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Understanding Continuous Integration and Feature Flags

Madison Maher


Continuous Integration

Continuous Integration (CI) is the process of building, checking and running automated tests that your code has to pass through to be merged to the main branch (often multiple times per day). The main goals of CI are to find and address bugs quicker, improve software quality, and reduce the time it takes to validate and release new software updates.

Each integration is verified by automated tests and builds to detect integration errors as quickly as possible. This approach encourages developers to share their code and unit tests by merging their changes into a shared version control repository after every small task completion.

The Benefits of Continuous Integration

Early Bug Detection

By integrating regularly, you can discover and address bugs early before they grow into larger problems. This could be as often as committing code to the shared repository.

Avoiding Merge Conflicts

Frequent code updates mean fewer conflicts to resolve at the end of a development cycle. This allows teams to spend less time managing conflicts and more time developing new features.

Faster Iterations

As issues are detected and solved sooner, software can be developed, tested, and delivered faster. This speeds up release rates and helps organizations respond to market changes more promptly.

Improved Code Quality

CI encourages developers to break their work down into smaller, manageable chunks, which improves code quality by making issues easier to spot and less complex to fix.

Popular tools for implementing CI include Jenkins, Travis CI, CircleCI, and GitLab CI.

In sum, Continuous Integration forms the backbone of modern DevOps practices by enforcing a culture of frequent code integrations, automated builds, and tests, which ultimately lead to better software quality and faster delivery.

The Benefits of CI and Feature Flags

When combined, CI and feature flags unlock a suite of benefits for your development team.

Risk Mitigation

One of the primary benefits of feature flags is their ability to reduce risk. If a newly deployed feature causes problems in a live environment, it can swiftly be turned off. In conjunction with CI, which encourages regular code integration and testing, this leads to safer deployments and quicker identification of issues.

Improved Collaboration and Parallel Development

CI promotes collaboration by providing a centralized integration environment where developers can continuously merge their changes. Combined with feature flags, multiple developers can work on different features simultaneously, reducing conflicts and enabling parallel development.

Improved User Experience

Feature flags can be used to segment users, providing personalized experiences for different groups. Combined with the iterative approach of CI, teams can constantly refine and improve user experiences based on real user feedback and data.

Read more about the power of CI and feature flags here.

What Comes Next? From Continuous Integration to Continuous Delivery and Deployment

Once you implement a CI System (like Jenkins or CircleCI) that automatically builds and tests your code every time changes are pushed to your repository, you’re ready to start moving towards Continuous Delivery, and eventually, Continuous Deployment

Continuous Delivery (CD) is an extension of CI. It involves automatically preparing new changes (including new features, configuration changes, bug fixes, and experiments) for release to production. Continuous Delivery ensures that the software can be released at any time. In this practice, all changes are built, tested, and then pushed to a staging or production environment. While everything is prepared for deployment with Continuous Delivery, nothing is actually deployed (i.e. you still have to manually hit the "deploy button”).

Continuous Deployment goes one step further than Continuous Delivery. With Continuous Deployment, every change that passes all stages of the production pipeline is released to the users automatically, without human intervention. This means every change that is validated in the automated pipeline is deployed to production automatically. This is typically the ultimate end goal for teams looking to implement CI/CD and feature flags. (Read how we transitioned from monthly releases to continuous deployment with feature flags!)

These practices aim to automate the software release process, improve product quality, and speed up the rate at which new features reach users. While they are often used together and share similar names, each one has a distinct purpose within the software development process.

Wrapping Up

In conclusion, the combination of Continuous Integration and feature flags brings about a new level of safety, speed, and flexibility in software development. This blend promotes quick, safe iterations, and more personalized experiences for users.

Implement feature flags in your own CI/CD pipeline today.

Written By

Madison Maher