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DevOps and release management operations share a kinship with regard to software development lifecycle (SDLC), project management, and the IT infrastructure library (ITIL). DevOps release management encompasses activities involved in overseeing the design, planning, scheduling, testing, and implementation of the software release and delivery cycle.

Organizations mainly rely on DevOps team structures to boost the effectiveness of their software engineering, while adopting continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) mechanisms for improved efficiency. As the cherry on top, release management is integrated so the overall process is bolstered and software is delivered to customers quickly without compromising compliance, quality, or security.

In this article, I explain the importance and essence of DevOps release management, its best practices, and how to become an effective release manager. 

What Does a Release Represent in the Software Engineering Process?

Before you can adequately address release management, you need to understand what constitutes a software release. In the realm of software engineering, a release is either a new designed functionality or recently modified piece of software.

However, a release also encompasses the process of its creation and can constitute anywhere in scope from a new feature to a fully functional app version. A release also represents the apex of the software development process. 

DevOps teams typically set up various staging environments to test a release branch. A staging environment helps to create optimized deployments. It does so by allowing DevOps teams to validate assumptions on the release through testing and monitoring before it’s allowed to go into production.

A common DevOps practice among engineers is to devise a release plan that includes testing alpha and beta versions of the software prior to full release.

However, it should be noted that a release can also be a physical product, a download from a website, a push to a device, or an update from a web app.

What Is Release Management?

Release management coordinates and controls a software build through different iterations, stages, and various environments involved in the software deployment and release process. 

Release management is about reducing the risk, and unpredictability associated with the software release process. It is a general DevOps and ITIL process for managing the software delivery cycle.

With ITIL, release management is part of the transition to a new or changed service. ITIL manages this transition by codifying the lifecycle service updates that it entails. On the other hand, DevOps places an emphasis on encouraging visibility, communication, and collaboration throughout the continuous delivery aspect of the release cycle.

Different Types of Release Management

Release management isn't a monolithic process; there are various approaches that companies use to deploy a release branch.

DevOps Release Management

To reduce complexity in the task of building and maintaining applications, the role of the DevOps engineer emerged. It focuses on shrinking the bottlenecks between IT operations and software development.

In this software paradigm, collaboration and communication between developers and IT operators is interwoven from the start of the software development process. DevOps fosters accountability among groups involved in the project for the services they deliver throughout the entire software development lifecycle.

This results in a DevOps pipeline with quicker, more reliable releases and shortened feedback loops.

Release management ultimately benefits from safety nets and the shift-left approach in DevOps by virtue of moving testing, automation, and QA procedures much earlier into the delivery pipeline. However, release management still has to monitor applications, and infrastructure components, in addition to managing change orders and schedules.

Because of its usefulness in removing silos that have been isolating team members, DevOps release management is emerging as the most popular type of release management currently being adopted.

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Agile Release Management

The agile release management is built on the agile methodology. So, instead of focusing on major releases, agile release planning collapses release stages into multiple sprints or iterations. A sprint is a short period, typically a week, where a team works to conclude certain tasks; in this instance, a particular release of a software build.

A release change order is delineated by a sprint. Therefore, a new product increment represents the end of a sprint. Breaking down releases into several sprints reduces the complexity of the release process.

Who Is A Release Manager And What Do They Do?

A release manager oversees the release management process. This individual should be knowledgeable about deployment best practices, project management, DevOps tools, and automation. To improve the release process, the release manager should also know how to apply change management while keeping track of progress.

This role requires nimble thinking, and an in-depth knowledge of the release management tools that will well-serve a development team in different circumstances and at various stages of the release pipeline.

The Objectives and Advantages of Release Management

The complexity of modern software development has increased in leaps and bounds, especially in recent years. Part of the reason is that with digitalization and all it entails, software systems have simply become more widely used. And with this increased adoption comes more scrutiny, usability challenges, resource consumption, and hacker attacks.

The resultant effect of these factors has made software builds and releases more error-prone. Therefore, release management is integrated to reduce the overall chaos, and arrest the dangers that might lurk in the process. Other objectives that compel organizations to incorporate release management may include the following:

  • To provide a system for the predictable, reliable, and safe delivery of software.
  • To increase the number and rate of successful releases generated by an organization.
  • Granting the organization visibility into all software release activities.
  • Standardizing and streamlining an organization's release cycle processes.
  • Integrating release cycle best practices into a DevOps team's DNA.
  • To optimize release process components with automation.
  • Closely aligning the organization's business priorities with its IT operations.

