Is an acceptance environment needed?

This is a subject that I have been wanting to write about for a while now and I am happy to say that I finally found the time while in an airplane*. I think I first discussed this question a few months ago with Wouter de Kort at the start of this year (2019.) Since then he has written an interesting blog post on how to structure your DTAP streets in Azure DevOps. His advice is to structure your environments as a pipeline that allows your code only to flow from source control to production, via other environments. Very sound advice, but next to that I wonder, do you need all those environments?

Traditionally a lot of us have been creating a number of environments, and for reasons. One for developers to deploy to and test their own work. One for testers to execute automated tests and do exploratory testing. And only when a release is of sufficient quality, it is promoted to the next environment: acceptance. Here the release is validated one final time in a production-like-environment, before it is pushed to production. The value that an acceptance environment is supposed to add, is that it is as production-like as possible. Often connected to other live systems to test integrations, whereas a test environment might be connected to stubs or not connected at all.

Drawbacks of multiple environments

However, creating and maintaining all these environments also comes with drawbacks:

  • It’s easy to see that your costs increase with the number of environments. Not necessarily in setting the environment up and maintaining it (since that is all done through IaC, right?) But still, we have to pay for the resource we use, and that can be serious money
  • Since our code and the value it delivers can only flow through production after it has gone through all the other environments, the number of environments has impact on how quickly we can deliver our code to production.

All these drawbacks are a plea for limiting the number of environments to as few as possible. Now with that in mind, do you really need an acceptance environment? I am going to argue that you might not. Especially when I hear things like: “Let’s go to acceptance quickly, so we do not have to wait another two days before we can go to production,” I die a little on the inside.

Why you might not need acceptance

So let’s go over some reasons for having an acceptance environment and seeing if we can make these redundant.

No wait, we do need an acceptance environment where our customer can explore the new features and accept their working, before we release them to all users.

While I hope that you involve your customer and other stakeholders before you have a finalized product, there can be value in customers having approve the release of features to users explicitly. However, is it really necessary to do this from an acceptance environment? Have you considered using feature toggles? This way you can release your code to the production environment and allow only your customer access to this new feature. Only after he approves, you open the feature up to more users. In other words, if we can ensure that shipping the new binaries to production, does not automatically entail the release of new features, we do not need an acceptance environment for final feature acceptance by the client. More information on feature flags (also called feature toggles), can be found here.

We need a production-like environment to do final tests

Trust me, there is no place like home. And for your code, production is home. The only way to truly validate your code and the value it should bring, is by running in it in production. An acceptance environment, even if more integrated with other systems and with more realistic data than production, does not compare to production. You cannot fully predict what your users will do with your features, estimate the impact of real world usage or foresee all deviating scenario’s. Here again, if you are using feature flags, that would be a much better approach to progressively open up a new feature to more and more users. And if issues show up, just stop the roll out for a bit or even reverse it, while you are shipping a fix.

Now, do you think you can go without an acceptance environment? And if not, please let me know why not and I might just add a counter argument.

Now, while I do realize that the above does not hold for every organization and every development team, I would definitely recommend to keep challenging yourself on the number of environments you need and if you can reduce that number.

 

(*) An airplane, where there is absolutly nothing else to do, is an environment I bet we all find inspiring!

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