The following is a guest post written by Carlos Schults. Being able to disable code in production is a power that many developers aren’t aware of. And that’s a shame. The ability to switch off some portions—or even complete features—of the codebase can dramatically improve the software development process by allowing best practices that can …
The following is a guest post written by Carlos Schults.
Being able to disable code in production is a power that many developers aren’t aware of. And that’s a shame. The ability to switch off some portions—or even complete features—of the codebase can dramatically improve the software development process by allowing best practices that can shorten feedback cycles and increase the overall quality.
So, that’s what this post will cover: the mechanisms you can use to perform this switching off, why they’re useful and how to get started. Let’s dig in.
Before we take a deep dive into feature flags, explaining what they are and how they’re implemented, you might be asking: Why would people want to switch off some parts of their codebase? What’s the benefit of doing that?
To answer these questions, we need to go back in time to take a look at how software was developed a couple of decades ago. Time for a history lesson!
Historically, integration has been one of the toughest challenges for teams trying to develop software together.
Picture several teams inside an organization, working separately for several months, each one developing its own feature. While the teams were working in complete isolation, their versions of the application were evolving in different directions. Now they need to converge again into a single, non conflicting version. This is a Herculean task.
That’s what “integration hell” means: the struggle to merge versions of the same application that have been allowed to diverge for too long.
“If it hurts, do it more often.” What this saying means is that there are problems we postpone solving because doing so is hard. What you often find with these kinds of problems is that solving them more frequently, before they accumulate, is way less painful—or even trivial.
So, how can you make integrations less painful? Integrate more often.
That’s continuous integration (CI) in a nutshell: Have your developers integrate their work with a public shared repository, at the very least once a day. Have a server trigger a build and run the automated test suite every time someone integrates their work. That way, if there are problems, they’re exposed sooner rather than later.
One challenge that many teams struggle with in CI is how to deal with features that aren’t complete. If developers are merging their code to the mainline, that means that any developments that take more than one day to complete will have to be split into several parts.
How can you avoid the customer accessing unfinished functionality? There are some trivial scenarios with similarly trivial solutions, but harder scenarios call for a different approach: the ability to switch off a part of the code completely.
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