However, release management has streamlined the process while ushering in these benefits and advantages for release managers:

Helping Regulatory Compliance

Release management helps to facilitate regulatory compliance through its comprehensive visibility and traceability. It helps bolster audit trails by identifying where each line of code change originated, and by whom. Moreover, organizations can do all this without compromising rapid release cycles.

Automating Configuration Management And Deployment Processes

Release management allows operations teams to automate release plans by incorporating automated testing, deployment automation, and DevOps automation.

Automation makes release management a reproducible and repeatable process, thereby making it much easier to manage and produce successful releases.

Minimizing Risks and Shortening The Time To Market Software Products

The release management improves communication, coordination, and productivity in the software delivery process. This is because it allows teams to interact and share information, even across geographic boundaries.

It typically incorporates best practices such as continuous integration, continuous delivery, and deployment automation that facilitate the quick production of quality software with reduced risk. These, in turn, allow companies to respond to market changes and demand much faster.

Standardization Of Software Release Management

Embracing release management as an integral part of DevOps practices helps to streamline the release process so that it becomes standardized. It creates a repeatable process that can be documented from the release record. 

This documentation is subsequently used to understand problem root causes and implement fixes, especially in post-deployment stages. 

Improves KPIs For Successful Releases

DevOps release management helps to establish the benchmarks necessary for building better software releases. Automation, version control, and quality control help development teams understand the metrics required to generate higher volume releases with low probability of failure in order to accelerate the time to release.

azure devops deployment screenshot
Azure DevOps Deployment and Release Infrastructure

The Difference Between Change Management And Release Management

IT service systems incorporate both change and release management to ensure DevOps teams are equipped to handle the speed, volume, and complexity of software development and delivery.

However, many people are often confused between the two. Although they are closely tied, release management and change management aren't the same. The most basic explanation is that change management serves as an input service to release management. Release management subsequently delivers the desired output in the form of a functional software artifact.

Change management activities protect the existing software application and environment in order to minimize disruption to IT services. As its name implies, it ensures the changes introduced into the system are beneficial, with minimal negative side effects. For instance, it balances the need for proactiveness and speed, with the associated risk that inevitably comes with change.

Release management packages the results of change requests and bundles them into a single release.

Release management revolves around installation processes, along with continuous delivery and/or continuous deployment activities. On the other hand, change management is largely concerned with governance. Thus, change management undertakes the task of handling change requests in an IT system, along with managing the attendant risks of the change.

4 Best Practices For Release Management

These are some of the rules of thumb and optimal practices you should model your release management pipeline towards:

Specify The Criteria For Release Success

It's important for release managers to establish clear acceptance criteria for the DevOps team to adhere to during releases. This ensures no one is left in doubt of the conditions that need to be met for a release to be deemed a success.

However, the most ideal acceptance criteria are produced through a collaborative effort between product owners, the QA team, and release managers. In addition, release managers need to allow room for flexibility so as not to hamstring their team's efforts to decipher what works best for their release processes.

Pushing Releases To A Well-designed Staging Environment

A staging environment is a testing environment and the last step in the deployment process before a release goes live. As a test environment, it enables DevOps teams to implement acceptance criteria faster and more rigorously with each release. It also enables release managers to ensure a release branch doesn't adversely impact customers or the live version of the software.

As a result, a staging environment should be designed to be as close to the live version and production environment as possible.

Give Quality Assurance A Seat At The Table

They say too many cooks spoil the broth; however, this adage doesn’t apply where quality is concerned. The more eyeballs you have on a product or process, the more likely its shortcomings and defects will be identified. Hence, ensure there's adequate collaboration and input from your quality assurance and quality engineering teams.

Use Automation Wherever Possible

Automation is a force multiplier and game-changer. Deployment automation helps to minimize errors while making faster release cycles possible. Moreover, investing in automation favorably positions an organization to improve its quality assurance processes. 

Improve Your Software Delivery With DevOps Release Management

Overall, release management boosts profitability while reducing risk, costs, and extra maintenance as it drives continuous improvement in software delivery.

To learn more about other relevant DevOps topics, I encourage you to check out other articles on our blog. Or simply subscribe to our newsletter.

By Eze Onukwube

Eze has a master's degree in communications with over 10 years of experience as a software engineer. His playground is at the intersection of technology, process improvement, and simplifying IT concepts.