Continuous Delivery: Safer System Deployment with Automation

Explore the fundamentals of continuous delivery in DevOps, its principles, benefits, challenges, and best practices for a faster, quality software delivery.

Written by Editorial Staff. Last Updated:

Continuous Delivery: Automation For Safer System Deployments

As a shared philosophy, DevOps has always endeavored to improve the process of software and application development. For users, yes. But ultimately for the talented, hardworking individuals and teams who bring increasingly complicated tech to life.

This is why it’s crucial to understand and appreciate the underpinnings of the DevOps lifecycle, continuous integration (CI) and continuous delivery (CD) chief among them.

Recently, we broke down the intricacies of CI. Now CD, its counterpart, gets a turn as we cover its commonly accepted definition, how CD employs automation to the benefit of software development and operations teams, benefits and challenges inherent in this part of the data pipeline process, and more.

What is continuous delivery?

Continuous delivery is an essential aspect of DevOps, and refers to the process of automating software delivery to production-like environments, ensuring it can be released at any time. In conjunction with CI, CD enables software developers to benefit from better error detection and higher overall software quality.

As a practice, continuous delivery includes a few basic principles:

Build quality in: Prioritize defect prevention over defect detection, which requires continuous integration and automated testing.

Work in small batches: Minor, iterative changes carry less risk and are easier to troubleshoot if something goes wrong. 

Automate repetitive tasks: Employ automated systems to handle builds, testing, and deployments. Done correctly, this reduces human error and frees up your developers to focus on high-impact tasks and problem-solving.

Relentlessly pursue continual improvement: Always look for ways to improve the system (and, ideally, follow through on those improvements).

Everyone is responsible: Every member of the team holds responsibility for the delivery process, and that related best practices are followed.

Keep everything in version control: Finally, keep all your configurations, application code, database schemas, test scripts, build scripts, and deployment scripts in a version control system.

Continuous delivery benefits and challenges

As with many vital aspects of DevOps, continuous delivery presents teams with benefits and challenges. And while the specifics of both will vary, here’s a summary covering the commonalities of each.

Common benefits of continuous delivery

An increase in quality: With automated testing, teams catch bugs and issues earlier in the development cycle. Just as it does with continuous integration, this leads to higher-quality software and a user base that enjoys more frequent releases, new features, and improvements.

Faster time to market: In addition to increased quality, continuous delivery enables teams to release software faster than when relying on traditional models. 

Reduced risk: Continuous delivery means devs deliver changes to the software in smaller increments. This cadence of smaller, incremental changes makes problem-solving easier, as issues are easier to track and their causes easier to identify. 

Increased efficiency and better productivity: The automation inherent in CD frees up team members, allowing them to work on new features and innovations. Generally, this minimizes time lost to manual and repetitive tasks.

Adaptability: Teams with more bandwidth to focus on vital issues are also more adaptable. And the reliable, flexible delivery pipeline that CD helps enable supports this adaptability as teams react to market changes and adjust to new requirements. 

Challenges of continuous delivery

Cultural resistance: Continuous delivery, in conjunction with integration, often necessitates significant changes in how software development teams work. And even employees with the best of intentions can struggle to adapt to the pace continuous delivery enables, especially those not accustomed to contributing to a modern DevOps lifecycle.

Tooling and infrastructure requirements: Continuous delivery and the subsequent benefits it enables relies on a certain level of infrastructure. Key aspects of CD, like deployment pipelines and control systems, aren’t possible without ongoing investment and maintenance in the proper tooling and infrastructure. 

Implementing the right testing: As the underlying foundation of CD, quality assurance relies on automated and comprehensive suites of tests. For some teams, creating and maintaining these tests can be challenging.

Managing databases: Continuous delivery may also become complicated when databases are involved, as making changes to the database schema (and to the data itself) require team members who understand how to manage these changes and maintain consistency while doing so. 

Regulatory compliance: The realities of operating in highly regulated industries like healthcare and finance may actually limit the degree to which continuous delivery can be implemented, as some regulations deliberately require manual checks and approvals. 

Security concerns: Automation and frequent iterations of new code may also, in themselves, raise security concerns. This means teams working in sectors that have high-security requirements face integrating specific security considerations into their CD pipelines. 

