About Those “QA” Environments…

DevOps is about getting developed software to users faster and getting feedback from that software back to developers faster. The notion of a clean cycle with very low latency is a compelling vision. Most IT shops are struggling with how to get there and many must maintain a division between the full production environment and the test environments that lead to production. Some of the reasons are historical, some are managerial, and some are truly related to the business environment in which that organization operates.

Fortunately or unfortunately, most shops have plenty to do before they need to worry about tying production in more directly. The state of QA environments is usually relatively weakly managed. Part of that is historic – the environments are not viewed as very important and it is never quite clear who owns keeping them properly current to the production environment. Part of this is the traditional focus of narrowly testing features of the application to minimize test cycles. And part, too, is a historical view that lab configurations did not matter as long as they were ‘close enough’ for testing features.

Of course recent lessons are teaching us that the historical approach is not necessarily conducive to rapid iteration of software. We are also learning that theoretically small changes to the production environments can potentially invalidate theoretically tested deliverables. Combined with the advent of very good rapid provisioning systems, automated configuration management tools, and highly virtualized infrastructures there are few reasons to not have a first-rate QA environment.

But is the paradigm of QA “environments” really the right paradigm for how we approach rapidly releasing features into the wild? As teams try to lessen the notion of a big, standing lab environment for testing software, the approach looks somewhat less like traditional testing and more like qualifying a new feature for use in the system. This is a subtle difference. “Quality Assured” and “Qualified for Use” are two different notions. One says you delivered what you set out to deliver. The other says you know it works in some situation. Some would say that “Quality” implies the latter, but I would answer that if you have to parse a definition to get a meaning, you probably are using the wrong word.

But words only matter to a point, it is the pardigm they represent that is ultimately interesting and impactful. There are extreme examples in the “real” world. For example, just because a part is delivered with quality to its design goals does NOT mean that it is certified for use in a plane. As someone who flies often, I view this as good.

So the question I would ask is whether you simply test to see if it meets design goals in some hopefully representative lab somewhere or do you use DevOps techniques to truly qualify releases for use in the real production environment.

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