ITIL 4 and Cloud: The Release Management Practice

ITIL 4 Foundation Edition states that “The purpose of the release management practice is to make new and changed services and features available for use.

All leading cloud service providers understand the importance of release management to business – that getting products and features into the hands of customers, being able to iterate and evolve products, is literally the “getting stuff done” practice. Therefore, all cloud service providers offer – to varying degrees of quality – free practice guidance and tools to be the best at release management in the cloud.

The release management practice is where ITIL 4 (and ITSM) meets DevOps. In the book Accelerate, half of the four key lead metrics (out of thirty-six) of high-performing organizations are related to release management:

  • Lead time for changes
  • Deployment frequency

Although not cloud-specific, it’s important to first understand the application architecture and workload composition because different layers of these have different release management approaches. For example, changes to the “layer of innovation” might be happing multiple times a day and be small changes like colors on a user interface. Other layers such as systems of record (for instance, a Customer Relationship Management database) might change very infrequently and be larger change bundles that impact other dependent services. And often releases are bundled across layers meaning that careful implementation and backout procedures are needed. As the ITIL 4 guidance says:

Releases can range in size from the very small, involving just one minor changed feature, to the very large, involving many components that deliver a completely new service.”

What the cloud does for ITIL release management is to give you the tools and capabilities to handle the full range of releases.

There is an abundance of proven cloud practices to get the release management practice right, and most of the tools in the cloud are free because cloud service providers know that successful release management practice and getting stuff done drives customer success and maintains customer loyalty. All of which is good news for IT service managers and release managers who are using the ITIL 4 release Management practice with cloud scenarios.

How release management works in the cloud

There are a number of cloud features that improve the ITIL release management practice:

  1. Cloud services such as AWS Elastic Beanstalk that enable blue/green deployments.
  2. Use of managed cloud services to reduce the release management burden (the cloud service provider does the release management for the services they manage).
  3. High levels of automation capabilities to roll releases forward and backward.
  4. High levels of release management tool integration from an integrated development environment (IDE) to production.
  5. Decoupling capabilities to reduce the scope, and therefore the batch size, of each release.

The key to your success with cloud-based release management is to leverage all of the above capabilities as part of your cloud-native release management practice.

You can measure your success through the metrics of Lead Time and Frequency. Lead Time can be measured in tools like Pivotal Tracker that tracks story duration and batch size with story points. Frequency is easy to measure if the releases go through a pipeline where activity is measured.

Cloud dos and don’ts for release management

The following dos and don’ts are general guidelines for great release management on the cloud.

Do:

  • Apply the correct release management approach per layer. Please see Gartner research on Pace-Layered Application Strategy for more background.
  • Push the needle toward smaller release batch sizes, with shorter lead times and higher frequency.
  • Reduce your release management practice burden by using higher-order managed cloud services – for instance, you don’t need to update the database software if the cloud service provider is managing it for you.
  • Use the blue/green release management approach cloud services where applicable, such as with AWS Elastic Beanstalk.
  • Use an automated release pipeline for continuous delivery.

Don’t:

  • Use the same-old manual release management practices following release “run books” that are out of date and brittle.
  • Don’t perceive blue/green practices as nice or specialist or developer/DevOps-only. ITIL 4 embraces DevOps practices, especially in the release management practice.

The ITIL release management practice in the cloud is a solved problem. The practices are well-documented, and the tools are largely free. So, don’t make it a problem for your organization.