Posts Tagged ‘hosted CI’

Underdoing The Competition

September 6, 2010

Hosted, low-cost, internet-based services for software developers have been in existence since the formative years of the web itself. In their earliest incarnation, such services would usually involve obtaining some real estate on an Apache web server, accessible via FTP, with the ability to upload a web application and invoke some server-side technology (Perl/CGI hacking anyone?) to create the latest and greatest dot-com experimental idea for a business. Or maybe just a simple website.

Zoom forward a few years and these services start to encompass functionality that provides a platform for the activity of development itself. For example, hosted version control, issue tracking and task management applications. Now smaller web-based development shops, who are already used to renting infrastructure for their production environments from a hosting company, start to use these complimentary services – particularly when team members are not co-located. In fact, developers soon discover that these tools promote a model that supports geographically dispersed teams, and these ideas really begin to take root, like much technology these days, amongst the open source software community. The likes of Sourceforge for example, begin to acquire many thousands of projects, both large and small, due in part to providing accessible, web-based collaboration services for development. For private projects, pay-for services such as those provided by CvsDude (now Codesion) and Collabnet start to combine the power of the ideas taking root in the open source world with the industrial strength security and data protection required by larger IT businesses.

And here we are today, with a proliferation of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) companies that offer a full range of services along the application lifecycle management continuum. Certain types of services lend themselves well to the SaaS model – the barrier to entry is relatively low, especially when the tool or service is already web-enabled. An example is hosted bug tracking solutions. These are implicitly suited to the multi-tenant application model used by most SaaS businesses. They have a very predictable resource consumption profile and a security model that easily supports multiple users. Data protection and recovery can be usually handled using industry standard practices for RDBMS management. There are a lot of businesses that offer these types of services.


When we look to other services along the ALM continuum, hosted SaaS offerings are few and far between, an example being services that support Continuous Integration. Hopefully, by now, all thinking software engineers believe that CI is integral to the practice of modern software development. In fact, I’d go further, anyone who thinks otherwise is not fit to call themselves a (thinking) software engineer. You’ve no excuse, really, and if you don’t embrace its benefits then CI is likely to be imposed on you anyway.

So, it’s 2009, you have your hosted low-cost SCM system, you’ve got your cheap web based bug tracker and your rented deployment environment (still Apache, or maybe Google App Engine?). You search for “hosted continuous integration” and hmmm…no dice. “Why does nobody do this stuff?” you ask, “Didn’t I read somewhere that its ‘integral to the practice of modern software development’ ?”. I know the answer – a simple reason really – a hosted CI service is damn hard thing to deliver.

For a hosted solution to be low-cost and truly multi-tenant it needs to be very efficient with resources. This usually involves sharing of such resources amongst many users, a model which does not easily lend itself to CI. Secondly, a hosted solution must be secure, especially with respect to user data. User data in the world of CI includes source code, build metrics and the built artefact’s themselves. Reconciling resource optimization with data security is the biggest challenge here. To illustrate this point, if such a solution provided every user with a dedicated, isolated, physical environment for their builds it would need to incorporate the associated costs into the offering. This would quickly place the service into the realms of ‘expensive luxury’ for our small agile team example. As a comparison, consider Codesions ‘Team Edition’ for hosted Subversion which starts at $6.99/month. To be competitive, the CI provider has to get very clever with shared resource optimization while still ensuring data protection and security for its users.

In addition to data protection and resource management, there are additional security concerns relating to what a build can be permitted to do in such an environment. This is usually never a concern for an on-premise CI server. Want to scan for available ports, open particular sockets or start and stop certain daemon processes? No problemo. However, I’m afraid that in the shared real-estate scenario there are some necessary limitations on what build tools might be able to do. This is something of a compromise that a user has to take on the chin if they wish to use a low-cost hosted solution. If their build process requires a bunch of ‘non-orthodox’ things to happen, they need to understand that these types of advanced builds will never play well in a shared environment. But…if your project conforms to the standard life-cycle of ‘prepare-compile-test-package’ then this model fits much better and probably covers the majority of day-to-day software builds. This is just simple pareto principle logic really – a low-cost, shared hosted solution can only realistically cover the 80% well and assume that its not the right choice anyway for the remaining 20%.

So we’ve articulated some of the challenges of establishing a hosted CI offering, but what are the potential benefits that such a solution might provide to end-users? These may seem obvious, but are worth stating:

  • Zero cost initial implementation for CI infrastructure.
  • Lowers the barrier to entry for CI, simply login, configure project(s) and use it.
  • Significantly reduced software and hardware maintenance costs. Less software hosted internally means less hardware
 required, which also translates into a reduced burden of patches and patch support complexity.
  • Reduced staffing (sorry guys/gals).
  • Better use of skills/ resources.
  • Pay for what you use and no more. Subscription models for SaaS typically allow for cancellation given a months notice. Try-before-buy is very common too.

One final consideration is the range of features that hosted solutions offer when compared with the wide variety of open source and proprietary CI servers available today. There are some very slick options out there that you can download, install, configure and use. At the moment, the available low-cost multi-tenant hosted CI solutions will not win in a feature beauty contest against these tools. However, in my humble opinion this new breed of services offer something quite different, something that sets them apart. To bend a phrase from Bill Clinton: “Its because they are hosted, stupid!”. Personally, I’m a firm believer in the idea that you should (to borrow a concept from 37signals), ‘under-do the competition’. Hosted CI should solve the simple problems and leave the hairy, difficult, nasty problems to everyone else. Instead of one-upping, it should one-down. Instead of outdoing, it should under-do. Hosted CI should stick to what’s truly essential.

Could your next development environment be in the cloud?

