How to Choose a CI/CD Platform

Any organization that practices DevOps must have a Continuous Integration/Continuous Delivery, or CI/CD solution in place. But the specific CI/CD platform that a team chooses can vary widely. There are many available, each with a different set of features.

Here’s what to look for in a CI/CD platform and how to find the best solution for your needs.

What is CI/CD?

CI/CD refers to the set of processes that teams use to plan, build, test, deploy and manage software. By connecting these processes together in an automated and consistent way, DevOps teams can achieve rapid, efficient Software Distribution cycles.

What is a CI/CD platform?

A CI/CD platform is a tool or service that provides all of the core functionality teams need to implement CI/CD.

CI/CD platforms make it simpler and faster to perform CI/CD operations. You could build a CI/CD pipeline on your own by setting up a different tool to cover each major area of functionality. That would mean deploying a Continuous Integration server to manage your codebase, build automation tools to compile your software, a test automation framework to test it and so on. But setting up each of these components individually would take a lot of time. Even assessing the available DevOps tools to find the right one for each category can be a time-consuming process.

With a CI/CD platform, you get tools to address all of the core CI/CD processes in a single, integrated package. Not only is a CI/CD platform easier and faster to deploy, but the integrations necessary to connect each stage of the CI/CD process with others are configured out of the box. The Continuous Integration server within a CI/CD platform automatically feeds into build and test automation tools, for example, with minimal setup required by the user.

Why CI/CD platforms are important to DevOps

The value of a CI/CD platform extends beyond simply making it faster and easier to implement CI/CD. CI/CD platforms also bring consistency to DevOps by providing a common set of tools that DevOps teams can use to collaborate across an organization. Without a CI/CD platform in place, each team might use a different set of tools, leading to less efficiency.

CI/CD platforms can also help DevOps to scale. Most platforms are designed to work well whether your team delivers a single app and deploys once a week, or delivers a hundred apps with multiple deployments every hour. As your software delivery operation grows more complex and involves more code and deployments, then, CI/CD platforms can scale with it.

CI/CD platforms may also offer the benefit of making it easy to collect metrics that allow teams to track the performance of their CI/CD operations. For example, they can measure how many deployments they achieve per day, or how long it takes to get a new feature from the planning stage to the deployment stage. Although you could collect these metrics on a CI/CD pipeline that you build yourself using disparate tools, it would be much harder to do in the absence of out-of-the-box tool integrations for tracking CI/CD metrics.

Features to look for in a CI/CD platform

Again, a variety of CI/CD platforms exist. Some, like Jenkins, are standalone products. Others are managed services offered as part of public clouds, such as Azure DevOps and IBM Cloud Continuous Delivery. There are also hosted services like GitLab that provide hosted CI/CD platforms but are not tied to a specific public cloud.

When evaluating solutions like these, there are several features and areas of functionality to consider.

Flexible integrations

The best CI/CD platforms provide flexibility regarding how they integrate with other tools and services. For example, a CI/CD platform that allows you to deploy applications to multiple clouds, or that can integrate with multiple third-party security tools to check source code and container images for vulnerabilities, will deliver more value than a platform that supports only one specific set of tools.

Flexible deployment architecture

Likewise, CI/CD platforms that give users the option of hosting them on-premises or in the public cloud are beneficial to businesses that want a flexible hosting architecture. This flexibility is important in situations where you decide to migrate to the cloud and want to take your CI/CD platform with you, for example. Or, you may want to run your CI/CD processes on your own infrastructure, where it may be easier to meet security or compliance requirements.

Fast deployments and rollbacks

The time it takes to deploy an application — which means moving a new version from testing into production — can be one of the biggest bottlenecks in the CI/CD delivery chain. To minimize the risk of deployment delays, choose a platform that automates deployment for you.

The ability to deploy quickly also enables fast rollbacks, which teams sometimes need to perform in order to fix a problem that has occurred in production. A rollback is a reversion to an earlier version of an application. The faster you can deploy, the faster you can redeploy an earlier application release in order to perform a rollback.

Canary releases and blue/green testing

Canary releases and blue/green testing are methods that allow teams to deploy new versions of software to some users before others. They minimize the potential impact on end-users of a problematic new release.

Executing canary releases and blue/green testing requires a more complex deployment pattern and fine-grained control over which versions of an application go to which users first. CI/CD platforms that offer features for configuring granular deployment rules make canary releases and blue/green testing easier to perform.

Measure pipeline health

As noted above, collecting metrics about the performance of your CI/CD operations is important for measuring the delivery pipeline’s health and finding ways to improve CI/CD. Platforms that have built-in support for tracking data such as deployment time and rollback frequency make it easy to monitor pipeline health.

CI/CD is the foundation for DevOps

CI/CD platforms provide a fast and easy way to lay the foundation for DevOps. But not all CI/CD platforms offer the same features. To get the most out of CI/CD, look for a solution that offers advanced functionality, such as support for canary releases, flexible deployment models and CI/CD analytics.