by Leon Rosenshein

Continuous Delivery

Continuous delivery is the idea that every change, or at least every change a developer thinks is done, gets built into the product and into customers hands. It’s a great goal. Reducing latency between a change and getting feedback on the change means you can make smaller changes and be more confident that changes you’re seeing are due to the specific change you’ve made.

Over the course of my career I’ve seen a lot of deployment frequencies. One of my first jobs was making concrete blocks. The Mold/Kiln combo could deploy a pallet of blocks about every 15 seconds, with each pallet having between 1 and 20 blocks on it. And do it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, if there we fed materials in one end and took the blocks away on the other. That’s continuous deployment.

Or sort of continuous deployment. While we could “deploy” cubes of blocks in minutes, it was 24 hours from the time the material went into the mold until the block was ready to be sold. Which means while we could deploy continuously, the deployment latency was at least 24 hours.

I say at least because there was a big mixer at the front end of the process. It took in sand, dyes, water, and cement and mixed them together into multiple cubic yard lots that would get fed into the mold and eventually the kiln. It took about 20 minutes to mix each batch, and a few hours to use it up. Which meant we could only change block color every few hours. In most cases we could just change the mixture of sand/dye to get the new color, but when we wanted to make white blocks we had to wash out the mixer and all the transport equipment to make sure the new blocks stayed white. And that took a few hours itself. So in practice, the latency to change the color of the blocks wasn’t 24 hours, it was more like 26.

But even that isn’t the whole story. We made different shape blocks as well. Changing molds was a big deal. It took most of a day to do. And there were only a couple of people who could do it efficiently. If any of the rest of us did it the delay was a couple of days. And the mixer and concrete transport system had to be empty or the concrete would set and shut the machine down for days while we chipped the concrete out of all the nooks and crannies. Which meant that depending on who was around, the time to get a new shape of brick out the door was 30+ hours from when we started to make the change.

So here you have a system which can produce a set of blocks every 15 seconds. That’s delivering pretty continuously. Yet even with that kind of continuous delivery it could still take almost 2 days to start delivering something different.

But what does making concrete blocks have to do with delivering software? It’s this. The key factor to continuous delivery is the latency between a change being made and that change being available to the customer. The fact that your compiler takes 10 minutes, or someone can download your app in 2 minutes, doesn’t mean you’ve got continuous delivery. You need to account for all of the time between “it’s done” and “customers can use it”. And keep that number as small as possible. That’s when you see the benefits. You get fast feedback. You can roll back a change that didn’t work quickly and easily. You can try things with confidence.

When you do that, you’ve got continuous delivery.