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What is a staging environment?

David Thor - 2022-04-20

Within any software development process, “production” is essentially the final environment in a sequence of places any code will be deployed. Before code is pushed to production, it must be extensively tested, and therefore be ready for public availability.

This extensive testing is easier said than done. Developers write tests to ensure their features can handle unexpected user behavior, but what about odd infrastructure behavior? Running a production environment is an exhaustive and expensive effort. As developers, we don’t want to wait for code to land in production only to find out that it doesn’t behave as intended. This is where the staging environment comes in.

Staging environment == Dress rehearsal

Think about Hamilton as an analogy for the different software development environments. To prepare for the show’s debut on Broadway, the actors needed to practice individually to learn their lines, rehearse, and then ultimately perform before an audience.

Early on in the prep for the show, after each actor is cast, they begin to develop their individual performance. They learn their lines, the beats of the music, and the staging they can expect. This is where they define what they personally bring to the role. Each performer will refine and problem-solve their entire performance before it moves on to the next phase of development.

Similarly, developers begin work on their code in a development environment, usually a local environment on their personal computer. This is where all of their initial branching and commits take place. They’ll also do preliminary testing before moving on to the next stage, staging.

Before Daveed Diggs rapped a single line on Broadway, he worked out the bugs of his performance in rehearsal. In development, cast rehearsals are analogous to the second pre-production environment, staging. To the greatest extent possible (and we’ll talk more about what’s possible later in this post), the staging environment should reflect what end-users will see in the production setting.

So, once our full Hamilton cast has had a chance to develop their performances solo (development) and rehearse timing, choreography, and interpretation all together (staging) it’s time for their Broadway debut. In this analogy, that’s our stand-in for pushing code live to a production environment and exposing it to end-users.

In order for a feature to be ready for use in a production environment, all problems must have been addressed. New products and features are deployed in the production environment. All testing is done in the development and staging environments. If there are any bugs in the production environment, the user will be able to notice them immediately. And no one wants a disgruntled or unhappy customer.

After all those stages, how do problems persist into the production environment?

Even if you have an absolutely perfect staging environment that is an identical copy of production in every way, chances are high that you’ll still experience issues in production once in a while. Despite your rigorous testing, the introduction of your audience is the chaos factor you can never predict. One day there will be a heckler in the audience, during another show someone might get sick mid-show, or maybe someone had internet issues exposing race conditions.

Your users will always be the wildcard you can’t fully predict. You can still make sure that your infrastructure and operations are top-notch with a polished staging environment.

Best practices for staging environments

A strong development process includes well-organized environments for pre-production, both staging AND development. Both developers and operators need the right tools and to follow some simple best practices to deliver good code fast. Let’s walk through some important considerations:

CI/CD

Engineering teams can quickly and reliably push code with continuous integration and continuous delivery. CI/CD is a collection of techniques and operational methodologies.

Consistent and automated application development and testing is the technical goal of continuous integration. Consistently is the operative word here. Consistent integration guarantees that the code being tested and packaged is of the highest quality possible. It’s easier for teams to push more commits when they don’t have to wait for manual processes to complete.

As continuous integration ends, continuous delivery begins.

CI/CD is a complete pipeline for integrating and delivering new code to a target system. The CI component aids in the automation of integration. The CD component completes the process by distributing the applications to the desired locations. Automated testing, for example, occurs when code is submitted via a testing environment. This is more convenient than having an engineer test changes by hand and enter the results in a spreadsheet.

Monitoring

Monitoring isn’t just a concern for operators managing production environments. In pre-production environment, monitoring has many advantages including ensuring that code modifications haven’t harmed production environment monitoring!

Monitoring your testing environments, test cases, and alternative user pathways can reveal a lot about what might go wrong when your code is deployed. Modern software makes it hard to follow every user path and bug, so monitoring helps you track future errors, even if tests pass.

Conditional monitoring for all your dev environments is essential for agile development teams and it actually speeds up code modifications.

Debugging and testing

Effective testing and debugging procedures ensure that your team is always producing high-quality code. Automated testing, deliberate logging, and bug tracking are all part of this.

Many of these systems were previously on-site and/or manually managed. Now, many of these systems can be accessed remotely. Cloud-based development environments and the desire for automated testing have spawned new tools.

Infrastructure parity

Tests and monitoring are crucial, but their value is limited if the infrastructure hosting the application is different in your staging environment than it is in production. The whole point of this dress rehearsal is to make sure that every application performs the same way when it’s show-ready.

When creating your staging environment, make sure you’re using all the same providers and tools: the same cloud provider, virtualization tools, API gateways, DNS providers, and more. Even something as simple as the latency differences between CDN providers can make a difference in how your application performs.

Running an exact clone of production that isn’t used to serve users can be expensive. You’ll have to decide for yourself if you’re willing to eat those costs, or if there are shortcuts. If you’re looking for cost-saving opportunities in staging, you can start by changing your autoscaling policies so that you’re not running as many replicas by default. So long as you’re running more than one replica and you’ve instrumented pre-release load testing, you’ll likely get a lot of coverage with a much smaller bill.

Building sustainable staging environment processes

Building and maintaining the infrastructure for one production-grade environment is hard. Having to do it a second time for staging only compounds the effort required. You might be tempted to think that your team would want to minimize their investment in staging to preserve resources. But honestly, the testing phase is simply too important to ignore.

But what if we stopped thinking about the staging environment as a second production environment, with duplicative costs and responsibilities. Instead, what if we thought about environment production as a singular objective? We’re software engineers after all – our jobs are the pursuit of repeatable processes. And fortunately for us, this is NOT a Broadway play. Our work is virtual and the resources we need are available on demand. If we can generate and maintain a single production-grade environment, why can’t we use the same processes to generate and maintain many?

We built Architect.io for exactly this reason – to streamline not just the ability to deploy to existing environments but to simplify and democratize the ability to create and manage new environments. With our platform, every developer can create staging environments (aka previews) entirely on their own. Whether it be for everyday development or to share a preview of your changes for your product manager, Architect makes it easy for everyone to build their own staging environments.

Learn more about staging, production, and modern continuous delivery

We’re passionate about helping teams achieve greater development velocity. We also care that every line of code you write is supported by a secure, stable environment that always has exactly what you need (and isn’t slowed down by what you don’t!).

If you’d like to learn more about any of these topics, or how to get started with Architect.io, hit up our blog:

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