What is continuous development?

Continuous development is an iterative approach to software application development in which updates are released in small, ongoing batches.

Not long ago, essentially all software-development processes followed the same, basic approach. The software would go through various development phases, including implementation, testing, revising, etc., until it was eventually ready to be deployed to the customer. And while there would naturally be some need for ongoing maintenance or after-release patches, essentially the entire product was developed upfront and in its entirety, before the end user ever had the opportunity to encounter it.

Unfortunately, this meant excruciatingly long development cycles, and often led to a poor customer experience — after all, if the released product is not fully up to user expectations, returning to revision and testing phases can be difficult and time consuming, leaving customers unfulfilled.

Continuous development is a solution to these issues. Part of the Agile methodology, and incorporating many DevOps processes, continuous development works in smaller increments and allows software teams to release their products quickly, making continuous, ongoing improvements after deployment.

Continuous software development is a broad term that encompasses a range of Agile principles, including CI/CD, that are an alternative to Waterfall development methods. As such, it brings with it several Agile-related advantages. Some of the most prominent benefits of continuous development include the following:

Improved quality

They say that no strategy survives contact with the enemy, and this military aphorism may be adapted to software delivery; you can do as much testing and revising as you’d like, but often the test that really shows where improvements are needed is the test performed by the end user. Continuous deployment allows organizations to easily pivot, update, improve, and perform course corrections on applications after they’ve landed in the hands of the customer. This means that you can continue to improve your software quality, until it reaches its best possible form.

Easier updating

Bug-free software applications are the dream of every development team. And with continuous development, that dream can become closer to reality. By not limiting updates to pre-deployment cycles or the occasional large-batch update, continuous development makes it easier to run tests, incorporate feedback, and identify and remediate errors. Updates can be performed at any time, without the hassle of having to go through with a large-scale release.

Increased productivity

A vital aspect of DevOps and Agile is automation. Similarly, automation plays a key role in continuous development, making it possible for any ongoing changes or improvements to be automatically bug tested and uploaded, without forcing developers to handle these tasks manually. The result is the ability to free up experienced teams from repetitive, time-consuming responsibilities, and instead allow them to devote their efforts to more-strategic concerns. Even in highly regulated environments, it is now possible to automate governance processes to ensure audit and regulatory compliance during continuous delivery.

Reduced project risk

Releasing a large batch of software updates carries with it inherent risk — if there’s a defect, it can be extremely difficult to identify and isolate from among all the other changes and sending the entire application back for further maintenance takes a lot of time. Incremental development makes it much easier to validate changes, one at a time, minimizing the impact on other development tasks within the project.

Decreased cost

Better quality, reduced risk, improved productivity, and the other advantages of continuous development all lead back to one major benefit: reduced spend. As developers can do more with less, and as organizations enjoy reduced development cycles and easier maintenance, the overall cost of delivering a project that meets users' needs decreases. That means a greater ROI for software development.

At its core, continuous development accelerates software development. This allows development teams to accomplish more in less time and gives customers faster access to applications that are more routinely improved through ongoing updates. More specifically, the importance of continuous development is tied to the following:

Immediate feedback

It can be difficult for developers to step away from a project, only to be drawn back into it days, weeks, or even months later. Continuous development is essentially continuous feedback; developers can gather and respond to feedback in near-real time, making slight corrections where necessary, and continuing their work on specific projects while the details are still fresh in their minds.

Early identification of problems

Employing automated testing not only takes some responsibilities off of the developers’ plates, it also makes it possible to quickly and accurately identify bugs, vulnerabilities, defects, and errors. Developers can then address these issues as they arise, eliminating problems within the code before they can compound into something more damaging.

Quality gate implementation

In DevOps, quality gates are checks of code integrity. If the code doesn’t meet a certain, predefined threshold of quality standards, then the gate may halt, or even fail, a build. Gates may be set up to ensure that every project meets certain criteria, not only for quality of code, but also for security and other factors. Continuous development, when combined with the right automation solutions, empowers teams to enforce quality gates and automatically deliver all coding changes for inspection and validation. Quality gates can become a part of a broader governance strategy that integrates with other systems to retain compliance.

Close alignment between development and production

The traditional Waterfall approach generally takes the form of a kind of assembly line, with team members doing their part, and then sending the project on to the next person in the sequence. Continuous development, on the other hand, keeps developers involved throughout the entire production cycle. This means more ownership in the final project, for a “you wrote it; you own it” culture based on vital DevOps principles.

Although implementing a CI/CD tool may be an essential step towards continuous development, they are not strictly synonymous. CI/CD stands for continuous integration/continuous delivery, two different practices that work together to help support continuous development. The CI/CD pipeline makes it possible for automated software delivery across coding, testing, and delivery. Additionally, continuous development also includes other practices, such as continuous deployment and continuous testing. Here, we take a close look at the differences in each practice:

Continuous integration

Applying changes from different developers, merged back to the main branch as quickly as possible. Changes are validated through automated tests, to avoid integration-related issues.

Continuous delivery

Continuous delivery picks up where continuous integration leaves off, automatically implementing all verified code and pushing it from the build stage into testing and/or production environments. Continuous delivery moves beyond automated testing and employs an automated release process.  

Continuous deployment

Continuous deployment effectively eliminates a step in the delivery process. Where continuous delivery pushes code changes into other pre-release environments, continuous deployment skips all of that and pushes every test-validated update live, into the hands of the end user.

Continuous testing

Continuous testing is a practice within continuous development that interacts with every other practice. Automated, ongoing testing helps ensure that the changes moving forward are effective and of sufficient quality. Without continuous testing, there would be little to prevent continuous integration, delivery, or deployment from implementing or pushing forward erroneous or subpar code changes.

Continuous development allows organizations to take a more-agile approach to software development. However, without the right tools and automation solutions, achieving continuous development may be prohibitively difficult. ServiceNow combines capabilities from Strategic Portfolio Management, DevOps Change Velocity (ITSM Pro), and the Platform to add automation and insight to Continuous Software Development and provide Value Stream Management. With continuous development connected to ServiceNow, businesses can accelerate change while preventing failures, give their developers more time in their own tools, and capture new, actionable insights for easier auditing and more-effective strategic planning.

Let continuous development optimize the way you build your software; try ServiceNow today.

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