November 17, 2009

Your new project has been given the green light. You need to get your team up and running quickly.  Could a cloud based development environment be the answer? This blog discusses some of the options  and issues for moving to a  hosted development environment.

Cloud City

One of the first tasks for any Agile project team is to establish a robust, reliable set of development tools and associated infrastructure. Generally on any new development endeavour the following needs to be put in place:

  • Locate or create a source code repository and import your skeleton project.
  • Locate or create a continuous integration server to build your source code, run your tests and notify the team via email of any failures.
  • Locate or create a task/user story tracking server and/or issue management tool and add your project to it.
  • Locate or create your test environments for developer smoke, integration, and functional testing.

Now you might be lucky and have much of this infrastructure in place, in which case adding some extra users, a new project and associated set of build jobs might be relatively straightforward. However, if it isn’t you will need to   allocate a decent chunk of time to setting things up yourself. This may involve procurement of hardware, installation of an appropriate OS, installation of the relevant applications, providing secure access to project team members and so on. This gets more complex if the team is distributed and the infrastructure must be accessible beyond a LAN.

Often these development tools are open source, which means that while the cost of acquisition for the software may be zero, the ongoing maintenance and support will probably require specialist knowledge.  Any time your team spends doing this is time that could be spent progressing the project.

With either option, server space and administration time is required and there are obviously costs associated with this, and the costs may be disproportionately large to small and medium-sized organisations.

In the same way that SaaS offerings for email and collaboration suites (such as Google Apps) have sought over the past few years sought to turn these services into low-cost, click-and-go commodities, there are now equivalent hosted solution options available for Agile development infrastructure.

Hosted version control solutions have been available for a while and the market has expanded rapidly over the past few years. Collabnet (the people behind Subversion) and CVSdude are probably the best known. Both companies have expanded their offerings, and not only provide version control but are bundled with or integrate to a host of other tools.  These now compete with newer entrants like Beanstalk, Assembla and Unfuddle (which also does Git hosting). GitHub itself has seen huge growth over the past year, with over 400 new users and 1,000 projects being added each day.

Coming from the other direction are suppliers of Development collaboration and productivity tools, Atlassian are probably the biggest player here and their hosted JIRA studio suite based around the very popular Jira issue tracking tool was launched in May 2008.  Fogbugz is another alternative, based around an integrated Project Management, Wiki, Issue Management and Helpdesk set of tools.

Each vendor has a different focus with JIRA studio and Collabnet’s Team-Forge perhaps the most fully featured for development teams. Both offer a very comprehensive stack and are moving towards the idea of an Application Lifecycle Management (ALM) suite. It will be interesting to see how these platforms develop, and how the traditional Enterprise tool vendors (IBM Rational, Microsoft and Borland) respond.

If  a platform sounds too restrictive and you want to “pick and mix” your own set of tools you can.  There are also some great tools which focus on a specific area – Basecamp for Project Management and Lighthouse for Issue Management are a couple of well-known examples worth looking at. Most of these tools have open APIs that enable you to integrate easily with others, so getting together an integrated  set of tooling is easily achievable.

My advice here is to be clear about what you want from these tools. Some are very feature rich and developer centric while others do a great job of providing a clean and simple process and interface. So which tools suits you will depend on your project, your team, and your organisation. What is clear though is that there is growth in this sector, increased competition and greater integration between the providers. All of this can only be good for those who are happy to outsource their development environments – increased choice and competition against a backdrop of  decreasing hosting costs.

Moving on from  managing your project to testing it, the use of externalized environments that allow teams to deploy a release of a web-based application and run functional tests against it, is trickier. Depending on the nature of the application and its associated runtime dependencies this may require the creation of a bespoke environment. However, recent developments in cloud computing should soon make this much easier. Google’s App Engine for example allows you to run Java (and Python) applications on their infrastructure. So if the AppEngine is your production target, creating a test environment that is a clone of production should be a relatively straight-forward activity. More recently in August this year, SpringSource launched their Cloud Foundry which allows you to rapidly deploy a test (and also production) environment for your Java web application with a few mouse clicks and Microsoft have also weighed in with Azure. Both Google and Microsoft are promising tighter integration with the IDE, and I’ll be watching these platforms closely.

One area which is less mature is hosted continuous integration. There are currently only a small number of pioneering providers in this space, which may surprise some, as the practice of continuous integration is at the heart of the Agile development process. The SaaS multi-tenant application model does not fit easily with the requirements for continuous and often complex software builds. It is computing resource intensive activity, especially for programming languages such as Java, and this will inevitably impact the cost of such a service to the end-user. Mike CI is one of these pioneers and there is a good analysis of the others here.

Now I’m not saying trusting your code to a 3rd party is a simple decision to make. There are often legal, security and organisational hurdles to consider. It isn’t be for everyone and for many large corporates it might be a step too far. But for many people the cost, convenience and management overhead of maintaining it all yourself does not stack up. Your team is in place to write great software. For your next project, I’d recommend that you seriously consider using these low-cost, on-demand hosted services.

Beta launch week

October 23, 2009

It’s been an exciting week at Mike HQ this week. Announcements for the Beta have gone out on the ServerSide and the JavaLobby. We’ve also had a few enquiries and, of course, sign-ups! People are now building their projects on our platform! It’s a very exciting time for us. We hope our beta users enjoy using the platform and we’re really looking forward to the feedback.

Maven2 support is a feature a number of people have asked us about.  It is something we are working on and we’ll keep you posted as to when we will add it to the Beta programme. It’s a key feature for the platform.

We’ve also started work on the Mike registration and account management application, agreeing the screen-flows, designs and functionality. This should give users a seamless registration process and the ability to add and remove users from their Mike account. We’ve also been extending the coverage of our Selenium tests for Mike and adding them to our nightly build cycle.

Have a good weekend!