Software development is straightforward, at least in theory. When you start to break it down, though, the need for a robust test environment strategy becomes abundantly clear.
The development team codes individual features or fixes and tests them in a local environment to work out the kinks. Once they appear to function as intended, the team merges these topic branches into a trunk branch and tests the entire application in a QA or staging environment. More testing and iteration ensue, and eventually, the more-or-less bug-free program is ready to go live in production.
In practice, software development is messy, time-consuming, and can be highly inefficient. One of the most persistent bottlenecks is the gap between local testing environments and the staging environment.
Many enterprises employ multiple full-time software engineers to manage DevOps workflows between these environments at an average base salary above $120,000 — and much more for experienced engineers in high-cost-of-living areas.
Some expect iterative improvements in low- and no-code development to reduce the need for backend testing and staging environments. But that technology isn’t yet versatile or sophisticated enough to handle most backend applications.
It may never be. For the foreseeable future, development teams need to upgrade their test environment strategy if they’re serious about using their limited resources — time, talent, and money — efficiently.
Uffizzi is making that much easier. They offer a preview environment solution that helps bridge the divide between local testing and production, helping teams find bugs and optimize performance before merging features into “main.” As we’ll see, Uffizzi preview environments offer many benefits for developers tired of the old way of doing things.
What Are Preview Environments?
First, a brief overview of what preview environments actually are and where they fit in the software development lifecycle.
Preview environments are “on-demand and ephemeral cloud environments for testing a specific git branch before it’s merged into a trunk branch,” according to Uffizzi’s preview environment guide.
Unlike “traditional” staging or production environments, which remain operational in perpetuity, preview environments are generally designed for a single purpose. They’re created to test specific features or fixes, often being instantiated to support the pull or merge request related to the git branch being tested.
Once the test or merge is done or a predetermined timeout threshold arrives, they no longer have any purpose and cease to exist. Their lifespans match a branch’s lifespan. Developers usually measure these in hours rather than days, weeks, or months.
Why Should Software Development Teams Use Preview Environments?
Uffizzi is ushering in a modern way to build software using a robust test environment strategy. Preview environments have transformative potential for software teams used to the old way of doing things. Here’s why.
1. They save time.
Teams with the capacity to automate short-duration preview environments take advantage of a “parallelization” effect.
This means that developers can test features in isolation from one another. So even if one feature has a critical bug, it doesn’t impact the testability of all the other features, which can proceed in their testing process.
This eliminates a key bottleneck. As individual features are ready, you can quickly merge and release them. This is much faster and more efficient than the old way of releasing multiple features in a batch and ensuring that every feature in a release is “bug-free.”
2. They reduce crowding in shared test environments.
Relatedly, preview environments also allow development teams to work around automated test queues.
These can build up to great lengths during busy merge cycles. They can debug the smaller features they’re responsible for without waiting for others to do the same. This means they can get feedback that drives faster iterations and, ultimately a higher development velocity.
3. They free up resources for the entire team.
Uffizzi’s preview environments are designed to free up time for everyone involved in the development and test cycle. This is critical for development team leads and open-source maintainers responsible for protecting against software vulnerabilities and mitigating merge risks.
“To mitigate merge risks [team leads and open-source maintainers] will often want to see a running version of a pull request before they approve it,” says Uffizzi’s preview environment guide. “Without preview environments, this means pulling down the branch and running it in their local dev environment. This, of course, can be time-consuming — multiply it by the number of developers on the team, and this becomes their whole job.”
To make matters worse, team leads and maintainers go about this process in different ways.
When each maintainer uses a different environment setup, it’s impossible to standardize branch runs, which is detrimental to process efficiency. And with tech firms from Amazon down to four-person shops newly serious about running lean in a looming tech recession, every ounce of efficiency helps.
4. They’re purpose-built and easier to manage.
Uffizzi designed its preview environment solution from the principle that software testing shouldn’t become an end in itself. Traditional “fixed” staging and production environments tend to take on a life of their own, demanding attention better spent elsewhere.
Because Uffizzi’s preview environments are purpose-built to handle specific pull requests, they have little overhead. Multiplied by the number of pull requests likely to occur across an entire development cycle, their low-maintenance nature significantly reduces teams’ ‘busy work” workloads.
With more resources freed up for more productive, higher-value work, firms using Uffizzi preview environments can rethink everything about their strategies, up to and including whether to outsource functions that might be better kept in-house.
5. They help teams catch bugs before a merge when they’re easier to fix.
It’s far easier and far less time-consuming to catch bugs in an environment designed for that sole purpose.
Once a feature or fix merges into the main trunk, it becomes 10x harder to find and fix. If something doesn’t work, finding what’s wrong becomes an ordeal — and a major development bottleneck.
And it goes without saying that the longer bugs go without being caught, the more they cost to fix.
A study by Grand Canyon University finds that the cost of applying fixes increases 10-fold between development and production — turning a theoretical $100 fix into a $1,000 boondoggle.
Consider the number of bugs and fixes required during a typical development lifecycle. When you do, the value proposition of preview environments becomes crystal clear.
6. They complement existing staging or production environments.
Uffizzi’s preview environment’s solution might sound like a radical break with the standard development cycle.
But it’s really not. To its credit, Uffizzi designed its preview environments solution to complement rather than entirely replace standard staging or production environments. Developers can use them as a bridge between local testing and staging, designed to make life easier on both sides of the equation.
7. They facilitate collaboration between stakeholders.
By reducing friction during development and helping devs focus on the pieces of code they’re specifically responsible for, Uffizzi’s purpose-built preview environments actually foster more collaboration between developers, testers, product designers and managers, and other key stakeholders.
There’s less waiting, more doing, and more productive communication. This provides more of the “what can we do to make this better” variety. You end up with less of the “can you let me know when you’ve done the thing we’re waiting on you to do because our dev process is bottlenecked” ilk.
Increased collaboration doesn’t just make teams more functional and productive. It sets them up for future success by freeing up senior devs’ and managers’ time to improve internal processes, train new developers, and work on higher-level problem sets to make current and future products more valuable.
See What Preview Environments Can Do for Your Development Cycle
If you’re frustrated with the current state of your software development cycle, consider adding a preview solution to your test environment strategy like Uffizzi.
As a complementary solution to your existing process, and your existing CI/CD, you’ll find it makes your software team more efficient and opens up new possibilities in the product, process, and personnel. Imagine getting nearly 50% more productive without adding new personnel.
Featured Image: ThisIsEngineering; Pexels.com. Thank you!