What is Continuous Integration (CI)?

POST by Sharon Wandili

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Continuous Integration (CI) is one of the most popular development practices that is used to help with automated testing. Developers will want to incorporate automated testing into their development life cycles in an effort to reduce bugs, time between update deployment and improve customer satisfaction.

Let’s take a deeper look at CI (continuos integration) and how it works in a live environment.

What is Continuous Integration?

Digging deeper into what CI is and how it works, this is a practice that programmers use to test their coding using automated tests. Usability testing services may integrate this practice so that when new code changes are made, they’re shared with a repository daily.

The sharing of the code is done multiple times per day.

When the code is integrated into the repo, automation is used to conduct all of the testing.

How Does Continuous Integration Work?

CI integrations reside in the background, updated often, while additional code is run on the server to check for new iterations. When a new code iteration is found, the server will automate the build and start running automated testing.

Of course, automated testing can occur outside of CI and often does.

Using version control, via a shared repository, allows members of a team to commit changes and allow for CI to validate these changes. The way this works is simple:

  • Team members connect to the project’s version control system
  • Code is committed to the system
  • The commit leads to an automated build being triggered
  • The build is fully tested and validated

While this coding practice may not be a requirement for the single coder that is building their own systems without help, the practice becomes invaluable when there are multiple team members involved in developing the software or product.

Continuous Integration vs Continuous Deployment

You’ll find a lot of developers use both terms:

  1. Continuous Integration
  2. Continuous Deployment

Both of these practices are very similar in that once a build is committed, they go through a similar cycle:

  • Test
  • Commit to staging site
  • Accept tests
  • Deploy to production

Where the two are different is in how they deploy to production. If you’re opting to use CI, this means that your deployment to production will be 100% manual. This allows for greater control over the build and ensures there’s little risk that a botched build is able to be deployed to the production server.

Continuos deployment will automatically deploy the build to production.

There are obvious benefits to the deployment option because the user is always using the most recent build. If a team has to make continual tweaks, the changes are made automatically, allowing for a highly secure product.

When opting for continuous delivery, there’s one main concern: testing.

Since the product will be going right to production, there needs to be:

  • Robust automated testing in place
  • Small, incremental updates

The idea behind continuous deployment is that the developers need to make small, incremental changes for it to work properly. You’ll save a lot of time without needing to deploy builds manually.

If a new feature is going to be added, the integral algorithms may be deployed over time until the feature is ready for the end user.

When deployment is automatic, this provides several key benefits:

  • Fixes are produced faster
  • Features reach market faster

A lot of development teams tend to move from continuous integration to continuous deployment, but the main concern is that for deployment automation to be a success, small changes are ideal.

The product needs to be well along before teams can confidently use continuous deployment to their advantage.

Any time a team decides to use continuous measures, this allows for:

  • Removal of overhead during development
  • Increased time spent on adding value to a service

There’s also continuous delivery, which doesn’t get committed to the production server.

Benefits of Using Continuous Integration in Development

CI is a powerful practice, and it is a practice that can benefit developers greatly when more than one developer is involved. The key benefits that are provided include:

  • Fewer integration problems. There are a lot of issues when multiple developers work on one shared source code. Merging source code leads to massive issues in teams as multiple people may have tweaked the same code and determining which code to work from is difficult. Using CI helps all developers to remain on the same page when updating code to reduce the number of issues that occur.
  • Quick bug detection. Integrating source code with automated tests helps to detect bugs early on in development and helps track down small changes that led to new bugs. Since tests can be run dozens of times a day due to different commits, less time and money is wasted trying to track down bugs in the future.
  • Staging builds. The staging build allows for manual testing to be done rapidly. When staging is provided, it’s better for the entire team.
  • Reverting is easier. If bugs or issues occur, the massive amount of commits throughout the development cycle will be highly beneficial. It’s possible to revert back to previous iterations that have very small changes in place. Since small changes lead to commits, it’s possible to revert back to secure source code without losing massive work in the process.
  • Automated discipline. It’s easy to ignore common discipline practices that can lead to bugs and issues. The automated tests and practices involved in CI enforce strict testing and practices. Since automation takes care of many issues, code is more secure and follows best coding practices.
  • Faster integrations. Integrating code is faster and more streamlined when CI is involved. It’s easier to integrate code into production.
  • More time spent on features. Less time is spent on correcting bugs and merging issues and more time is spent on building features. Teams that use CI can spend time refining and building features that their users want.
  • Quick to move to production. Once all of the tests have passed, it’s fast to deploy the build to production. There’s also the option to move to continuous deployment to allow for fewer bugs and faster feature deployment to the end user.
  • Reduce review time. Less time will be spent on reviewing code. Since the version control system communicates with CI directly, there’s less time reviewing code. The tests will verify all of the requirements, and the time required to merge the request is reduced. Developers spend more time coding and less time reviewing.
  • Scaling. The ability to scale is improved. When you first start growing a team, scaling takes a backburner and you tackle issues as they’re presented. Communication and code integration are minimized, allowing you to add more developers and provide a seamless transition for larger teams.
  • Faster feedback. The feedback loop is one of the benefits that often go overlooked when considering CI. Since production iterations are pushed faster, teams can spend time working on the platform and testing it for user experience and usability. Bugs and issues that may have been overlooked can be found faster and corrected.

