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.

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