By now, it’s common knowledge that the later a bug is detected in the software development life cycle (SDLC), the longer it takes and the more expensive it is to fix that bug.
In 2017, the Ponemon Institute found that it cost around $80 on average to fix a defect detected early in the SDLC and around $7,600 to fix the same defect if it was detected in the production stage.
Cost of Fixing Defects
While these numbers can be debated, it’s clear that early detection of defects can save organizations significant time and money while enabling those organizations to deliver higher quality software more rapidly. For these reasons, many organizations are implementing shift left testing practices, including in microservices environments.
Shift left is a set of practices intended to find and prevent defects early in the software delivery process instead of during the testing and maintenance stages. The idea behind shift left testing is to improve software quality by making actionable test signals and feedback available as early in the SDLC as possible.
Here, we’ll highlight how shift left testing, in combination with test automation, can better enable both innovation and fast delivery of high-quality software. We’ll also address some of the challenges involved in implementing shift left testing in microservices environments, as well as introduce a valuable strategy for successful microservices implementation.
Shift Left Testing Benefits
The waterfall model of development involved the explicit passing of responsibilities between highly specialized design, development, QA, and release teams. It also involved lengthy feedback loops.
Scrum and agile methodologies made the entire SDLC more flexible and nimble by introducing sprints and allowing more frequent iterative development and delivery. Further, DevOps and DevSecOps focus on removing the silos between development, operations, and security through tooling and automation. As a result, the time to market and quality have improved dramatically. Adding shift left testing into the mix better positions teams to handle the broad range of responsibilities from the design stage through the maintenance stage as effectively as possible.
Shift left testing focuses on prevention rather than detection. Shift left benefits include the following:
- Increase efficiency by eliminating bugs earlier in the SDLC.
- Reduce human errors and associated costs.
- Increase delivery speed and reduce the time between releases.
- Improve the quality of software.
- Gain a competitive advantage.
It may be helpful to think of shift left testing like this: Test early and in parallel with development, instead of the traditional waterfall model of development followed by QA testing.
Shift Left Testing Challenges in a Microservices Environment
By structuring an application as a collection of loosely coupled, independently deployable services, a microservices architecture enables frequent delivery of large, complex applications.
While shift left testing practices bring many benefits, shift left testing also comes with three challenges that organizations must address when implementing it across a decentralized, microservices-based stack:
- Building and managing each microservice separately reduces development time. However, implementing shift left testing at the microservices level means shift left practices must be applied to each individual microservice.
- Microservices developers can choose the programming language and service dependencies best suited to their development needs. However, as a result, shift left testing practices need to be implemented and managed across different programming languages and dependencies.
- To ensure that microservices function as expected, teams usually run integration tests, end-to-end tests, and performance tests that assess functionality in the context of the larger stack. Shift left testing is especially challenging in the microservices context because of the complexity of testing against the stack.
Microservices, each with their own SDLC pipeline
Pipeline Scaling Considerations
Several classes of automated shift left tests can be integrated into the DevOps pipeline, including unit tests, integration tests, performance tests, and security tests. Different microservices will have different testing needs.
The key is to apply shift left testing practices to each microservice while maintaining the flexibility and decentralization of those microservices. The ideal workflow system and DevOps pipeline implementation must simplify pipeline creation while enabling development teams to manage the pipeline and requiring minimal input from DevOps and platform teams. In other words, shift left practices must be tailored to the specific needs of the microservice in question to make the testing process scalable and easy for development teams to manage on a continuous basis.
As just one example, GitHub Actions and similar CI/CD pipeline tools enable development teams to use GitOps-based practices to configure, manage, and administer the entire pipeline for their microservice while leaving infrastructure testing and testing that relies on or affects other parts of the system to DevOps teams.
Test Environment Considerations
Test environments are environments where unit tests, integration tests, performance tests and security tests can be run on an isolated collection of microservices and configurations. The nature and quality of these test environments directly correlate with the effectiveness of shift left testing.
A cloned production or staging environment can be used for testing when the number of microservices is low and overall complexity is relatively low. However, once an organization reaches a threshold number of microservices or a threshold level of complexity, runaway infrastructure costs and operational burdens make such environments untenable.
In response, some organizations rely upon smoke testing (minimal viable stability testing) and mock-based integration testing early in the SDLC. While such tests can prove useful in the near term, deferring essential testing to a later stage in the SDLC often introduces test signal and validity problems in the staging environment and can lead to delivery delays and serious issues with software quality.
So how can shift left testing be used successfully in a microservices environment? The solution involves the use of scalable, ephemeral test environments.
Ephemeral Shift Left Testing Environments
The availability of high-quality test environments is a common bottleneck for organizations looking to scale shift left testing practices. Using a few high-fidelity staging environments for signal testing can slow the release process. More to the point, it tends to slow down the entire SDLC and increase stack instability over time.
Ephemeral test environments offer a fundamentally different approach. These sandbox environments use isolated environments that enable users to test independently without impacting other users. In particular, they enable isolation while sharing resources (e.g., external cloud dependencies and hosted databases) using application-level multitenancy instead of the resource duplication approach in traditional environments.
The idea is that microservice test environments can be used to test changes against a much larger stack of services. Because multiple tests can be conducted at the same time, test coverage and resource efficiency vastly increase.
High-quality sandbox environments can spin up in seconds and scale to tens of thousands of microservices. In fact, each pull request, branch, or commit can have its own test environment without significantly increasing infrastructure and operational costs. Any change, no matter how small, can be tested in isolation to ensure performance and stability against the entire stack.
Shift Left Testing Solutions for Microservices
A microservices-based organization looking to scale shift left testing across the organization must first address several challenges. Considerations include the need to apply testing practices to separate microservices, the need to accommodate different programming languages and service dependencies and the need to test against the stack.
The right tooling and automation are needed before shift left testing practices are scaled across the organization. In addition, a cultural shift may be required in order to help developers understand the ways in which shift left testing can expedite and improve the core functionality that they are developing.
To apply valuable shift left testing practices in a microservices environment, organizations should consider using ephemeral sandbox environments. Using the right set of tools in a sandbox environment can enable development teams to test microservices throughout the SDLC. In doing so, organizations can ensure those services follow security best practices and perform exactly as intended, both independently and against the stack–all while reducing costs, speeding time to market and improving software quality and user satisfaction.