The Importance of Continuous Integration and Its Benefits
Continuous Integration boasts many benefits - among them, a better developer experience and better developer productivity. Learn more.
“All organizations, even those in risk-averse industries like financial services, are feeling the need to deliver software faster,” according to Forrester analyst Chris Condo.
I think this quote really nails it. Let’s add some logic to the bigger picture: Every company will strive to become the best at what they do. Most, if not all companies, are becoming software companies, and in order to become better (or even the best) at what they do—i.e. delivering software—they need to do CI.
“But why?” you may ask. And I would answer: “Because it allows you to deliver reliable software faster.” And you may push back with something along these lines: “Companies in regulated markets and others with high compliance frameworks to fulfill might disagree! They believe they should plan and deliver cautiously before running into trouble.” And I would answer, “Wrong again!”
That’s why, I presume, Chris Condo adds the caveat: “even those in risk-averse industries like financial services.” Because—unlike in the real world—in the software world, speed means security and quality, and slowness kills businesses. The end goal for all software companies is to move fast by ensuring devs have a repeatable and verifiable process that is also fast and lightweight to run. That ensures integrating new changes is not a burden but actually a welcoming breeze. Modern CI is responsible for that.
In this post, we’ll dive into why CI is so important, and why it delivers so much value to companies delivering software efficiently. But first—if you’re new to CI, feel free to read our What Is Continuous Integration? blog. This blog also goes into Continuous Integration pros and cons.
Day One: What Are the Main Benefits of Continuous Integration?
At a very high level, CI advantages can be succinctly described as developer productivity, short feedback loops, and the first solid step into CD—the holy grail of modern software development.
Automation is seen as the most immediate benefit a modern CI tool and process provide. By providing devs with a solid, repeatable, and verifiable process that their software code can run through easily, their focus never moves away from adding value to the code base, which is what they are good at. Modern CI tools provide these benefits by easily extending policies into every pipeline, making them compliant and secure. Devs can then self-serve and run them on ephemeral, cloud-native platforms, which can extend elastically to cover all capacity requirements. Essentially, modern CI provides a reliable, extensible build automation process to make developers incredibly productive. Developers regularly merge when modern CI is in place.
CI is not a one-way mechanism, though. Modern CI runs tests to verify that the new code being integrated is secure, compliant, and actually solves a problem at build time. To do this at build time is fundamental to improve quality. Bug fixes, negative outcomes, and manual tasks at run time are always tougher to resolve when an error occurs in the production environment (we have you covered at Harness if that happens, no worries). These feedback mechanisms are invaluable for developer confidence, and frequent testing is the only way to make every build count.
The problem usually comes when test suites become unmanageable: Pipelines are more brittle, tests are flaky, and the whole test suite becomes a monster to run each time. Modern CI tools are able to make testing in automated builds an efficient process by running the tests more prone to fail first. This provides immediate feedback to the developers, and it reduces the steps involved for fault isolation and, ultimately, falling back to manual testing. On top of that, the CI pipeline should test efficiently—i.e. only run tests that have changed and/or run them only on code that has changed. In one word, modern CI tools run test suites intelligently.
The last immediate realization from using a modern CI tool is that Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery go hand in hand. Software that is automatically built and automatically delivered is better software. The build stage with automated testing becomes a fundamental piece of every software project that benefits not only developers, but also product managers and designers—and anyone deeply involved in the software release process. Continuous Delivery is better achieved through Continuous Integration.
Day Two: Bridging the Developer Experience Gap
At a broader level, modern CI comes with unexpected benefits for the company at large. I’m talking about the nature of CI within DevOps as a driving force of change and software development best practices adoption. Once CI stops being a hurdle and turns into a lever, it provides developers with the confidence to develop faster and more frequently, all while providing high quality code. It also comes with benefits for DevOps engineers who can now focus more on other areas of the development process, rather than maintaining it.
As a CI user, though, the first ‘aha’ moment comes from the sheer output of modern CI. The development process—or at least the bits that fall within the build process—are lightning fast. From code changes to automated testing, modern CI tools empower the development team to reach new output levels. It’s the capacity that first amazes developers as end users of CI. Over time, the benefits of Continuous Integration become increasingly evident.
Developers encapsulate value in the shape of code. They need validation that their code is making an impact. They need to know the end user of their features perceives their value and uses them with ease. There shouldn’t be any critical or non-critical defects; code quality should be high, and rapid feedback should be provided. This can only happen when CI is not only performant, but also part of a software delivery platform. The entire process of continuous feedback builds developers’ trust, and that positive developer experience becomes the major driving force in the software development practice of any company.
Once developers grow confident that their code changes are making an impact where they are required, Continuous Delivery is achievable. Code changes will become smaller in size and more frequent in being integrated, because there is no barrier to increase the number of integrations. After all, modern CI runs on elastic infrastructure and has efficient (i.e. incremental) ways of running automated tests. In fact, integrating regularly will allow the most advanced of the CI tools to perform code coverage analysis and intelligent analysis of test flakiness, and will highlight these (and more) test coverage metrics, allowing developers to shift left confidently.
There are also many advantages of Continuous Integration for DevOps, platform engineers, build toolchain managers, and the like. They soon realize just how little maintenance is needed to set CI up and get it going. Most—if not all—maintenance efforts are almost immediately wiped or dedicated to more valuable activities, such as extending compliance and valuable best practices to every pipeline and stage of CI.
Conclusion: It Lasts a Lifetime
Beyond day two benefits of CI, what the most mature CI performers look at is CI efficiency and hybrid deployment models. Once CI has settled in, many organizations choose to make the process as efficient as possible. That usually means adding intelligence to the whole process to understand how to test more efficiently, and being able to run CI farms in elastic and scalable platforms.
With hybrid models, mature CI users remove all maintenance burdens while being able to provide builds on as many target platforms as possible (this can become utterly expensive to do in a managed offering). At the same time, having the server run everything from the cloud allows for better transparency across teams and a small number of people devoted to its maintenance and scale.
In conclusion, CI comes with immediate benefits for developers that gradually affect other important stakeholders in the company and release so much potential that mature CI performers find themselves in a natural position to adopt CD—which results in many CI/CD business benefits.