If deployments and releases are still one-in-the-same, interchangeable terms on your engineering team, it’s time to explore the benefits of using feature flags to decouple feature releases from deployments.
Traditional software development practices tie releases to deployments, meaning that whenever a feature is deployed, it is also released to end users. This process rids your engineering team of the chance to test your software before giving all of your end users access to it. When releases are tied to deployments in this way, feature deliveries are both slower and riskier–with a lot more at stake.
Before understanding how your team can use feature flags to actually decouple feature releases from deployments, we must first understand the difference between the terms deployment and release.
A deployment is the process of pushing code from a development environment to a production environment. This doesn’t necessarily mean your code is live.
A release is the process of actually turning the feature or functionality “on” for end users. Once a feature is released, it’s in your users’ hands.
Thus, when a feature is deployed, it does not automatically have to also be released to your end users. Instead, you can view deployments and releases as separate processes so that you can test how the feature performs in the production environment without actually giving them access to the feature. You can then release the feature (turn it on for your end users) when you’re ready.
See how there’s a whole lot less risk involved when you decouple releases from deployments?
Typical engineering teams work in parallel, meaning that each member works on a separate feature branch while collaborating on a particular feature. If you wait for each developer to complete their work before deploying the feature, you’re going to be waiting an unnecessarily long time to deploy code to production.
When you decouple releases from deployments, each developer can ship their code to a testing or production environment to expose at least some users (whether they’re internal users, beta users, or live end users) to their code and test its performance. This, at its core, is the primary reason to decouple your releases from deployments: ship and test smaller features and functionalities at a given time so that you’re delivering features to your users more frequently and you feel more confident when releasing the feature to your entire user base.
When paired with a continuous delivery pipeline, feature flags are a powerful agent in helping teams decouple their releases from their deployments. At its most basic level, a feature flag is a conditional “if/then” statement that either enables or disables a feature for an end user when conditions are met.
Thus, using feature flags to deploy code means you can safely push code to production without immediately giving your users access to it. And you can take even more granular control of the way you test your code in a production environment with feature flags–which is a huge confidence booster when it’s time to release the code to all of your end users.
Here are some key benefits of using feature flags to decouple releases from deployments:
Get your code to production faster: when you decouple releases from deployments, you don’t have to wait for every developer to complete their code before testing it. Devs can ship their portion of code to a testing environment and release smaller features to their user base more often.
A/B testing: You can test two different versions of a feature on a small subset of users before deciding which features to release to your entire group.
User segmentation: You can release a feature to some users, but not others, to see how the feature performs within a smaller cohort.
Gradual rollouts: Gradual rollouts allow you to release your features to users in stages, rather than releasing a feature to 100% of your users all at once. For example, you can release a feature to 5% of users on Day 1, 10% of users on Day 2, so on and so forth. This is key to risk mitigation, because if the feature or code has a bug, you can simply toggle the feature off and rectify the bug knowing that only a very small portion of your user base actually saw the feature.
Kill switches: If you notice a bug in code while testing your software, you can quickly toggle the feature off to make necessary changes before deploying again.
Releasing with confidence: The big one. Ultimately, decoupling releases from deployments is key to deploying more frequently and mitigating the risk involved in traditional big bang releases. But using feature flags to aid in the decoupling process helps dev teams receive measurable feedback to determine the success rate of their features before releasing them to a wide user base.
The point of decoupling releases from deployments with flags is to maintain a continuous feedback loop of deploying, testing, and releasing code to your end users. Stop equating deploying code to production with big bang feature releases that took weeks or months of work. Start releasing more frequently to your end users with greater confidence than you ever thought possible.
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