Monday, December 31, 2007

Multi-Stage Continuous Integration Part I

I’m a big fan of continuous integration. I’ve used it and recommended it for many years. But it has a dark side as well. When it is combined with the practice of mainline development, especially for a large development effort, it can turn into “Continuous Noise.” In this case, you get notified every 10 minutes or so (depending on how much building and testing is going on) that the build and/or test suite is still failing.


In the diagram, the stability of the mainline is graphed over time. In this example, the graph starts when the product is released and the mainline is 100% stable. It builds without errors and all tests pass. As new development starts, developers make changes that break the build or cause tests to fail. Because they are all working against the mainline, it is likely that just as one developer fixes the problems they caused, another developer is checking in more changes that will create one or more new problems.

As the stability of mainline goes up and down, everybody that is working against mainline is affected. If the mainline doesn't build or there are tests that don't pass, then everybody has to wait until the problem is fixed.

It could be argued that the problem in this case is that the developer that broke the build should have updated their workspace, done a full build, and then run the full test suite after that. Basically, a full integration build and test. In practice this doesn’t work very well.

For any meaningful project, a full integration build and test will take time. Even if you somehow get that time down to 10 minutes, a lot can happen in 10 minutes, such as other people checking in their changes and invalidating your results (whether you realize it or not). It is more likely that this full cycle will take on the order of an hour or more. While you can certainly do something else during that hour, it is inconvenient to wait and necessitates task switching which is a well-known productivity killer.

Even though developer integration build and test has its problems, many shops have implemented it. While this practice is not ideal, it is an idea that is headed in the right direction.

Next: Multi Stage CI Part II .

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