Friday, July 5, 2013

What's a Release?

I recently stumbled over the ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library), a commercial IT certification outfit which charges 4 figure fees for a variety of "training modules", with a dozen or so required to earn you a "master practitioner" title...

Their definition of a release is:
A Release consists of the new or changed software and/or hardware required to implement approved changes. Release categories include:
  • Major software releases and major hardware upgrades, normally containing large amounts of new functionality, some of which may make intervening fixes to problems redundant. A major upgrade or release usually supersedes all preceding minor upgrades, releases and emergency fixes.
  • Minor software releases and hardware upgrades, normally containing small enhancements and fixes, some of which may have already been issued as emergency fixes. A minor upgrade or release usually supersedes all preceding emergency fixes.
  • Emergency software and hardware fixes, normally containing the corrections to a small number of known problems.
Releases can be divided based on the release unit into:
  • Delta release: a release of only that part of the software which has been changed. For example, security patches.
  • Full release: the entire software program is deployed—for example, a new version of an existing application.
  • Packaged release: a combination of many changes—for example, an operating system image which also contains specific applications.
Even though this definition does pretty much represent a consensus impression of the nature of a release, I think the definition, besides being too focused on implementation details, places too much emphasizes on "change".

Obviously, when viewing a succession of releases, it makes a lot of sense to talk about deltas and changes, but that is a consequence of producing many releases and not part of the definition of a single release.

A release is a snapshot, not a process. The question should be: "what is it that distinguishes the specific snapshot we call a release from any other snapshot taken from our software development history?"

The main point is that the release snapshot has been validated. A person or a set of people made the call and said it was good to go. That decision is recorded, and the responsibility for both the input into the decision and the decision itself can be audited.

In theory, every release should be considered as a whole. In practice, performing complete regression testing on every release is likely to be way too expensive for most shops. This is the reason for emphasizing the incremental approach in many release processes.

There is nothing wrong with making this optimization as long as everyone does it in full awareness that it really is a shortcut. Release managers need to consider the following risk factors when making this tradeoff between speed and precision:
  • Do I really know all the dependencies in order to evaluate the effect of a single change?
  • Do I really understand all the side effects?
  • Do all the stakeholders understand and agree with the risk assessment?
The ITIL discussion of the difference between major/minor/emergency really reflects the different ways stakeholders go about validating a release.

The ITIL discussion about packaging really means that a release is published, released out of the direct control of the stakeholders.

Incorporating these two facets results in my version of the definition of a release as:
A validated snapshot published to a point of production with a commitment by the stakeholders to not roll back.
I think this captures the essence better:
  • A release is a state, not a change.
  • A release represents a commitment by the stakeholders.
  • A release is published, which really means it has escaped the from the control of the stakeholders. Outsiders will see what is, and there is nothing the stakeholders can do about it.
To be fair, the ITIL definition isn't really that far off: replace "approved set of changes" with "approved set of features", and we're pretty much in agreement. But the tone makes the music, and the emphasis on state instead of change forces the discussion to always be about the whole product, and separates the "what we want" from the "how do we get it".

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