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Ephemeral Environments and the Modern Release Process

Read Time 6 mins | Feb 9, 2024 7:51:45 AM | Written by: Narayan Sainaney

Introduction

Ephemeral Environments are disposable pre-production environments that are used by various members of the development team to test software under specific conditions. Ephemeral environments are an essential part of a modern DevOps process and integral to the development and efficient release of resilient software.

What are Ephemeral Environments

An environment represents an instance of your application & its infrastructure in a specific development stage. For example, development, staging, load testing, and user acceptance testing all represent software at various stages of readiness prior to release to production. An ephemeral environment is a short-lived environment that is torn down after the specific purpose has been fulfilled. This is in contrast to traditional long-running environments that are re-used with each version of the product. These environments are scaled-down versions of the production environment and are usually part of an automated DevOps deployment process.

Use Cases for Ephemeral Environments

As companies and products mature, the list of environments can expand greatly. Here is a non-exclusive list:

  1. Development & Testing
  2. Training and Education
  3. Security and Penetration Testing
  4. Load Testing
  5. Disaster Recovery Testing
  6. Short-lived Event Environments (e.g. for Webinars and Tradeshows)
  7. Compliance and Auditing
  8. User Acceptance Testing
  9. Schema and Data Migration Testing

Benefits of Ephemeral Environments

In contrast to long-lived environments, ephemeral environments have several benefits. These are:

  • Cost Control and Resource Efficiency - Ephemeral environments are discarded when no longer needed which helps in optimizing resource usage and reducing costs, especially in cloud computing environments where users only pay for resources during the time they are in use.
  • Isolation and Reduced Technical Debt - Ephemeral environments provide isolation from other environments and ensure consistency. Each new instance is identical, reducing the likelihood of configuration drift and ensuring predictable behavior. They are created with the latest configurations and technologies, minimizing the need for legacy system support.
  • Lower Maintenance Overhead - Since ephemeral environments are designed for short-term use, they often have fewer maintenance requirements. This can reduce the burden of ongoing maintenance tasks.
  • Development agility - These environments can be rapidly stood up to test irregularities that only show up under specific conditions. This can streamline the development and deployment process, facilitating quicker turnaround times for software updates and releases.
  • Reduced Security Risk - Tearing down, as opposed to leaving an environment that is not in use, reduces the attack surface of the overall system. This is especially relevant if production data is used to reproduce bugs and vulnerabilities.

Challenges of Managing Ephemeral Environments

As with anything new, there are some challenges to managing ephemeral environments. There is a learning curve to IaC tools as well as an organizational cultural shift. While these are one-time costs, organizations often defer making the switch until it is the right time to introduce Ephemeral Environments into the DevOps. As tools have matured, this argument is getting increasingly weak. There are however ongoing management concerns to consider:

  • Resource optimization - Teams need to have clear mechanisms for orchestrating and tearing down these environments. It can be tempting to re-use an existing environment to test additional issues or features and care must be taken to not drift into turning your ephemeral environment into a long running environment. You can also end up with too many environments and it can be difficult to track all of them.
  • Security Concern - Ephemeral environments, increase the attack surface of your infrastructure, can pose security risks. Unauthorized access, misconfigurations, and vulnerabilities can be introduced if security measures are not robust. If these environments are housed in the same cluster as other environments, components that have yet to be audited may introduce malware into other environments if not properly secured.
  • Workflow Integration - Integrating ephemeral environments into existing development and operational workflows can be met with some resistance. Ensuring that ephemeral environments work seamlessly with existing processes is essential for their successful adoption.
  • Data Management - Data persistence and management within ephemeral environments can be challenging. Regardless of whether the data is stored within or outside the environment, one has to consider data retention and disposal policies.
  • Time to Provision - These environments are often used for time-sensitive tasks. Long provisioning times can diminish the value of these environments as teams may resist tearing them down.
  • Fidelity concerns - It is often difficult to achieve the level of fidelity to the production environment. Services such as OAuth for instance do not allow wildcard redirects which makes it difficult to fully automate the provisioning of these environments.
  • Access Control - Organizations need to implement strict access controls to ensure that only authorized users can create, modify, or access these environments. Often times, multiple developers many need to access a given environment as issues are discover across application concerns. Organizations may use different infrastructure providers for ephemeral environments versus production so this increases the access management overhead for administrators.

What Ephemeral Environments require to work well

What is required for an ephemeral environment to work well varies to some extent on the application at hand. However, at a bare minimum, teams should have the following components in place:

  • Automation and Orchestration - Developers should use automation scripts to orchestrate the provisioning, scaling, and termination of ephemeral environments. This minimizes manual intervention and ensures consistency.
  • Configuration Management - Use configuration management tools to define and maintain the desired state of ephemeral environments. This helps prevent configuration drift and makes it easier for developers to switch between environments seamlessly.
  • Infrastructure as Code (IaC) - Define infrastructure configurations using code (e.g., Pulumi, Terraform, Ansible, CloudFormation) to make it easier to create and manage ephemeral environments. This approach enhances reproducibility and version control.
  • GitOps - Use version control systems like Git to manage configuration and code changes related to ephemeral environments. This facilitates collaboration, rollback, and auditing as well as protects against knowledge lost from team turnover.
  • Continuous Integration and Delivery - Your CI/CD pipeline has to have intelligence in order to stand up and deploy into these environments.
  • Access Control and Authentication - Enforce strict access control policies and authentication mechanisms to ensure that only authorized users can create, modify, or access ephemeral environments. This also helps to ensure costs controls based on quotas.

Given the above challenges and requirements, it may be tempting for organizations to delay adoption. Organizations may seek out a managed environment solution in the form of an opinionated development platform that is a magic black box that solves all of the above. While this is a great way to get started, it is highly recommended that this be a short term solution or something that is used purely during prototyping. It is critical that product teams have a deep understanding of the infrastructure that the software they are building runs on. While it may be impossible for everyone to understand every corner of the infrastructure, developers should at least have a clear understanding of the services and the underlying fabric where the software they build runs. In the event of a production issue, there is nothing more terrifying than realizing that you have no knowledge of how a magic black box functions and where the root cause issue lies. You can end up finding yourself at the mercy of a vendor who is not tuned to the customer scale you are addressing.

Logical Ephemeral Environments: a better way to manage the modern release process

Ephemeral environments are not new and are rapidly becoming a defacto part of the development process. A common issue with these environments is they are rigid and made up of static building blocks and run containers that take time to build, package and deploy. With Codezero’s Logical Ephemeral Environments, network traffic can be re-shaped in order to vastly increase the development lifecycle.

For example, assume you have a new billing API under development and the microservices that deliver this new functionality have been deployed into an environment for some integration testing. When changed, these microservices would have to be rebuilt and deployed. Instead, with Codezero, developers can reshape traffic and effectively create an environment that varies very slightly from the underlying rigid infrastructure.

One way to think about this is in terms of inheritance from Object Oriented Programming. An environment where a single service varies from the underlying deployed service via traffic shaping is, in effect, a new logical environment.

To test out logical ephemeral environments in Codezero, sign up for a trial or contact us for a demo with our technical team.

Try Codezero for free.

Narayan Sainaney