Neil Middleton

Continuous deployment with Heroku

17 April, 2012

One of the current trends in the agile world is that of deploy soon, deploy fast and deploy often. The idea here is that code should not be sitting still for long. Your developers should be coding a feature, and getting it out to the world as soon as possible to you're able to gain feedback on that feature and iterate as you feel the need to. There's a number of things that developers can do in order to make this process smoother, ranging from the simple things such as testing to more the more advanced such as setting up continuous integration systems and automating as much of the workflow as possible.

One of the current steps that a development team can make, that seems to generate the most debate in the office is that of continuous deployment. Continuous deployment is the practice of automating your software deployment into a particular environment, be it staging or production, and thus removing the need for someone to have to step in and carry out what should be a pretty much 100% automatable task.

Are you insane?

But what are the benefits of continous deployment? Well, for starters as a developer, you know that if the commit you are about to make is going to be live to the world in only a few short minutes that you will probably want to double check everything you have written and make sure that nothing will be broken by adding your change to the codebase. This forces you, as the developer, to sense check what they are doing and think about how features should make their way into the codebase.

Another potential benefit is that of deploying features piecemeal bit by bit as they are developed (as your coding and deploying continuously you have to develop features this way, unless you want to not commit and integrate for ages). This leads you to develop features in a more of an iterable fashion, but also allows you to get feedback on the parts you have deployed before you've finished building the rest.

Some people would argue that feature branches are the order of the day here, taking the code to one side and developing a feature whole before merging it back into master in one big chunk when complete. Whilst this is fine, you are disconnecting your feature development from everything else that is going on in your codebase and potentially introducing risk. Something you need to consider later on down the line.

So, how can we manage this with Heroku? Well, luckily there's a very simple way.

Continuous deployment with Git

In order to host your application on Heroku, Heroku require you to provide your codebase via the Git source control system. Anything that is pushed into the master branch is deployed and live, whilst all the other branches sit there minding their own business.

Now, I wouldn't advocate using Heroku as your main source store as there are much better alternatives out there such as Github, but it does demonstrate that your code can be live with a simple git push heroku master automagically fired from your workflow when appropriate.

But hang on, lets backtrack for a minute. Earlier I talked about the double checking developer committing his code into a tree that immediately goes live. Doesn't this introduce some risk? Well, yes it does. Your developer is still able to push broken code into production, and the ramifications are significantly more than just pushing it into Git only. So how to we mitigate this risk? How can we ensure that the code we are automatically deploying passes all of our carefully thought out tests without issue?


(for information on continuous deployment with TravisCI, please see this post)

Enter the Heroku addon, Tddium stage left. Tddium is essentially the continuous integration version of Heroku's hosting platform. By simply setting up tddium, setting up your test suite and pushing the code, you have an automated way of knowing that whatever is in your chosen branch is passing tests or not, and whats more you're doing it in an environment that's detached from your local workstation, so no deep down configuration or software installation that might make your suite pass locally are around to mess things up.

Once you have this up and running you know your codebase is golden, how do we deploy? Well, there's a couple of ways. Firstly, Tddium will let you setup a git URL that will be pushed to on a successful suite pass. By entering your Heroku Git URL here Tddium will automatically run a deploy whenever tests pass, thus achieveing the goal of continuous integration with a good level of sense checking. Another way, if you're a little more adventurous is to write your own HTTP endpoint that a service like Github can hit and get Tddium to push your Git code there instead.


At the end of setting this up, you're now able to develop code, testing it locally, and push that code into your Git repo, knowing that there is nothing left for you to do. Your code will be on it's way to whichever environment you have configured (remember, you can start with staging only) and there's nothing more you have to do.

Whilst continuous deployment initially might sound quite scary there are numerous benefits to be had. You need to take more care with the commits you make, and you have to consider how you develop your code. You also need to consider the resilience of your deploy process and what happens should deploys not go as cleanly as desired.

But that's all good right?

I'm Neil Middleton.

I'm an engineer at Heroku based in the UK and the author of 'Heroku, Up & Running' for O'Reilly.

I'm a massive fan of keeping things simple, straight-forward and bullshit free.