How to Use Continuous Integration to Improve Your Workflow

Workflow is an essential component of any developer’s career.

Having a system in place that minimizes risk, reduces time and effort, and optimizes performance is paramount to success, and one of the best workflow practices a developer can have is using Continuous Integration (CI).

But for many devs, CI is a new concept, and it’s not totally clear how it works or how to use it to the best advantage.

That’s why we’re taking a look at some of the benefits and best practices of using CI during your daily tasks to maximize workflow and get the most out of your business.

Here’s what you need to know…

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What is Continuous Integration?

Continuous Integration is a practice that requires developers to integrate code into a shared repository several times a day. An automated build then checks the code (called a “check-in”) for any negative impact on your codebase, which allows the team to catch any problems much earlier on in the process.

You may have heard of CI in conjunction with other terms like Continuous Deployment or Continuous Delivery, which are similar but serve different functions.

Continuous Deployment, for example, is closely related to CI, but refers to keeping your applications deployable at any time, or automatically releasing them to a test or production level if all the CI tests were passed. It’s essentially the next step in the process. Similarly, Continuous Delivery is the practice of keeping your codebase deployable.

But CI is the place where it all starts – the foundation of any good workflow. The more often you can integrate and test your code (preferably daily, or as the name suggests, continuously) the less errors you’ll have overall, especially if you’re working with a team of other devs.

Benefits of CI

Early error detection is a key benefit of using CI, and it can prevent many headaches down the road. But that’s not the only reason you should consider using it. There are many workflow (and general business) related reasons to do it, including:

  • Reduced overhead across the development process
  • Reduced time and effort for integrating code changes
  • Quick and detailed feedback on every change
  • Early prevention of defects
  • Improved collaboration between team members sharing code
  • Less manual testing
  • Time saved debugging
  • Enables Continuous Deployment and other automated testing
  • Separate software builds from deployment
  • Eradication of manual FTP deployment
  • Prevention and reduction of production and staging errors
  • Frequent analysis and reporting on the health of the codebase
  • Enhanced reputation through Quality Assurance

Since your codebase is in a constant state of flux during the development stage, if you’re not using CI to build your software, you run the risk of overlooking minor errors that could lead to bigger problems post-deployment.

CI is the best way to stay on top of everything while still giving you the freedom to make changes before you test and launch your application. When it does come time to launch, you will have more confidence that your software will run the way you designed it to run. Why is this important to workflow?

Simply put, CI is the way to keep everything running smoothly before, during, and after launch. By minimizing errors before deployment, and allowing for automated testing during the initial stages of deployment, you’ll reduce any post-launch needs to make changes and keep production schedules on time.

Of course, you’re probably thinking that CI sounds great. But how do you get started? Well, here’s what you should know about implementing CI in your daily practice.


Source: SEI

CI Best Practices

While CI is something that ideally should be done several times a day, that doesn’t mean it has to be a complicated or overbearing process. Here are some of the best practices involved with using CI:

Take it in small steps. A common mistake for many first-time devs using CI is trying to do everything in one step – running tests, deploying code, running more tests, redeploying, and so on. But CI is about breaking things down into more manageable steps in order to achieve the best results.  Doing too much at once can lead to poor configurations and missed errors. So don’t worry about getting everything done at once. Take it one step at a time.

Use a single source repository. Devs should check out the code in their private workspaces and, when done, commit the changes to a single location. The configuration should be versioned alongside the application code, meaning your build should be easily reproducible at any time and live in the same source code repository as the application code itself. You shouldn’t be manually configuring the server.

Automate. Your CI server should automatically monitor that repository, do check-ins and run integration tests, and release deployable artifacts for testing. If the tests fail, the server will inform the team of any defects, or if successful it should let the team know that the build is ready for the next level. But the main goal is to have this process automated so your team doesn’t have to waste time doing those things. You can use a dedicated machine to do this, too.

Eliminate variables and retest. The earlier your team can fix any defects, the better. Some devs suggest running tests against a clone of the production environment to see any noticeable differences. Once everything is fixed, have everything retested until it is successful.

Encourage team communication. Make sure everyone knows where the latest build can be found, and it may be a good idea to email the team when builds start and finish. And again, make sure your builds can be found in a single location, so if a problem does occur, your team knows where to find it.

Many devs get in the habit of checking and rechecking when it comes to a workflow process like CI, which is good, and will save valuable time in the long run and minimize the errors coming from your builds. As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so make sure everyone is in the habit of fixing errors as soon as they’re detected.

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Final Thoughts

Workflow is all about maximizing effort and minimizing errors, which is exactly what Continuous Integration is designed to do. CI is the process of having your team put their code into a single repository for automated testing, so that errors can be caught earlier in the building process.

The important things to remember (aside from doing it daily) are to make sure you take things step by step, keep everything in one location for easy access, automate the process as much as possible, test and retest, and continually encourage your team to stay in-the-know about what’s happening with their code.

And if you’re still lost, don’t worry. We can teach you all about CI through our Professional Web Developer Course.

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