you are back where you should have performed the commit in the first place. Yes, this is cumbersome and feels like a waste of time, especially if you are working under time pressure, i.e. always.

But there is no alternative and anyone who says differently (typically project managers without a solid background in software development) is just completely wrong. Because you need to be able to understand exactly who performed what change to the code base and when. But with messy commits this will not work in practice. Or to rephrase in management speak: It is much more time-consuming and error-prone to go through untidy changes every single time you try find something in the VCS, than to spend the effort only once and correct things. 

Split Up Larger Work Items

In many cases the effort to implement a new feature or fix a really nasty bug will exceed let’s say 60 minutes. In those cases the developer should have a rough a plan how the overall work be structured. For a new feature this could mean something like:

  1. Add test-cases that pass for the current implementation
  2. Re-factor in preparation without changing behavior
  3. Add test-cases for new feature
  4. Implement first half of new feature but ensure that it cannot be executed yet (think feature-toggle here)
  5. Finish new feature and enable execution

Working Code

The example above for how to structure the implementation of something larger has a critical aspect to it. Which is that at every point in time the code in the VCS must be in a consistent and operational (=deployable) state. If things look different (i.e. some parts are not working every now and then) in your development environment, as opposed to the VCS, that is ok. Although it has proven to make life easier when both the VCS and your environment do not stray too far apart from each other.

What I discovered for myself is that the approach has a really nice by-product: cleaner and more stable code. In hindsight I cannot say when this materialized for me. So there is a small chance that from a clean code perspective things got worse before they got better. But my gut feeling tells me that this was not the case. Because an always-working code also means a better structured code, which is by definition more stable due to reduced complexity (relative to a messy codebase).

Fix Immediately

This has been written about many times and I merely mention it for completeness here. Whenever a change breaks the code, and thus causes automated tests to fail, the highest priority is to get things back into a working state. No exceptions ever!

When NOT to Commit

A VCS is not a backup system for your code but a VCS. This also means that you should not simply commit at the end of the day before you go home, unless your code happens to be in a working state. Otherwise, if you feel the need or are obliged to do so, have a backup location and/or script that handles this. But please do not clutter the VCS with backups.

At least in the early days of CI (the early 2000s) it was a somewhat common phenomenon at the beginning of projects that at the end of the day people checked in whatever they had done so far and went home. In many cases this broke the code and tests failed on the CI server. Until the next morning it was not possible for others to work effectively because you cannot reasonably integrate further changes with an already broken codebase. That is bad enough if people are located in one timezone. But think about the effect it has on an organization that works with a follow-the-sun approach.

Commit Messages

The reason for commit messages, in addition to the technical details that the VCS records anyway, is to describe the intent of the change. It does not make sense to list technical details, because those can always be retrieved with much more precision from the VCS log. But why you performed the sum of those changes is usually hard to extract from the technical delta. So think about how you would describe the change in a way that allows you to understand things when you look at them in six months.

In Closing

These are just a few point I learned over the years and have been able to validate with various projects. They are practical and provide, in my view, a good balance between the ideal world and the reality you find in many larger organizations. Please let know if you agree or (more importantly!) disagree.

Related posts:

Structuring a VCS Repository

My main programming hobby project will soon celebrate its tenth birthday, so I thought a few notes on how I structure my VCS repository might be of interest. The VCS I have been using since the beginning is Subversion. (When I started, Git had already been released, but was really not that popular yet.) So while some details of this article will be specific to Subversion, the general concepts should be applicable elsewhere as well.

When it comes to the structure of a repository, Subversion does not impose anything from a technical point of view. All it sees is a kind-of file system, with all the pros and cons that come with the simplicity of this approach. It makes it easy for people to start using it, which is really good. But it also does not offer help for more advanced use-cases, so that people need to find a way how to map certain requirements onto that file system concept.

As a result, a convention has emerged and been there for many years now. It says that at the top-level of the project there should be only the following folders:

  • trunk: Home of the latest version (sometimes called the HEAD revision)
  • branches: Development sidelines where work happens in isolation from trunk
  • tags: Snapshots that give meaningful names to a certain revision

You will find plenty of additional information on the subject when searching the Internet. I can also recommend the book “Pragmatic Version Control: Using Subversion“, although it seems to be out of print now.

With these general points out of the way, let me start with how I work on my project. There are only a few core rules and despite their simplicity I can handle all situations.

  • The most important aspect for the structure of my SVN repository is that all active development on the coming version happens at trunk. See this article for all the important details, why you really want to follow that approach in almost all cases.
  • Once a new version is about to be released, I need a place where bug-fixes can be developed. So I create a release branch (e.g. /branches/releases/v1.3) with major and minor version number but not the patch version (I use semantic versioning). From this release branch I then cut the release (v1.3.0 in this case) by pointing the release job of my CI server to the release branch.
  • Once the release is done, I create a tag that also includes the patch version. In this example the tag will be from /branches/releases/v1.3 to /tags/releases/v1.3.0 .
  • Now I return to working on the next release (v1.4) by switching back to trunk.
  • Bug fixing happens primarily on trunk with fixes being back-ported to released versions. There are cases when this is not practical, of course. The two main reasons are that significant structural changes were done on trunk (you do refactor, don’t you?) or another change has implicitly removed the bug there already. But that is the exception.
  • When a bug-fix is needed on a released version, I temporarily switch my working copy to the release branch and do the respective work there. Unless the bug is critical I do not release a new version immediately after that, though. So this may repeat a few times, before the maintenance release.
  • The maintenance release is then cut, again, from /branches/releases/v1.3 . And after that a new tag is created to /tags/releases/v1.3.1 .

