Don't have environments

by alex_gaynor
Almost every good idea this blog post comes from David Reid, the bad ones are mine.

Let's say you're making a website. Your customers (and randos who maybe you'd like to be your customers) need to access it, so you create a production environment at and you tell people to go there.

Then you start working on the next great feature. It's basically done, but you want to run it by some other folks and coordinate a launch plan for it, so you merge it into master and create a production branch without it. Now all your production deploys come from that branch, and people can freely land stuff. And everything is great. You set up a staging environment, which deploys from master, so people can see what stuff looks like.

A few months pass, and the whole team is doing this workflow. Pull requests get merged into master, and then when you're ready to ship the whole thing you merge master into production and deploy.

Then you have an emergency and need to deploy something to production immediately, but you don't want to deploy all the other stuff on master, maybe you need to bump the version of a dependency for a security fix.

You land the patch on master like normal, and then go to cherry-pick it over to production. Crap, it doesn't apply cleanly. You forgot that on master you totally reorganized how dependencies were listed.

No matter, you'll just cherry-pick that patch over too. You do that, but tests are failing, turns out you did that reorganization to enable you to bump a dependency, which was included in the same patch, that dependency bump broke backwards compatibility, all the tests are failing and the PR which fixes that is somewhere else.

Fuck it, this is too much of a mess, let's just deploy master, the staging environment looks fine anyways. You do that, and stuff looks like it's ok, except shit Sentry is going bananas with exceptions, it looks like you totally broke one of the workflows. Damn, I remember leaving that review, "Let's land this as is, but make sure we fix this bug before the next deploy". I guess we need to rollback and fix the breakage, hopefully no one exploits the security issue we were trying to fix in the first place.

Eventually you get it fixed and decide you need a new environment, so it's easier to deploy critical fixes. Now you've got production, staging, and testing.

If you do this long enough, you'll end up with:

It's probably possible to come up with more environments, but this is more than enough that I have no clue what any of these mean, or what the differences between them are.

No matter how many environments you create, and force changes to flow through, you can't escape the fact that if you merge things that aren't ready to be deployed to production into one of these environments, the process of flowing an unrelated patch through it will be harder and more ad-hoc. Pull requests which are not ready should not be merged into the production track, and ones which are only later discovered to not have been ready should be reverted, and then reintroduced once they are fixed.

The way to address this problem is to not have a fixed number of environments. Any fixed flow will encounter these same problems, instead you want to focus on pull request review being the unit of "ok to deploy to production".

How do you address the desire of people to see what not-yet-deployed work looks like in this context? Instead of having a fixed number environments, have ∞ environments. Specifically, give every single pull request its own environment, and have the tooling to spin up and tear down any other environments you want (e.g. for benchmarking) on demand.

In short, every project should have what Heroku calls "Review Apps". Every pull request gets its own deployed environment on demand, allowing it to be demoed and reviewed. Pull requests are only merged into master when they are ready to go to production, and they're reverted if they turn out to have been unready.

When features are large, and require many separate pull requests to form the full user-facing functionality, feature flags should be used, rather than creating massive branches with everything in them.

Doing this in the real world requires investing in automation. You cannot jump directly from "standing up a new environment requires me to get my boss to sign a purchase order" to "every branch is deployed as soon as a pull request is created". You'll want the ability to automatically provision and schedule resources, at a minimum this means the ability to provision new VMs (e.g. EC2) and to make it as painless and fast as possible you probably want a cluster scheduler (e.g. ECS). And if that sounds like too much work, I'm told Heroku accepts cash in exchange for goods and services, but it's way less work than trying to disentangle staging from testing from master from production from joe-temporary-production.

To summarize, don't create fixed deployment pipelines composed of testing, and staging, and pre-production environments. Instead maintain only one standing environment, production. Manage everything else through short lived per-pull-request deployments.

Hi, I'm Alex. I'm currently at a startup called Alloy. Before that I was a engineer working on Firefox security and before that at the U.S. Digital Service. I'm an avid open source contributor and live in Washington, DC.