DevOps tech: Deployment automation

Deployment automation is what enables you to deploy your software to testing and production environments with the push of a button. Automation is essential to reduce the risk of production deployments. It's also essential for providing fast feedback on the quality of your software by allowing teams to do comprehensive testing as soon as possible after changes.

An automated deployment process has the following inputs:

  • Packages created by the continuous integration (CI) process (these packages should be deployable to any environment, including production).
  • Scripts to configure the environment, deploy the packages, and perform a deployment test (sometimes known as a smoke test).
  • Environment-specific configuration information.

We recommend that you store the scripts and configuration information in version control. Your deployment process should download the packages from an artifact repository (for example, Container Registry, Nexus, Artifactory, or your CI tool's built-in repository).

The scripts usually perform the following tasks:

  1. Prepare the target environment, perhaps by installing and configuring any necessary software, or by starting up a virtual host from a pre-prepared image in a cloud provider such as Google Cloud.
  2. Deploy the packages.
  3. Perform any deployment-related tasks such as running database migration scripts.
  4. Perform any required configuration.
  5. Perform a deployment test to make sure that any necessary external services are reachable, and that the system is functioning.

How to implement deployment automation

When you design your automated deployment process, we recommend that you follow these best practices:

  • Use the same deployment process for every environment, including production. This rule helps ensure that you test the deployment process many times before you use it to deploy to production.
  • Allow anyone with the necessary credentials to deploy any version of the artifact to any environment on demand in a fully automated fashion. If you have to create a ticket and wait for someone to prepare an environment, you don't have a fully automated deployment process.
  • Use the same packages for every environment. This rule means that you should keep environment-specific configuration separate from packages. That way, you know that the packages you are deploying to production are the same ones that you tested.
  • Make it possible to recreate the state of any environment from information stored in version control. This rule helps ensure that deployments are repeatable, and that in the event of a disaster recovery scenario, you can restore the state of production in a deterministic way.

Ideally, you have a tool that you can use autonomously to make deployments, that records which builds are currently in each environment, and that records the output of the deployment process for audit purposes. Many CI tools have such features.

Common pitfalls in deployment automation

When you automate your deployment process, you face the following pitfalls:

  • Complexity of the existing process.
  • Dependencies between services.
  • Components that are not designed for automation.
  • Poor collaboration between teams.

Complexity

The first pitfall is complexity. Automating a complex, fragile manual process produces a complex, fragile automated process. You first need to re-architect for deployability. This means making the deployment script as simple as possible and pushing the complexity into the application code and infrastructure platform. Look for deployment failure modes and ask how you could avoid them by making your services, components, infrastructure platform, and monitoring smarter. Cloud-native applications running on a platform-as-a-service such as App Engine, Cloud Run, or Pivotal Cloud Foundry can typically be deployed by running a single command, with no deployment scripting required at all: this is the ideal process.

There are two important properties of a reliable deployment process. First, the individual steps of the deployment process should be, to the greatest extent possible, idempotent, so that you can repeat them as many times as needed in the case of a failure. Second, they should be order independent, meaning that components and services should not crash in an uncontrolled way if some other component or service they are expecting is absent. Instead, the services should continue to operate in a degraded fashion until their dependencies become available.

For new products and services, we recommend that you treat these principles as system requirements from the beginning of the design phase. If you are retrofitting automation for an existing system, you might need to do some work either to implement these characteristics or to build in telemetry such that the deployment process can detect inconsistent states and fail gracefully.

Dependencies

The second pitfall is that many deployment processes, particularly in enterprise environments, require orchestration. In other words, you need to deploy multiple services together in a particular order, while you perform other tasks such as database migrations in strict synchronization. Although many enterprise deployment workflow tools exist to help with this situation, these tools are fundamentally band-aids over an architectural problem: tight coupling between the various components and services. Over time, you must address this tight coupling. The goal is that services should be independently deployable, with no orchestration required.

This approach typically requires careful design to ensure that each service supports backward compatibility, such that clients of the service don't require upgrading in lock-step, but can be upgraded independently at a later date. Techniques such as API versioning can help with this. It's also important to ensure that services can continue to operate (perhaps with some functionality unavailable) even if they are unable to connect to other services that they depend on. This design is good for distributed systems, because it can help prevent cascading failures. Michael Nygard's book "Release It!" describes a number of patterns to help with designing distributed systems, including circuit breakers. You can even decouple database upgrades from the services they depend on by using the parallel change pattern.

Not designed for automation

A third common pitfall is components that are not designed for automation. Any deployment process that requires logging into a console and interacting manually by clicking around should be a target for improvement. Today, most platforms (including Google Cloud) offer an API that your deployment script can use. If that's not the case, you need to be creative to avoid such manual intervention, perhaps by finding the tool's underlying configuration file or database and making changes to it directly, or by replacing it with another tool that does have an API.

Poor collaboration between teams

The last pitfall occurs when developers and IT operations teams aren't in sync. This can happen a few ways. For example: developers might use one method to deploy and IT operations uses a different one. Or in another example, if the environments are configured differently, you substantially increase the risk of the deployment process being manually performed by IT operations, which introduces inconsistencies and errors. The deployment automation process must be created by developers and IT operations working together. This approach ensures that both teams can understand, maintain, and evolve deployment automation.

Ways to improve deployment automation

The first step is to document the existing deployment process in a common tool that developers and operations have access to, such as Google Docs or a wiki. Then work to incrementally simplify and automate the deployment process. This approach typically includes the following tasks:

  • Packaging code in ways suitable for deployment.
  • Creating pre-configured virtual machine images or containers.
  • Automating the deployment and configuration of middleware.
  • Copying packages or files into the production environment.
  • Restarting servers, applications, or services.
  • Generating configuration files from templates.
  • Running automated deployment tests to make sure the system is working and correctly configured.
  • Running testing procedures.
  • Scripting and automating database migrations.

Work to remove manual steps and implement idempotence and order independence wherever possible, and leverage the capabilities of your infrastructure platform wherever possible. Remember: deployment automation should be as simple as possible.

Ways to measure deployment automation

Measuring deployment automation is straightforward.

  • Count the number of manual steps in your deployment process. Work to systematically reduce those steps. The number of manual steps increases the deployment time as well as the opportunity for error.
  • Measure the level (or percentage) of automation in your deployment pipeline. Work to continually increase that level.
  • Determine the time spent on delays in the deployment pipeline. As you work to reduce these delays, understand where and why code stalls in your deployment pipeline.

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