Release The Releases!

One of the things that Orbital set out to do is to prove that agile development of software and solutions can arrive at the same outcome as a more traditional ‘waterfall’ method of project planning. A big part of this is the “release often” approach to development, shipping new versions far more quickly than is usually the case in academia. We’re actually on the slightly slow side of agile development (some companies push updates several times a day), but still aiming to ship a major point release every month for our users to have a play with and comment on.

On top of the point releases we’re also churning out additional maintenance releases with bug fixes and minor features roughly every week, our latest being 0.2.1 which shipped yesterday. These follow a fairly common pattern of odd-numbered releases (0.1.1, 0.2.1, 0.2.3 etc) being patch releases which fix bugs and even-numbered (0.2.2, 0.2.4 etc) adding evolutionary updates to existing functionality.

There are a few major benefits to doing things this way:

  • Orbital never gets the chance to stray far from user requirements – we can’t go off and spend 6 months developing something that doesn’t do what people want, because they can tell us if we’re going wrong at least once a month (and often more frequently than that).
  • Users who report bugs don’t have to wait several months for the next ‘service patch’ which rolls up thousands of changes, the next maintenance release will fix things and is usually only a few days out.
  • The gap between a feature request and implementation is dramatically reduced, so the majority of feature requests are delivered whilst the requirement is fresh in the minds of the user. This results in more immediate usage and feedback.
  • Our code is refactored and refined more often. Instead of building a massive codebase all at once and never going back to improve things we spend a small amount of time each release making sure that code is clean and sane, interfaces are well defined and so-on.
  • Our continuous integration server won’t let us ship a product which doesn’t meet minimum requirements of code quality, documentation and testing. Being forced through this process on a regular basis means that we never get a chance to build up a significant backlog of problems.
  • The use of our code repository and feature branches (there’s a post on this coming up later) means that every ‘merge’ of development code with our staging code is checked over by a developer other than the one who wrote the feature. When we ‘merge’ the staged and tested code with our production code the changes are checked yet again.
  • More granular releases make it easier to roll back when things go wrong. Moving from v0.2.1 to v0.2.3 doesn’t need any database changes, so if something isn’t working as expected its a simple matter to move back to an earlier release. In contrast, if we only ever moved from major releases v1 to v2 (which will almost inevitably involve changing a database schema) then performing a rollback becomes much more challenging.

Thus far Orbital has made four distinct releases (v0.1, v0.1.1, v0.2 and v0.2.1), with v0.2.2 due out next week. If you’re interested in seeing (roughly) what’s in the pipeline don’t forget our Pivotal Tracker can tell you more.