As an industry, we’ve been designing and building distributed software for decades. Even so, it may seem like automating your software builds is an obvious best practice. However, you’d be very surprised at just how many people and enterprises don’t follow doing so.
Defining an Automated Software Build
First, let’s clarify what automating your software build really means. Clearly, you can run a build from your Integrated Development Environment (IDE). It’s simple to click that button and watch it run your build, where results get directed to your screen and/or log files. This is, after all, an automation of your build. Right? However, it’s not what the industry means by an automated software build. An automated software build is defined to be when the build rules have been decoupled from your IDE and moved into an automation platform (e.g. Make, Nmake, Gmake, Rake, or other technology specific frameworks) that you can either trigger manually or, more importantly, tie into a batch scheduler or a software orchestration system that allows you to control deployments across multiple environments.
Benefits of Automating Software Builds
Automating your software builds as part of broader automation frameworks has multiple benefits that include but are not limited to:
- Repeatable Configurations: The most important reason for automating your build is to achieve highly repeatable software build configurations. This means that the probability of rebuilding to the exact same state is always guaranteed to be 100%, barring no newly introduced errors or unexpected variables that can impact your environment. So, the number one reason for automating your software build is to achieve 100% repeatable configurations.
- Higher Quality Configurations: A side effect of a highly repeatable software build and configuration is that of achieving a higher quality build. The automation of your software builds helps achieve the highest build quality, reducing the risk of errors and volatility.
- Reusable Software Components: Automation of your software builds allows you to break your build into reusable components. This means that other software you build can also leverage these reusable components.
- Configuration Traceability: Once you’ve achieved a repeatable and automated software build, you will have a clear understanding of which dependencies yield which targets. This means that as you build target components (reusable or not), you know what dependencies did or did not occur, which led to the final result. It makes debugging more methodical and much faster.
- Testable Dependencies, Targets, and Components: In order to automate your software builds, you need to break such builds into clearly defined build dependencies, targets, and components. Once you’ve done so, you can easily test for the expected vs. actual outcomes of state and behavior for each of these elements.
- Reduce Risk of Resource Loss: One of the biggest risks to any organization is the loss of a human resource that knows something critical and who takes that critical knowledge with him or her, upon leaving that organization (willingly or not). Automation of software builds requires such people to codify what they know in clear and highly repeatable build rules. This means that you have those build rules documented in the automation tool, as a risk mitigator, in the case that he or she leaves the organization. If such a person leaves, you can (at the very least) hire someone with the same skills who can read, translate, understand, debug, execute, and repeat those build rules.
- Builds That “Talk”: One of the least understood but most powerful benefits of automating your software builds is the fact that you can get the builds to talk to you. In other words, you can get the builds to create and communicate build related events and messages to log files and even other systems. At a minimum, you can log the steps of the build, with warnings and errors. At the most advanced stages, you can have the build dump detailed information about the build to knowledge management systems like a Configuration Management Databases (CMDB). For example, you can dump knowledge of who ran the build, when they ran it, on which machines, in which environments, what software and technologies were involved, what dependencies & targets were involved, etc. Advanced enterprises teach their automated builds to talk to them so that they have powerful information for functions like incident triage, debugging, root cause analysis, and impact analysis.
We’ve just touched on a handful of the benefits of automating your software builds. Can you think of any challenges or other benefits for automating software builds? If so, please share them or any other related ideas with the community via comments, below.