Deployment Version Control – Key to Avoiding Monolithic Releases

By 08/04/2017Featured

Deployment Version Control Treats your Full Stack as Code

Deployment Version Control is a missing piece in most Application Release Automation tools. Infrastructure as code has long been discussed in the practice of infrastructure configuration management. However, treating your deployments as code is even more critical when the goal is to manage the full stack. Deployment Version Control of your Application Package will be a core requirement for moving away from large monolithic release practices to Kubernentes and microservice environments. Versioning your Application Package as code, just like infrastructure as code, is a critical piece of the future DevOps processing and must not be overlooked. We understand this fact for the infrastructure layer. The full stack application package is no different.

Developers have been versioning their source files since the early days of Unix. Anyone else remember SCCS? Back in those days, storage was at a premium: disks were small, expensive, and it was too inefficient to store a complete copy of each version of the source file. So version control tools then stored deltas – those changes made from one version of the file to another. If you only changed one line in a 3,000 line file, the system would simply store the new line and the meta-data about where it fitted in the file as well as who had made the change.

Other tools would save the latest version of the file and use reverse-deltas to record the changes if you wanted to revert to an earlier version. Generally developers would want the latest version of the file and it was more efficient to apply deltas to get earlier versions if required than it was to start with a 3 year-old file and roll forward through 472 changes to get the file you needed.

These days, disk storage is literally 3 million percent cheaper than it was in 1981 (the storage in my phone would have cost 38 million dollars in 1981!) Because of this, storing deltas is not the panacea it used to be. In addition CPUs can now crunch numbers a little faster than they used to – so using maths to compress a complete copy of the new version of the file and storing that is possible. So that’s what modern revision control tools such as Git do.

Now that’s all very interesting, but the topic of this post is “Deployment Version Control”. So why am I rattling on about Source Code versioning?

Well, here’s the rub – whilst deltas may no longer have much of a part to play in tracking changes to source files, they most certainly do when it comes to deploying applications, and for similar reasons that plagued us (or our parents!) 30 years ago. Treating infrastructure as code as well as the database and application components is the next road on this journey, and Deployment Version Control provides the same level of change tracking, critical for rollback, roll forward or version jumping.

Deployment Version Control tracks both the Application Package and its Components

Let’s be frank – an application package that consists of a single binary on a single server is not going to need deltas – that would be akin to a change to a single-line source file. All you need to do is to replace the old binary with the new and you’ve deployed. Infrastructure as code became important because even the infrastructure configuration is not that simple. And like infrastructure, applications are more complex:

  • The application may be split across multiple servers. An n-Tier application may have different tiers running on different servers (and even different operating systems).
  • The application could be wholly or partially containerised. You can have multiple containers each running different micro-services.
  • There could be database changes associated with an application change. Indeed, the application change could – potentially – consist solely of a database change. Database updates are pretty much always deployed as deltas – alter scripts are used to add and remove columns, tables and indexes.

In the same way that a single binary can be built from lots of different source files (each of which is under its own version control), so an application package can be made up of lots of different binary components. Clearly, if the application package consists of lots of different components and those components are resident on different servers or containers then deploying every component every time a new application version is deployed would be wasteful, time-consuming, and error-prone. This is the same concept in managing the infrastructure as code. What is needed is the ability to declare the configuration and track the changes, or “deltas.” Deployment Version Control, like Source Code Version Control, performs this critical function.

An application package “delta” would therefore track which components have changed between the version of the application being deployed and the versions of the components on the target environment. This allows the deployment tool to only deploy the components that have changed. So what do we need to track to make this work?

  • Component Versions. Obviously we need to version each individual component so that we know which specific component is included in any particular application version.
  • Like infrastructure as code, we need to declare and track which component version is present on any particular endpoint within a target environment. That way, if the application we’re about to deploy has version 5 of a component (a DLL or a WAR file, say) and version 5 is already present in the target environment then we don’t deploy that particular component.

Deployment Version Control has a number of advantages. You can deploy to an existing environment with only the components that have changed – minimizing the downtime and reducing the risk of failure. You can deploy to a newly provisioned environment and deploy all the components within the application. So if you need to fire up a new virtual machine (or a container) then the deployment pushes everything – but the next time you deploy to that environment, only the components that have changed are deployed. And most importantly, if you are moving away from monolithic deployments to support a Container infrastructure, Deployment Version Control is the key to tracking changes and understanding what needs to be deployed.

Database Deltas and Deployment Version Control

We may need to consider special cases when it comes to database components. Remember we mentioned that database changes are nearly always delivered as deltas – SQL “alter” scripts that make changes to the previous version of the database schema? Well, if all you’re doing is deploying the next version of the application package then that works fine. However, what if you’re deploying a version that’s several releases ahead of what’s in the environment? This can easily happen if the test and production environments are “pulling” deployments into their environment (as opposed to having them “pushed” via a Continuous Delivery process). Now, just applying the alter script that is associated with this application version won’t work in any environment that doesn’t contain the previous version of the application.

Picture an application package (“My Application”) that is up to version 6. It has two components, a WAR file and a Database component that contains alter scripts that roll the database schema forward. Here are what the last 4 versions look like:

Deployment Version control in Applications

So version 3 has a new version of the WAR file. Version 4 has a new version of the WAR file and a database alter script that adds a column to a table. Version 5 only changes the database (it amends a stored procedure which uses this new column). Version 6 applies a new change to the WAR file.

Now, in a Continuous Deployment process the test rig being targeted will receive each new version. So when version 4 is deployed, the rig will receive version 4 of the WAR file and the alter script will be executed to add the column to the table. Then when version 5 is deployed, only the DB alter script will run (alter.sql;2) in order to amend the stored procedure. The WAR file is not deployed since the server already contains version 4 of the WAR file. When version 6 is deployed, only version 5 of the WAR file is deployed. This is exactly what we want.

But now what happens when we move to UAT? By this stage, we’ve done as much automated testing as we can get away with – in UAT real users need to log onto our test system to make sure they’re happy with everything. So we’re not going to do a “push”. In UAT, the test lead does a “pull” when they’re ready to accept the new version of the application for testing. So they pull “My Application Version 6” into their test environment and get their testers lined up with coffee and pizza.

But what happens if the test environment is currently on version 3? Well, for the WAR file, there’s no problem – there’s a difference in the component version for the WAR file so the new version is deployed. But what happens to the database? There are no alter scripts associated with version 6 of the application – but without applying alter.sql;1 and alter.sql;2 the database schema is not going to be valid for use with myapp.war;5. The testing will fail – not so much “falling at the first hurdle” as “falling in the paddock”.

Deltas allow us to cure this issue. What we need to do is identify the components that represent the database changes and get them to be applied in sequence for each interim version. In that way successive database “deltas” are applied in order to roll the database forward to the correct schema version before the required version of the application is deployed.

So, in our case, going from version 3 to version 6 would deploy the following components:

deployment version control and application package

So we will deploy (and run) alter.sql;1 to add the new column, then alter.sql;2 to amend the stored procedure and finally, deploy myapp.war;5. Deltas mean we do the minimum required to get the application version to the desired state.

Conclusion

Agile DevOps practices pushed us to infrastructure as code which lead us to managing the full stack application package as code. Deployment Version Control is core to this principle. Versioning the components that make up an application means it is easy to determine the deltas (changes) between one application version and another. Recording what version(s) of the components are on the endpoints in a target environment makes it easy to only deploy the components that have changed. Identifying the deltas for a database gives us the ability to roll databases forward and jump between versions. This version jumping and incremental processing is invaluable when transitioning from monolithic deployments to microservices.

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