What is a CI/CD pipeline?
A CI/CD pipeline introduces automation to your software delivery process. While it is possible to perform the steps of the CI/CD pipeline manually, the real value of CI/CD pipelines is achieved through automation.
Thus, you can look at a CI/CD pipeline as a series of automated tests that takes the source code all the way to production, allowing the delivery of software multiple times a day automatically.
Before we go into further details into the steps involved, it would be helpful to explain what CI and CD acronyms stand for.
What do CI and CD mean?
CI/CD is the acronym in software development which combines the concepts of continuous integration and continuous delivery. It may also encompass continuous deployment but in this case, CD will be mainly used to refer to continuous delivery.
Continuous integration is a software development practice where developers merge their code changes into a shared trunk multiple times a day.
The next step is continuous delivery, which enables these code changes to be released to end-users at any time. Thus, continuous delivery ensures that your code is always in a deployable state. Continuous deployment takes this even one step further deploying the code automatically rather than developers having to do it manually.
Each code that is released will need to pass through a series of automated tests to make sure that it is ready for release and to let developers know whether a software build passes or fails.
The actual release step can be done manually but the processes included within CI/CD are fully automated, which can be monitored by developers for feedback purposes.
Why is it important?
Such a pipeline is essential to incorporate within agile processes as it makes fixing bugs easier and releasing new software faster than ever before.
It can also be considered as the backbone of a modern DevOps environment by ensuring the quick delivery of high-quality releases.
As a consequence, the quality of the code is greatly improved because the CI/CD pipeline will automatically test the code and signal to developers if there is an issue before deploying to users.
A CI/CD pipeline is triggered by an event such as a pull request from a source code repository.
Each company has different requirements and processes so you can personalize the CI/CD pipeline steps to suit your needs.
Nevertheless, normally, the software release process goes through a series of pipeline stages as we will outline below. The typical stages are:
- Source– this first phase includes the creation of the source code. You may have multiple source portions from Java to C++ depending on the project being developed.
- Build- this is where developers put their code. In this stage, the build process draws the code from a repository. The build tools used will depend on the programming language used.
- Test– this stage ensures that the code is working as intended to prevent bugs from reaching end-users. This usually starts with unit testing
- Deploy– this is where you deploy the code to a testing environment. Often, the build automatically deploys if it passes the series of automated tests.
- Automated testing phase– the automation test phase will perform the final tests necessary to ensure there are no bugs before deploying to production.
- Deploy to production– after the code has passed all the tests, it can finally move to the production environment to reach end-users.
Throughout this entire process, feedback will be instantly sent to developers in case there are any issues so they can review them.
This is highly beneficial and preferable to manual testing as manual testing defeats the purpose of continuous development since it would take a lot of time to test making it difficult to deploy on a frequent basis.
Feature flags as part of the CI/CD pipeline
Feature flags are especially useful to incorporate into the CI/CD pipeline. Feature flags are a software development technique that allows you to hide features that are not yet ready for release.
Therefore, feature flags help accelerate the purpose of CI/CD pipelines, which is to deploy code several times a day. You can look at feature flags as a safety net that would allow you to release features safely and quickly even when there are still unfinished changes.
A CI/CD pipeline is an important asset for any organization looking to increase the speed of delivery resulting in a shorter time to market and hence greater customer satisfaction.
Since it relies on automation, it minimizes the occurrence of manual errors. Instead, a CI/CD pipeline gives rise to a continuous feedback loop allowing developers to constantly improve products.
The automation aspect frees up your team to focus on other less tedious tasks and do more of what they’re good at, which is writing code.
To sum up, a well-designed CI/CD pipeline will allow your team to follow DevOps practices that will shorten time to market by pushing code more often, which results in improved code quality.