Promote the Bits or Promote the Code

Release management in the enterprise has design patterns just like software has. A design pattern in the software design is a way to communicate recurring structures of code and logic in applications architectures. They help technologists in various roles communicate intent and structure in a succinct way. If both people are aware of a particular design pattern, then a huge short-cut in communication can be reasonably be taken. Invariably in my consulting career when doing a tools-focused engagement, we start to talk about how to do automated builds and deployments. One of the first decisions is whether or not to couple build and deployment and this is a “release” pattern that enterprise teams are choosing all the time.

Promote the Code.

This pattern was earlier defined commonly as “Source Code Promotion Modeling” – essentially having a branch for every environment, and create a build for every branch that would deploy to that environment. This can be represented by the diagram below showing the artifacts that would typically be created in this situation.

This has traditionally been less expensive to implement. It requires developer skillsets in branching and merging which are ubiquitous, and it requires very easy configuration strategy for builds. The downsides are two-fold: (1) Code is recompiled in each environment and therefore what was tested in a lower environment is not being promoted, but rather in best cases the actual source code was that gets recompiled and (2) Depending on implementation, even the same code cannot be guaranteed to be the same in the lower environments if reliance on merging with the possibility of two-way merging can happen.

Promote the Bits

In this world, the source code is compiled once, but released/deployed potentially man times. This has the result that the compiled binaries that were tested in a lower environment are identical to the ones that are being promoted to the higher environments. Typically, the application is just re-configured in each of the environments that are required. The downside has traditionally that this is certainly more sophisticated and thus more expensive to deploy in enterprises that are just adopting new patterns. What is changing however is the cost to move to this pattern has started to decrease in the Microsoft community due to Microsoft’s entry into the market through “Release Management for Visual Studio.” Having an anointed Microsoft solution, in reality, has pushed this scenario more and more into the mainstream of enterprise software development.

Neither of these concepts are new. Using Team Foundation Server and Release Management, both scenarios are fairly easy and cost effective to implement. I have found that these two phrases: Promote the Bits or the Code — definitely have simplified the conversations with my clients and allowed us to move into the things that in fact do vary from client to client. If you’re small and looking for some quick wins – Promote the Code can work. If you’re subject to regulatory compliance such as SOX or other – Promote the Bits looks to be the answer.