When stronger teams are in place and the proper coding standards are followed, it’s possible to increase coding standards while also providing a better product for the consumer.

When to Use Continuous Integration

There is no wrong time to integrate CI into your development lifecycle. But you’ll find that the practice is best used in agile development. Teams that do the following can use CI properly with fewer issues and overhead:

  • Compile a list of tasks that are integral to your product’s workflow
  • Divide key tasks among developers

The time that is best for implementing a system like CI is when teams start dividing tasks among multiple developers. These developers will begin to work on code changes on their own, and when they do, these changes will become more difficult to merge together.

CI allows for code to be rapidly merged with fewer issues.

The dozen or more changes that can be made in a day are all committed automatically, tested and all without merge issues. It’s the ideal option for teams and allows for better control over the entirety of a project.

A lone developer is unlikely to benefit from CI, although there’s no harm in using CI on your own.

Any time that you can automate testing or deployment, it’s beneficial.

Integrating CI Into a Current Project

Getting started with CI is a delicate process. You’ll want to use tools, many which are outlined below, that will allow you to put CI in place more efficiently. The tools that are used can help you deploy these iterations to the version control system that you choose.

A lot of developers opt to use the version control system that they already use for CI.

Common options are:

  • Bitbucket
  • Github

Now it’s time to automate the testing. You need to spend time and money to create tests, but this initial overhead will quickly be countered with lower future production costs. During this time, it’s important for managers and team leaders to get together to determine:

  • Product expectations
  • Goals
  • How engineers will implement CI

Tools will play an important role in utilizing CI. If you choose the right tools, you’ll have a better chance of initial issues when integrating CI into the development lifecycle.

Here’s The 4 Most Popular Continuous Integration Tools

1. Jenkins

Jenkins is an open source automation server that allows for developers to work on:

  • Building
  • Deploying
  • Automating

Jenkins has hundreds of plugins that will assist with testing, too. What’s great about Jenkins is that there’s a large base of users that will be able to assist with any questions you or your team have.

Key features involving continuos integration include:

  • Packages that are available for OS X, Windows and Unix.
  • Custom plugins that extend the use of the system.
  • Can rapidly be transitioned into a continuous delivery platform as needed.
  • Can deploy on your own network of machines to improve the speed and performance of the server.

Since the platform is open source, it’s a great option for teams on a tight budget that want to leverage the power of this practice.

2. Travis

Travis CI enables you to sync and test code in minutes. Quick and easy to integrate into GitHub, you can quickly begin using this platform with the leading version control system on the market today.

Travis is one of the world’s most popular continuos integration tools because it’s used by some of the biggest names in the software industry:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Mozilla

When using Travis, your team is able to benefit from key features for continuos integration that include:

  • Integration into leading platforms, including email, Slack and HipChat
  • API and CMD tools to leverage full custom management
  • Pull request verification is done automatically

Travis is free for open source repos, but you can sign up for the enterprise version if you want to use a private repo.

Support is available for bilingual code, too.

3. TeamCity

Created by Jetbrains, TeamCity is a feature-rich tool aimed specifically at developers. TeamCity supports most software stacks, and the in-built installers make it quick and easy to get started.

The key features of this continuos integration platform include:

  • Ample support for Visual Studio
  • Extensive version control for better project organization
  • History reports for your failures, builds and changes
  • Ability to reuse settings, so there’s no need to duplicate code

TeamCity allows you to run up to three builds simultaneously and define 100 build configurations.

4. CircleCI

The CircleCI platform allows teams to release their code through test and build automation.

CircleCI’s key features for continuos integration include:

  • Integration with Google Cloud, AWS, Heroku and other similar platforms
  • Tests coding using Nose, Django RSpec and others
  • Uses virtualenv, rvm and other language-specific tools
  • Custom settings can be taken directly from the code

A free version is available, but you can also update to a premium version for better support and larger projects.

Continuous integration is one of the best practices for an agile development team. As you continue to use the practice, you’ll strengthen your code and be better suited to build a robust product.

The time and resources that it takes to implement CI will be offset by the time savings and lower overhead provided by automated testing.

Continuous Improvement in a Continuos Integration environment

The sprints and user stories found in a continuous improvement environment are much smaller and are developed in rapid iterations using small, more manageable code segments.

Team members in a CI/CD environment would ideally be looking for ways to improve things like user story or requirements tracking, the code check-in process, unit testing, automated build processes, test environment management or automated deployments, in rapid succession for each sprint or story.

There are a number of tools that are used throughout the application delivery process. The challenge is to find a solution that can work with each of those tools that you already use in your organization, without complicating or breaking the process and workflow. To find out more about types of continuous improvement tools to help drive your business growth, see this post.

Thanks for reading this post. Just so you know – Tallyfy can help you document a process once and run it a thousand times, perfectly. If you make continuos integration recipes as a developer – think of Tallyfy as CI recipes for workflows between people (not between machines).

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