The Power of Standardisation

A couple of recent events made me see the value of company-internal standardisation in a way that I hadn’t before. Obviously, reusing standardised solutions for software development is a good thing, as it is easier to understand them. But I’ve always rated continuous evolution of your technologies and choosing the best tool for the problem at hand higher. I’m beginning to think that was wrong, and that company-internal standards are or can be a very important consideration when choosing solutions.

Let’s get to the examples. First, we’ve had a set of automated functional regression tests that we can run against our sites for quite some time. But since the guy who developed those tests left, it has turned out that we can’t run them any more. The reason is that they were developed using Perl, a programming language that most of the team members are not very comfortable with, and that the way you would run them involved making some manual modifications to certain configuration files, then selecting the right ‘main’ file to execute. We’ve recently started replacing those tests with new ones written in Java and controlled by TestNG. This means it was trivial for us to run the tests through Maven. Some slight cleverness (quite possibly a topic for another blog post) allows us to run the tests for different combinations of sites (our team runs 8 different sites with similar but not identical functionality) and browsers using commands like this:

mvn test -Pall-sites -Pfirefox -Pchrome -Pstage

This meant it was trivial to get Hudson to run these tests for us against the staging environment and that both developers and QA can run the tests at any time.

The second example is also related to automated testing – we’ve started creating a new framework for managing our performance tests. We’ve come to the conclusion that our team in the EU has different needs to the team in the US that maintains our current framework, and in the interest of perfect agility, we should be able to improve our productivity by owning the tools we work with. We just deployed the first couple of versions of that tool, and our QA Lead immediately told me that he felt that even though the tool is still far inferior to the one it will eventually replace, he was really happy to have a plain Java service to deploy as opposed to the current Perl/CGI-based framework. Since Java services are our bread and butter at Shopzilla (I’ve lost count, but our systems probably include about 30-50 services, most of which are written in Java and use almost RESTful HTTP+XML APIs), we have great tools that support automated deployment and monitoring of these services.

The final example was a program for batch processing of files that we need for a new feature. Our initial solution was a plain Java executable that monitored a set of directories for files to process. However, it quickly became obvious that we didn’t know how to deal with that from a configuration management/system operations perspective. So even though the development and QA was done, and the program worked, we decided to refit it as one of our standard Java services, with a feature to upload files via POST requests instead of monitoring directories.

In all of these cases, there are a few things that come to mind:

  • We’ve invested a lot in creating tools and processes around managing Java services that are deployed as WARs into Tomcat. Doing that is dead easy for us.
  • We get a lot of common features for free when reusing this deployment form: standard solutions for setting server-specific configuration parameters, logging, load balancing, debugging, build numbers, etc.
  • Every single person working here is familiar with our standard Java/Tomcat services. Developers know where to find the source code and where the entry points are. QA knows where to find log files, how to deploy builds for testing and how to check the current configuration. CM knows how to configure environments and how to set up monitoring tools, and so on.

I think there is a tendency among developers – certainly with me – to think only about their own part when choosing the tools and technologies for developing something new. So if I would be an expert in, say, Ruby on Rails, it would probably be very easy for me to create some kind of database admin tool using that. But everybody else would struggle with figuring out how to deal with it – where can I find the logs, how do I build it, how is it deployed and how do I set up monitoring?

There is definitely a tradeoff to be made between being productive today with existing tools and technologies and being productive tomorrow through migrating to newer and better ones. I think I’ve not had enough understanding of how much smoother the path can be if you stay with the standard solutions compared to introducing new technologies. My preference has always been to do gradual, almost continuous migration to newer tools and technologies, to the point of having that as an explicit strategy at Jadestone a few years ago. I am now beginning to think it’s quite possible that it is better to do technology migrations as larger, more discrete events where a whole ecosystem is changed or created at the same time. In the three cases above, we’re staying on old, familiar territory. That’s the path of least resistance and most bang for the buck.


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