What is release management?

Release management ensures that as needs evolve, deployment services evolve as well—scheduling tasks, assigning resources and managing delivery.

Release management is an IT term used frequently across a range of industries. At its most basic, release management describes overseeing the development, testing, deployment, and support involved in designing and releasing software. Release management incorporates goals and long-term strategic planning, as well as the individual tactical steps employed to help reach those goals.

Many businesses take release management even further, beyond the technical process of deploying IT products and features, and into managing adoption, business-process changes, and other internal factors related to rollout.

Release management plays a key role in the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL). Also referred to as release and deployment management, it is one of the main processes under the Service Transition section of ITIL. Release management in ITIL focuses on quality and customer experience as primary to product and service deployment, while also promoting cost-effective business practices. In ITIL terms, release management addresses changes and improvements to existing products or services.

ITIL represents perhaps the most trusted and widely-used framework for technology governance. In this framework, release management ensures that development and operation teams can coordinate together, sharing relevant knowledge and resources. This helps teams effectively conduct multiple projects at the same time, providing a structured approach for ideating, employing, testing, and introducing new versions of components or services.

As separate project teams each introduce changes to the production environment, they need to be able to coordinate together effectively. Release management strives to align these teams with unified processes, policies and guidelines for every stage of the release. The purpose is to ensure that everyone involved is fully aware of what resources are available, how these resources are being used, what changes are being made by which teams, and that any subsequent changes follow a prescribed, standardized sequence of tasks. This sequence is called the release management process.

As you move through the release management process, you will encounter six essential steps, detailed below.

Graphic showing the different aspects of release management.

Requesting

The very first step in release management is recognizing the need for new product features or changes to established functions or services. Change requests go through predetermined channels, and are evaluated based on need, feasibility, cost, and other criteria. It’s worth noting that not every one of your change requests will receive approval; those that do move onward into the planning stage.

Planning

The planning stage includes creating and setting up the release management system. As such, setting aside more time for this stage will likely be necessary.

In this stage, the business defines the structure that the release will take. A precisely defined structure will give your team a roadmap to follow as they move through subsequent steps and push the release through to deployment and beyond. Your release plan can be as simple as a checklist, detailing actions and tasks to be completed in their chronological order, as well as teams or individuals responsible for each. That said, many businesses find that detailed digital workflows provide the clearest direction, ensuring that everyone is working towards common goals and that essential requirements are being met.

Effective release plans usually include milestones, responsibilities, estimated timelines, deadlines, and a clear, comprehensive view of the project as a whole. The release plan is something that teams can refer back to throughout the entire process. Establishing a repeatable release management system usable across multiple releases allows you to speed up future processes and better coordinate efforts, company wide.

Designing and building

With approval, ideation, and planning behind you, you now enter actual development. Designing and building the product, component, or function requires addressing any issues that may arise, and converting your project’s established requirements into software. This stage overlaps somewhat with the next stage.

Testing and revising

Throughout the designing-and-building stage, the in-progress product should be sent through a real-world testing environment. As the various functional and non-functional tests uncover problems and bugs in the software, the release is sent back for revision. Most releases will go through multiple iterations, moving back and forth between stages in an iterative process until the release is certified for final review.

Performing final review

Before deployment, the release should go through a final review, taking into account any new information or insights acquired during testing. The QA team will analyze and inspect the final product to ensure that it meets the standards and requirements established in the planning stage. Although some bugs may sneak through into deployment, this final review should provide your teams with enough information to be able to handle any problems that might occur at or after product launch.

Deploying

With final approval from the project owner, the product is sent into production and can be released to the end user. Any supplementary educational material, including change notifications, operating guides, and necessary training resources will need to be released at the same time. Be sure to tailor these resources not only to the end user, but also to any company-side support teams that may need to field user questions or assist in troubleshooting.

The deployment stage represents the culmination of the release management process, but the process doesn’t end at launch. Teams will need to follow up to access the release, identify any bottlenecks or hurdles, and improve the process for future products.

Be aware that businesses of various sizes will likely follow a very similar end-to-end process, with essentially the same steps. However, smaller organizations with fewer projects may find that their version of the release management process is much less complex when compared to larger businesses. As a company scales its releases to match its growth, and as teams and departments expand to include more people, release management expands as well, requiring more advanced support tools.

Organizations that have fully embraced automation may consider release management an unnecessary, outdated process. But while methodologies such as Agile might increase the speed of software deployment, they do not address problems of siloed teams and inefficient delivery processes. Release management helps keep everyone on track and looking at the bigger picture. It does this by reducing risk, optimizing deployment efficiency, and providing increased customer value.

Reducing risk

Standardized requirements and governance policies that can be repeated across multiple projects help eliminate many of the risks associated with product release. Release managers can adapt individual processes to better meet the needs of specific releases, and scale these processes as the business continues to grow.

Optimizing deployment efficiency

By aligning focus on increasing positive value, reducing negative value, and improving development and release times, release management provides a clear path to improving software-deployment efficiency.

Increasing customer value

Incorporating customer feedback and using an iterative process of development and testing, release management gives businesses the opportunity to continually increase the value delivered to the end user.

Release management also provides a valuable service within the DevOps methodology. As with Agile, DevOps’ automation and decentralization may appear to make release management obsolete. But despite what DevOps provides in terms of fast deployment and simultaneous product development, there will always be a need to coordinate relevant teams, align business priorities, standardize processes, and ensure high-quality products.

Coordinating with DevOps managers, release managers should monitor continuous integration and ensure that positive customer value is being improved, bugs and other issues are being quickly and effectively addressed, and that new features are integrating correctly into the established release management process.

As previously stated, release management aligns teams with common objectives designed to improve product quality and the customer experience. With this in mind, you can evaluate the success of your release management initiatives using the following indicators:

Deployment aligns with timeline goals

Was the release launched by the established deadline? Were individual tasks completed on time?

Deployment fits within budget constraints

Was the project completed within budget?

Current users are unaffected

Were current users able to continue using the product or service without any negative interruption?

New and current users are left satisfied

Did the release overall improve the end-user experience?

ServiceNow Release Management brings the power of advanced automation to the release management process. Automate approvals and governance to reduce bottlenecks and keep development moving forward. Assess risk and detect conflict to reduce change failure. Employ automated frameworks to improve coordination between DevOps and IT. Even use the built-in Change-Success-Score to evaluate and automatically approve low-risk changes, while the Change Advisory Board Workbench provides you with a dedicated location to meet with other decision makers to discuss and approve more-complex changes.

Release management allows your business to coordinate software changes and releases with a focus on your customers, while still aligning with your business priorities. ServiceNow takes release management further, automating essential steps and tasks, and giving you the tools and resources you need to optimize your processes. Learn more about ServiceNow Release Management.

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