One of the problems quickly encountered when any new team adopts a Continuous Build is that builds become slow. Enforcing a Build Time Limit can help, but ultimately if all of your Continuous Build runs as one big monolithic block, there are limits to what you can do to decrease build times.
One of the main issues is that you don’t get fast feedback to tell you when there is an issue – by breaking up a monolithic build you can gain fast feedback without reducing code coverage, and often without any complex setup.
In a Chained Continuous Build, multiple build stages are chained together in a flow. The goal is for the earlier stages to provide the fastest feedback possible, so that build breakages can be detected early. For example, a simple flow might first compile the software and run the unit tests, with the next stage running the slower end-to-end tests.
With the chain, a downstream stage only runs if the previous stage passed – so in the above example, the end-to-end stage only runs if the build-and-test stage passes.
As with a Continuous Build you need to have a clear escalation process by which the whole team understands what to do in case of a break. Most teams I have worked with tend to stick to the rule of downing tools to fix the build if any part of the Continuous Build is red – which is strongly recommended. It is important that if you do decide to split your continuous build into a chain that you don’t let the team ignore builds that happen further along the chain.
Build Artifacts Once vs Rebuild
It is strongly suggested that you build the required artifacts once, and pass them along the chain. Rebuilding artifacts takes time – and the whole point of a chained build is to improve feedback. Additionally getting into the habit of building an artifact once, and once only, will help when you start considering creating a proper Build Pipeline (see below).
And Build Pipelines
Note that a chained build is not necessarily the same thing as a Build Pipeline. A Chained Continuous Build simply represents one or more Continuous Builds in series, whereas a Build Pipeline fully models all the stages a software artifact moves from development right through to production. One or more Chained Continuous Builds may form part of a Build Pipeline, and a simplistic Build Pipeline might not represent anything other than Chained Continuous Builds, but Build Pipelines will often incorporate activities more varied than compilation or test running.
Fast Feedback vs Fast Total Build Time
One thing to note is that by breaking a big build up into smaller sections to improve fast feedback, counterintuitively you may well end up increasing overall build time. The time to build and pass artifacts from one stage to another adds time, as does dispatching calls to build processes further down the chain. This balance has to be considered – consider being conservative in the splits you make, and always keep an eye on the total duration of your build chain.
Tooling can be complex. Simple straight-line chains can be relatively easily build using most continuous build systems. For example a common approach is to have one build check in some artifact which is the trigger point for another Continuos Build to run. Such approaches have the downside that the chain isn’t explicitly modelled, and reporting of the current state of the chain ends up having to be jury rigged, typically through custom dashboards. More complex still is dealing with branching chains.
Continuous Build systems have got more mature of late, with many of them supporting simple Chained Continuous Builds out of the box. TeamCity, Hudson and Cruise and others all have some form of (varying) support. Cruise probably has the best support for running stages in parallel (caveat: Cruise is written by ThoughtWorks, the company I currently work for), and has some of the better support for visualising the chains, but given the way all of these tools are moving expect support in this area to get much better over time.
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