What Is the CI/CD Pipeline?

5 min read

A practical guide to the continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD) pipeline.

The CI/CD pipeline is a group of practices known as continuous integration, continuous delivery and continuous deployment. Often used by DevOps teams, the CI/CD pipeline is a method that builds, tests and deploys code by using automation. The impact of this type of pipeline includes more frequent and reliable updates to software and applications and a more collaborative, agile workflow for DevOps teams.

What is the CI/CD pipeline?

The continuous integration/continuous delivery pipeline is an agile DevOps workflow focused on a frequent and reliable software delivery process. It is a framework that includes continuous integration (CI), continuous testing, continuous delivery (CD) and continuous deployment methods. Together, they are organized into a pipeline to produce high-quality software and application development.

The CI/CD pipeline uses test automation to identify potential issues earlier, push code changes to different environments and deliver applications to production environments. Test automation assesses anything from performance to API and security, and it is an essential element for quality control of the pipeline.

Ultimately, the ability to automate various phases of the CI/CD pipeline creates more reliable, faster and better-quality software and app releases as a whole.

    Automation and how the CI/CD pipeline works

    What is continuous integration?

    The CI/CD process begins with continuous integration. Continuous integration is a set of practices for development teams to create a consistent and automated way to build, package and test applications. By implementing small changes in code or adding new code, teams check for errors, monitor version control in real-time and automate functionality and unit tests. Code iterations and the early identification of issues happen automatically, and integration tests ensure new code or updates don't break an app. CI is considered a prerequisite for the continuous framework methodology.

    For a deeper dive into continuous integration, check out Eric Minick’s video on the subject: 

    What is continuous delivery?

    Next, continuous delivery supplies validated code changes made in continuous integration to select environments or code repositories (e.g., GitHub or a container registry). Code changes could be anything from updates or new features to bug fixes in applications or software. In CD, development teams use automation to reduce deployment time, decrease costs, scale software and deploy code.

    What is continuous deployment?

    The CD in the CI/CD process can also stand for continuous deployment. Continuous deployment automatically releases code changes to end-users after passing a series of predefined tests, such as integration tests that test code in a copycat environment to ensure code integrity

    Continuous delivery vs. continuous deployment

    The difference between continuous delivery and continuous deployment is in their approach to software or app release and level of pipeline automation. In continuous delivery, code automatically moves to production-like environments for further testing and quality assurance, and human intervention is required to move into production following successful tests. In continuous deployment, automation goes further. Once the code passes testing, the deployment to production happens automatically — there is no human approval needed.

    For a closer look at the difference between continuous delivery and continuous deployment, check out this video:

    How an organization applies the CI/CD pipeline and continuous framework depends on its business needs. For example, some agile DevOps teams need to release new or updated software repeatedly and as quickly as possible; other teams may not need to release as frequently in their workflow. The former will likely look to continuous deployment for its benefits in speed due to greater automation.

    The CI/CD pipeline phases

    From source code to production, the continuous framework phases make up the development lifecycle and workflow.

    The possible steps involved in a CI/CD pipeline are as follows:

    • Build: This phase is considered continuous integration and involves the creation and compiling of code.  Teams build off of source code collaboratively and integrate new code while quickly determining any issues or conflicts.
    • Test: At this stage, teams test the code. Automated tests happen in both continuous delivery and deployment.
    • Deliver: Here, an approved codebase is sent to a production environment. This stage is automated in continuous deployment and is only automated in continuous delivery after developer approval.
    • Deploy: Lastly, the deployment of the final product into production takes place. This stage is automated and occurs in continuous deployment. In continuous delivery, products or code are sent to repositories and then moved into production or deployment by human approval.

    Benefits of the CI/CD pipeline

    The most significant benefit of a CI/CD pipeline is the automation of the software release process.

    Additional benefits of the CI/CD process for development teams include the following:

    • Reduced time to deployment through automation: Development teams can utilize automation in continuous delivery and continuous development, speeding up the development lifecycle as a whole.
    • Decreased the costs associated with traditional software development: Fast development, testing and production due to automation mean less time spent in development and, therefore, less cost.
    • Continuous feedback for improvement: The CI/CD pipeline is a continuous cycle of build, test and deploy. Every time code is tested, developers can quickly take action on the feedback and improve the code.
    • Improved the ability to address error detection earlier in the development process: In continuous integration, testing is automated for each version of code built to look for issues integration. These issues are easier to fix the earlier in the pipeline that they occur.
    • Improved team collaboration and system integration: Everyone on the team is able to change code, respond to feedback and quickly respond to any issues that occur.

    CI/CD tools and configuration

    An effective CI/CD pipeline uses open-source tools for integration, testing and deployment. Correct configuration of your CI/CD process also impacts the success of the software development pipeline.

    The most common open-source CI/CD tool is Jenkins, an automated server used for automating CI/CD steps and reporting.

    When operating in a cloud environment, teams often use containers like Docker for packaging and shipping applications, and they use Kubernetes for orchestration. While Kubernetes isn't strictly for the CI/CD pipeline, it is used in many CI/CD workflows.

    No matter the CI/CD tools and plugins or configuration used for your pipeline, an essential focus should be to optimize and automate the software development process.

    The CI/CD pipeline and IBM

    When it comes to being enterprise-ready, IBM Cloud Continuous Delivery is the cloud infrastructure and experience made for DevOps. Build, deploy and manage your applications with toolchains, pipelines and tool integrations designed for DevOps with the power of the cloud.

    Less downtime, the ability to edit code from anywhere, assess deployment risk and identify source code vulnerabilities are key benefits of DevOps teams on the cloud. IBM Cloud Continuous Delivery offers cloud-native DevOps tools as a service — fully hosted and managed on the IBM Cloud.

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