The standard continuous delivery framework

Continuous delivery as an applied practice has no rigid universal framework. This is because the release process and deployment process of CD will vary based on an organization’s size, technology stack, structure, and other specific needs. However, there are best practices and other common elements that all continuous delivery pipelines tend to share:

Continuous integration: As mentioned, development teams will use tools like Jenkins, CircleCI, and Travis CI to frequently merge their code into a central repository, where automated builds and tests are run. 

Automated testing: During the CI/CD pipeline process, unit tests, integration tests, and functional tests should be run automatically as part of the workflow to ensure code functionality and quality as code is delivered to a version control system.

Version control systems (VCS): Version control system tools (e.g., Git, Mercurial, Plastic SCM) work in concert with the central repository, enabling developers to keep track of all the different code changes committed, compare different versions of the software or application in progress, and revert to previous versions if problems arise. 

Monitoring and logging: Tools like ELK Stack, Prometheus, and New Relic allow teams to monitor applications and infrastructure to identify and address issues during the DevOps lifecycle quickly.

Configuration management: Using tools like Chef, Terraform, and Puppet, developers manage and provision infrastructure across workflows—consistently and reliably. 

Collaboration and communication: Agile methodologies are commonplace, as they reinforce productive levels of communication and the sharing of responsibilities. 

Feedback loops: Further lifecycle optimization comes from the use of feedback loops, enabled through monitoring systems and users to improve the software continuously. 

Continuous deployment: Finally, some teams will forgo the manual process of software developers deciding when to move changes to production discussed above. Instead, they may additionally automate this step as well. Continuous deployment automation is also referred to as CD in DevOps, which can cause some confusion.

Continuous delivery best practices

As with many factors of the DevOps lifecycle, implementation of CD requires certain best practices. In addition to ensuring overall success, these nine practices specifically help streamline the CI/CD process, minimize errors, and improve the overall quality of software and applications produced:

  1. Put the “continuous” in your delivery: CD enables team members to contribute to a fast and efficient development cycle. That said, individual contributors should be encouraged to commit their code to the shared repository regularly. Without doing so, the team (and the process itself) will not maximize the benefits of continuously shipping small incremental changes. 
  2. Automate as much as possible: Mitigate (or completely eliminate) human error by using workload automation and job scheduling tools to automate as much of the development process as possible, including testing integration, deployment in addition to the process of setting up the team’s development, testing, and production environments. 
  3. Invest in your VCS: All configurations and code should be kept in a robust version control system, which can facilitate collaboration in addition to tracking changes and implementing rollbacks, as necessary.
  4. A.B.T. (Always be testing): Bugs caught early in the process tend also to be bugs that are easier and cheaper to fix. Automated testing at every stage of the delivery pipeline (including unit tests, integration tests, functional tests, and, potentially, user acceptance tests) is vital for making this possible. 
  5. Use feature flags: Feature flags allow team members to toggle certain features on or off, which proves useful for gradually rolling out new features in addition to testing.
  6. Maintain a proper staging environment: As much as possible, staging environments should mirror your actual production environment. Doing so helps catch environment-specific issues as you test software in this production-like setting before it goes live.
  7. Monitor (and respond to) feedback: Use tools to monitor software and applications while they’re in production. Gather feedback from users. And leverage all this valuable information to improve the software while it’s being developed.
  8. Ensure everything is reproducible: Your team should be able to reproduce any past version of software or an application at a moment’s notice. And reproducibility on-demand requires keeping every bit of code, configurations, and database schema in your version control system. 
  9. Foster a culture of collaboration: Remember that a key aspect of DevOps in practice is to foster a culture of shared responsibility and collaboration, which requires open communication, teamwork, and that every member of the team both understands and shares responsibility for the delivery process. 

Continuous delivery: An essential element of modern DevOps

Once viewed as a transformative practice, continuous delivery is now a core aspect of a high-performing, reliable software development process. And by understanding why this is the case, as we’ve done above, we have the knowledge needed to ensure the tools used in the DevOps process have what it takes to reap the benefits of CD.

For example, ActiveBatch by Redwood can help automate much of your own development process, reduce human error, and free up your team to focus on high-impact tasks.

Moreover, we developed ActiveBatch to function as a natural complement to the culture of collaboration and shared responsibility that continuous delivery can foster. 
Learn how by scheduling a free demo today!