An environment, in the traditional sense, is defined as the surroundings in which a person, animal, or plant lives or operates. It’s where you exist, operate and thrive. The definition of an environment in the computer systems context would be the surroundings in which code, software or applications live or operate. Or simply, an environment is the surroundings where your code runs.
There are many types of environments for software systems. Development environments, production environments, pre-production environments and staging environments, to name a few. All of these types of environments are just qualifying the purpose of the surroundings your code is running in. Each environment has a purpose. A development environment is where your code runs when you are developing your software. A production environment is where your code runs when it's in front of end users, i.e. in production.
A staging environment (sometimes called a pre-production environment) is the environment where your code is 'staged' prior to being run in front of users so you can ensure it works as designed. Uses of the staging environment can be for automated tests, or for QA teams, Product Managers and other stakeholders to validate features and functionality that have been developed according to specification. Staging environments are critical to building software, but building them is costly and time consuming so many organizations only have a single one.
Traditionally most organizations rely on a single staging environment for their developers. As an organization grows, this becomes a major bottleneck in delivering software quickly. Because developers have to share time on the environment, it has to be carefully maintained as tests finish and data is changed. The last developer on the staging environment may have changed it in a material way causing confusion and issues for the next developer to use the environment. Maintaining this critical resource becomes incredibly important and incredibly difficult as the complexity and size of an organization grows.
So why do most organizations rely on just one staging environment? The reason is usually unintentional if you think about the evolution of the development organization from the earliest days. When you have one or few engineers, a single staging environment is sufficient. The complexity of your systems are low and keeping a staging environment up to date is manageable.
As the organization grows and complexity increases, evolving the environment ecosystem becomes a tax that most organizations don’t pay. They move fast and furious on new product features while doing their best to keep their infrastructure up and running. By the time product velocity has slowed, the complexity of their systems makes duplicating environments incredibly difficult. And now they’re faced with an expensive effort to play catch up and try to remove the bottlenecks around a single staging environment.
The organization has two choices, invest in solving the problem or live with slowing product velocity. The cost to solve the problem is high in all scenarios. They can hire specialists to continue manually managing more environments or they can invest in building a platform to automate the creation of environments. There are tons of problems to solve including keeping environments in sync with production, ensuring data is representative of production in pre-production environments, automatic creation of environments, moving code from one environment to another, etc… Unfortunately most organizations can’t afford to invest heavily in infrastructure so they choose to live with the single staging environment and just accept slowing product velocity.
For those companies that choose to invest in building an automated solution in-house they do so with the belief that building a platform to enable developers to move quickly will pay off in the long run. And for companies that have the resources to pull this off, they end up with a distinct competitive advantage. Companies such as Facebook, Google, Apple, Netflix invest heavily in infrastructure and tooling for this exact reason. As of this writing, Facebook has 338 open infrastructure roles, Google has 1072. There is a reason the big guys are investing here, it gives them a competitive advantage but it’s clear it’s not cheap.
What is a company to do? Invest heavily? Build internally? Buy off the shelf? There are solutions on the market, including Release that will reduce the cost dramatically. You can read more about this in our overview of the tradeoffs of building vs. buying a solution to staging environment management.
Higher product velocity means features can be released faster to customers.
What benefits do you gain as an organization if you can enable your organization with on-demand staging environments?
It's no wonder the big companies invest so heavily in DevOps and infrastructure employees. They’ve built internal systems that remove development bottlenecks and environment scarcity.
For organizations to compete in the modern software development age, environment management is a critical element of any organization that wants to move fast. On-demand staging environments are necessary to unlock the potential of your teams and are the development resources that are most needed to deliver ideas into the world.