Addressing the Top CI/CD Challenges for Distributed Teams

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Whenever we talk about distributed teams, the first attribute that comes to mind is that it is productivity agnostic—your team can work on various parts of the application simultaneously without facing blockers or external dependencies. The idea of modularity is the agile characteristic that helps distributed teams save on man hours by reusing shared code and avoiding having to reinvent the wheel. This is not just limited to using well-established libraries but also includes internal utilities.

As the example above, there are many other benefits of maintaining distributed teams. On the other hand, what are the downsides that can potentially take a toll on such teams? The main challenge is connecting these distributed teams using CI/CD. In this article, let us look at some of the CI/CD challenges faced by distributed teams and how to overcome them by incorporating best practices.

CI/CD in Distributed Teams: Crests and Troughs

CI/CD in Distributed Teams
Image: GeeksforGeeks

Before addressing the issues faced by the teams, let us quickly brush through the concept of CI/CD. Basically, CI/CD exists at the intersection of development and operations—it is a part of DevOps. CI/CD consists of three phases: continuous integration, continuous delivery, and continuous deployment.

What is CI/CD?

CI/CD stands for Continuous Integration (CI) and Continuous Deployment (CD). It is a method of software development that emphasizes frequent, automated deployments to ensure the codebase is always in a deployable state. It’s a vital part of modern DevOps practices and is used to improve the speed, efficiency, and quality of software production.

1. Continuous Integration (CI):

CI is a practice in which developers regularly merge their code changes into a central repository, typically multiple times per day. Each integration can then be verified by an automated build and tests. The primary purpose of CI is to catch and address bugs quicker, improve software quality, and reduce the time to validate and release new software updates.

The core practices of CI include:

  • Maintaining a code repository: Version control systems like Git allow multiple developers to work on a project without overwriting each other's changes.
  • Automating the build: Tools like Jenkins, CircleCI, and Travis CI can compile code into an executable application, allowing for early discovery of issues in the code.
  • Making builds self-testing: Automated testing tools help ensure the codebase's quality by running a suite of tests (e.g., unit tests, integration tests, functional tests) whenever changes are integrated.
  • Everyone commits to the mainline daily: Frequent commits encourage developers to write modular, less complex code, which simplifies debugging and testing efforts.

2. Continuous Deployment (CD):

Continuous Deployment is an extension of CI where the changes in the codebase are automatically deployed to production without manual intervention, given that they pass the automated tests. It allows the software to be released to customers at a much faster rate.

The second CD, Continuous Delivery, is a similar practice but slightly different - it is the practice of keeping your codebase always in a state where it can be deployed to production at any time. However, the final push to production is a manual process in Continuous Delivery.

Key aspects of Continuous Deployment include:

  • Automated release to production: Tools like AWS CodeDeploy, Google Cloud Deployment Manager, or Spinnaker can be used to automatically deploy applications to a production environment.
  • Production-like staging environments: Testing in a clone of the production environment ensures that there won't be surprises when the application is live.
  • Monitoring and validation: Monitoring tools are crucial in catching any anomalies in the production environment, and automated validation tests ensure that the deployment was successful.

The CI/CD pipeline is central to a culture of rapid iteration, fast feedback, reduced defects, and reduced lead times for new features, all of which lead to higher customer satisfaction and a competitive edge in the marketplace.

Now that we understand the different phases in the CI/CD pipeline, let us address some of the common challenges people face in distributed teams.

Communication

When inter-teams and intra-teams are dispersed across geographical locations and time zones, it becomes crucially difficult to have everyone on the same page and keep things on track. At times, when a blocker arises, one team/person has to wait until the workflow is resolved by the other. This leads to a significant loss of time. The lack of in-person interaction and communication also misses out on many nuances. This in turn affects collaboration. After all, communication is key.

Collaboration

Collaboration and communication are directly proportional to each other, effective communication leads to strong collaboration and vice-versa. For example, Let us consider 2 developers in the same team working on 2 different features. Assuming both the features need to go to release as part of the same sprint cycle, it is important to complete the development well in time and send it to QA.

Typically, all features are deployed to the staging environment before they can be signed off by the QA team. Since the different features have been worked on in isolation, this lack of communication directly impacts the collaboration between team members, which causes build overrides and frequency merge conflicts. The lack of a streamlined development process, especially in distributed teams, often takes a toll on collaboration.

Accessibility to Resources

Being part of a distributed remote team, team members may encounter different levels of access to resources such as cloud infrastructure, stable internet connectivity, and hardware. This is especially true where teams are spread across geographical locations. Thus, simple things like pushing a build to the remote repository become difficult, and compiling code takes too much time as they have to work with hardware components with limited potential.

Tooling and Infrastructure

With the lack of proper documentation and regulation in teams, different teams might likely end up using different tools to accomplish the same task. And during debugging or revamping this becomes a bottleneck due to compatibility issues. Addressing security concerns also becomes significantly difficult in such instances. Ultimately, teams face friction in the overall development pipeline due to the creation of an inefficient CI/CD pipeline.

Ways to Overcome CI/CD Challenges

CI/CD Challenges
The primary concern for distributed teams to work effectively is communication. More emphasis should be put on having clear communication to avoid reworkings and misunderstandings. Efficient communication tools and procedures ensure that everyone is on the same page. Teams can use video conferencing solutions like Zoom or Google Meet and messaging systems like Slack, Microsoft Teams, or Discord. Additionally, team members can also keep posting their updates (minor/major) to provide context-awareness regarding the latest changes.

For instance, before deploying anything, one could post it on a channel so that others are aware of the latest changes. Then, if something accidentally breaks and the accountable individual is unavailable, other team members can simply revert the deployment and push the previous build instead, therefore avoiding panic situations. This in turn directly improves collaboration.

Further, if team members are unable to contribute to their fullest, management should take care of filling this void by ensuring everyone has access to the tools they require to contribute productively. In some circumstances, this can entail giving team members who would not have access to these resources devices or internet connectivity.

The most significant challenge in creating a CI/CD pipeline is creating a solid infrastructure. Different teams must come together beforehand and brainstorm and pick up the right set of tools, resources, and platforms that suit their requirements. Hence, teams should undertake the responsibility of making sure that the automated build, test, and deployment procedures adhere to industry standards and best practices. They must also guarantee that security precautions are taken to safeguard private information and deter unauthorized access.

Another vital but usually ignored issue is bringing the cultural shift of incorporating the CI/CD pipeline into the development lifecycle. Many teams, to this day, use the age-old waterfall model, which completely goes against the agile characteristics of distributed teams. Teams should always keep an eye out for new development strategies that automate things and reduce human effort.

Conclusion

While developers have to deal with a distinct set of challenges during development, a whole other set of pitfalls exist when it comes to putting that work on the server. This gap can be bridged by following the best practices for CI/CD implementation discussed here: automating as much of the pipeline as plausible, testing frequently and early, having clear communication channels, and regularly evaluating and enhancing the pipeline.

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