Automation options in software configuration management

Software development offers some extremely efficient ways to simplify recurring tasks through automation. The elimination of tedious, repetitive, monotonous tasks and a resulting reduction in the frequency of errors in the development process are by no means all facets of this topic.

(c) 2011 Marco Schulz, Materna Monitor, Ausgabe 1, S.32-34
Original article translated from Deutsch

The motivation for establishing automation in the IT landscape is largely the same. Recurring tasks are to be simplified and solved by machine without human intervention. The advantages are fewer errors in the use of IT systems, which in turn reduces costs. As simple and advantageous as the idea of processes running independently sounds, implementation is less trivial. It quickly becomes clear that for every identified possibility of automation, implementation is not always feasible. Here, too, the principle applies: the more complex a problem is, the more complex its solution will be.

In order to weigh up whether the economic effort to introduce certain automatisms is worthwhile, the costs of a manual solution must be multiplied by the factor of the frequency of this work to be repeated. These costs must be set against the expenses for the development and operation of the automated solution. On the basis of this comparison, it quickly becomes clear whether a company should implement the envisaged improvement.

Tools support the development process

Especially in the development of software projects, there is considerable potential for optimization through automatic processes. Here, developers are supported by a wide range of tools that need to be skillfully orchestrated. Configuration and release management in particular deals in great detail with the practical use of a wide variety of tools for automating the software development process.

The existence of a separate build logic, for example in the form of a simple shell script, is already a good approach, but it does not always lead to the desired results. Platform-independent solutions are necessary for such cases, since development is very likely to take place in a heterogeneous environment. An isolated solution always means increased adaptation and maintenance effort. Finally, automation efforts should simplify existing processes. Current build tools such as Maven and Ant take advantage of this platform independence. Both tools encapsulate the entire build logic in separate XML files. Since XML has already established itself as a standard in software development, the learning curve is steeper than with rudimentary solutions.

Die Nutzung zentraler Build-Logiken bildet die Grundlage für weitere Automatismen während der Entwicklungsarbeit. Einen Aspekt bilden dabei automatisierte Tests in Form von UnitTests in einer Continuous-Integration-(CI)-Umgebung. Eine CI-Lösung fügt alle Teile einer Software zu einem Ganzen zusammen und arbeitet alle definierten Testfälle ab. Konnte die Software nicht gebaut werden oder ist ein Test fehlgeschlagen, wird der Entwickler per E-Mail benachrichtigt, um den Fehler schnell zu beheben. Moderne CI-Server werden gegen ein Versionsverwaltungssystem, wie beispielsweise Subversion oder Git, konfiguriert. Das bewirkt, dass der Server ein Build erst dann beginnt, wenn auch tatsächlich Änderungen im Sourcecode gemacht wurden.

Complex software systems usually use dependencies on external components (libraries) that cannot be influenced by the project itself. The efficient management of the artifacts used in the project is the main strength of the build tool Maven, which has contributed to its strong distribution. When used properly, this eliminates the need to archive binary program parts within the version control system, resulting in smaller repositories and shorter commit times (successful completion of a transaction). New versions of the libraries used can be incorporated and tried out more quickly without error-prone manual copy actions. Libraries developed in-house can be easily distributed in a protected manner in the company network with the use of an own repository server (Apache Nexus) in the sense of reuse.

When evaluating a build tool, the possibility of reporting should not be neglected. Automated monitoring of code quality using metrics, for example through the Checkstyle tool, is an excellent tool for project management to realistically assess the current status of the project.

Not too much new technology

With all the possibilities for automating processes, several paths can be taken. It is not uncommon for development teams to have long discussions about which tool is particularly suitable for the current project. This question is difficult to answer in general terms, since every project is unique and the advantages and disadvantages of different tools must be compared with the project requirements.

In practical use, the limitation to a maximum of two novel technologies in the project has proven successful. Whether a tool is suitable is also determined by whether people with the appropriate know-how are available in the company. A good solution is a list approved by management with recommendations of the tools that are already in use or can be integrated into the existing system landscape. This ensures that the tools used remain clear and manageable.

Projects that run for many years must undergo modernization of the technologies used at longer intervals. In this context, suitable times must be found to migrate to the new technology with as little effort as possible. Sensible dates to switch to a newer technology are, for example, a change to a new major release of the own project. This procedure allows a clean separation without having to migrate old project statuses to the new technology. In many cases, this is not easily possible.


The use of automatisms for software development can, if used wisely, energetically support the achievement of the project goal. As with all things, excessive use is associated with some risks. The infrastructure used must remain understandable and controllable despite all the technologization, so that project work does not come to a standstill in the event of system failures.

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