Developer Productivity and Vertical vs Horizontal Deployments

I’ve recently had many conversations related to developer productivity. In order for a developer to be productive, he must have control over enough of the application lifecycle to complete his work. When a developer gets stuck at any point in the application lifecycle, his productivity drops, which can often reduce morale too.

One question I’ve been asking is: how much of the application lifecycle needs to fall under the scope of the developer? In other words, how broad is the scope of the application lifecycle that needs to be available to a developer in order to keep him productive. Does the developer need to be able to create and configure his own server? If there is an application stack, should he also be empowered to deploy other applications and services in the stack on which his component depends? As development efforts increase, should capacity be increased to accommodate the individual development environments for each developer?

Vertical vs Horizontal deployments

As I was working through these questions with some colleagues, I began to make a distinction between a vertical and a horizontal deployment.

A vertical deployment is one that requires deploying all tiers and components in order to test any one of them. While this can create a less volatile development environment, it also increases the complexity and resource footprint required to develop an application. It also complicates integration, since any work done on other components or tiers in the stack are not available until the vertical development deployment is refreshed.

A horizontal deployment is one that focuses only on one component or tier. It is assumed that other application dependencies are provided elsewhere. This decreases development overhead and resource needs. It also speeds up integration, since changes made to other horizontal components become available more quickly. This can also increase developer productivity, since a developer is only required to understand his application, not the full stack.

In the above diagram I illustrate that many applications now have dependencies on other applications. This is especially true for microservices. However, it should not be necessary to deploy all related applications in order to develop one of them. I propose instead a horizontal deployment where all related applications are moving toward an integration deployment and that all development, QA and other validation work operate against the integration layer. For a team following the github flow, the initial branch, the pull request and finally the merge should represent stages in the horizontal progress toward production ready code. This also has the advantage of catching most integration problems in the development and QA stages, because production ready code can make it more quickly into the integration tier and is immediately available to any integrating applications.

Capacity benefits

One of the most obvious benefits to the horizontal approach is a reduced strain on compute and storage capacity. Sharing more of the vertical stack leaves available infrastructure resources free for other application teams. Naturally containers would accentuate this benefit even more.

When to go vertical

There are times when a developer will need to deploy other elements in the vertical stack. These may include database changes that would interfere with other development teams or coordinated modifications to interdependent applications. Even in these scenarios, it may be beneficial to develop against another team’s development deployment rather than their integration deployment.

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About Daniel Watrous

I'm a Software & Electrical Engineer and online entrepreneur.

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