Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Developer Tip - One Code Stream To Rule Them All

Here's something that I recommend that might fly in the face of conventional wisdom regarding the use of your CVS to manage multiple branches of code in the corporate world - if at all possible, DON'T!

It's not because the tools can't handle them - most modern CVS tools are adequate for managing separate code streams. It's the overhead in managing the streams that will kill you. Every bug found will need to be tracked once for each stream, fixed once for each stream, and tested once for each stream. If you have different code in modules along the branches, the fixes are more complex, since you can't just plug in the same lines of code.

If you have a fluid feature set for a given release, as is unfortunately common, you'll find that features jump between releases depending on:
  • Progress - if the work can't be done in time, the feature moves to the next release.
  • Contractual obligations - someone signed papers promising it earlier than previously scheduled.
  • Hail Mary business deals - the future of the company depends on closing this deal, and this feature is the only way to do that.
  • Customer release cycles - a common problem. The customer wants the feature by time N, and the schedules are drawn up, and suddenly the customer decides they need 6 weeks of certification testing to accept the new code you give them, meaning that you have to pull the important features back into the current release to get it to the customer before the certification deadline.
  • Customer A doesn't want Feature X, but Customer B does. Several releases later, Customer A wants Feature X, after a lot of divergence in the code streams.
So how to solve this?

For every feature in the product, have an activation flag. You may need more than one flavor of this, to account for the differences between optional features that everyone gets to choose to activate or not, and bespoke features that only some customers will be allowed to activate, or even know about. In any case, build a library that will have a set of simple functions that will determine if a given feature is in use at runtime. Don't forget multi-valued options, like a staged conversion between file formats - you'll have a value for pre-conversion, mid-conversion [when both old and new formats are valid], and post-conversion.

Once a feature has been defined, write all the code to handle that feature in all of its incarnations, so that there is no need to branch your code stream. You may need to branch for customer-specific configurations to present the options in a desired manner, but that code should be very small, and managing it on a per-customer basis will not be taxing.

Another important facet of this is to concentrate the decision-making for a feature in as few places as possible, and have the rest of the code handle all possibilities without checking for feature activation. An example of this would be a system that talks to some specific type of equipment only if licensed. The communication code should be written to handle messages from all types of equipment, and the next layer up would be the code that decides to send messages to that type only if licensed, and to respond to any message from that type only if licensed. The fact that messages from an unlicensed type of equipment are passed up to the higher layer instead of being rejected at the lower layer is not a problem - the logic of licensing has no business in the communications layer of a system.

This will develop your system as both flexible and simple, and spare you the headaches of trying to port features into radically different code streams. Your CVS tool will present simple trees instead of briar patches of inheritance. If you use a database, the schema will easier to upgrade, since there will be no releases that have different parts of a later schema - they will all be the same, or newer ones will be supersets of older ones (barring removal of tables, in which case they will be subsets, but functionally complete subsets).

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