Those rules have proven to be working perfectly and I hope they will continue to do so for the next ten years. I have been quite lucky in that, although for me this is still a hobby project, the result is used by many global companies and organizations in a business-critical context. There are at least 11.000 installations in production that I am aware about, so I cannot be casual about reliability of the delivery process.

 

Configuration Management – Part 9: The Audit Trail

Keeping track of  changes is a critical functionality in every configuration management system because there are legal requirements like  SOX (Sarbanes-Oxley Act) that require it. It can be accomplished in several ways. Basically you can either use an existing tool like a VCS (version control system) or have something custom-built.

When possible, I tend to prefer a VCS because it is (hopefully) already part of your process and governance approach. A typical workflow is that the underlying assets (i.e. configuration files) will be changed and then the VCS client be used to commit the change. The commit message allows to record the intent here, which is the critical information.

But there are cases when you need to be able to track things outside the VCS. In all cases I have seen so far the reason was that some information should not be maintained within the VCS for security or operational reasons. While organizations are often relaxed about data like host names in non-PROD environments, this changes abruptly when PROD comes into play. While I always think “security by obscurity” when I have that discussion, it is also a fight not worth having.

The other reason is operational procedures. The operations team often has a well-established approach that maintains configuration files for many applications in a unified way. The latter typically involves a dedicated location on network storage where configuration data sit. Ideally, there should also be a generic mechanism to track changes here. A dedicated VCS is of course a good option, but operations staff without a development background often (rightly) shy away from that route.

So it comes down to what the configuration management system itself offers. What I have implemented in WxConfig is a system where every operation that changes configuration data results in an audit event that gets persisted to disk. It includes metadata (e.g. what user initiated the change from which IP address), the actual change (e.g. file save from UI or change of value via API), and the old and new version of the affected configuration file.

The downside compared to a well-chosen commit message for VCS is that the system cannot record the intent. But on the other hand no change is lost, because no manual activity is needed. In practice this far outweighs the missing intent, at least for me. Also it has proven to be helpful during development when I had accidentally removed data. It was far easier to restore the latter from an audit record compared to looking them up in their original source.

All audit data get persisted to files and the metadata is recorded as XML. That allows automated processing, if required by e.g. a GRC system (Governance, Risk Management, and Compliance) or legal frameworks like the aforementioned Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

Configuration Management – Part 8: The Maintenance

How do I maintain my configuration data? It is one thing to have them stored somewhere and being able to maintain stuff, if you are a developer or a technical person in general. In which case you will be fine with a plain text editor, sometimes even something like vi (I am an Emacs guy 😉 ). But what if you want business users be able to do this by themselves? In fact, quite often these folks will also tell you that they do not want to be dependent on you for the job.

When trying to identify the requirements for a maintenance tools suitable for business users, I came up with the following points (and in that order of priority):

  • Familiarity: People do not want to learn an entirely new tool for just maintaining a few configuration values. So exposing them to the complete functionality of a configuration management system will not work. And even if the latter has something like role-based configuration or user profiles, it will typically just hide those parts, that “normal” users are not supposed to see. But it will still, tacitly, require a lot of understanding about the overall system.
  • Safety: In many cases business people will tell you that while they want to do changes by themselves, they still expect you (or the system you develop) to check what they entered. In a number of cases the argument went so far that people, from my perspective, were trying to avoid responsibility for their actions altogether. Whether this was just an attempt to play the blame-game or rather an expression of uncertainty, I cannot say. But for sure you need to add some automated checks.
  • Auditing: In many cases you must be able to maintain records of changes for legal reasons (e.g. Sarbanes–Oxley Act). But even if that is not the case, you as the technically responsible person absolutely want to have records, what configuration were in the system when.
  • Extensibility: Especially today, when most of us try to work in an agile manner, this should not need mentioning. But unfortunately the reality I mostly witness is quite different. Anyway, what we as developers need to do here, is scrutinize what the business folks have brought up as their requirement. It is not their job to tell us about it, but the other way around.

So what is the solution? I see basically two options here: custom-developed web UI and Excel. The Excel approach may surprise you, but it really has a number of benefits, also from a technical perspective. Remember that it is file-based, so you can simply leverage your normal VCS for auditing. How the business users “upload” the updates, may vary. But you can start with something simple like a shell script/batch file that acts as a VCS wrapper, and many people will already be happy. More sophisticated stuff like a web upload and built-in verification is nicer of course.

A web UI has the benefit that you can provide feedback on rule violation easier, compared to the Excel approach. But what is often overlooked is the requirement for mass-updates. It is a big pain to click through 50 records whereas in Excel that would simply be a copy-paste operation. And the latter is less susceptible to errors, by the way.

Sometimes Business Rules Management System (BRMS) and the web UI they usually come with can be an alternative. But if you are not already using it on the project, the overhead of bringing in an entire additional system, will typically outweigh the benefits. If you still want to explore that route, pay particular attention to how the web UI changes can be synced back into the artifacts in VCS the developers work with.