Release Management Explained in Depth


by Carlos Schults

The software development process today is very different from what it used to be 15, 20, or even more years ago. One of the most dramatic of such differences is undoubtedly the number and frequency of releases. Agile practices have revolutionized the modern software field, and one of the most enduring consequences of this revolution is that, nowadays, software is developed and delivered in increasingly shorter cycles. In such a scenario, having a stable release management strategy is imperative.

In this post, we’ll offer a comprehensive guide on release management. We’ll start by defining the term, explaining its meaning, and covering a little bit of its background. After that, we’ll begin covering the motivations behind its use. You’ll understand why release management is essential and why your organization should care about it.

Then, we’ll get a little deeper into the inner workings of release management. How does it work? What are its components? What are the practices it involves? Finally, we’ll take a good look at some of the crucial best practices for release management, before parting ways with some final tips.


What Is Release Management?

Let’s open the post by defining its topic. So, what is release management?

Wikipedia offers the following definition for the term:

Release management is the process of managing, planning, scheduling, and controlling a software build through different stages and environments, including testing and deploying software releases.

Technopedia, in turn, defines release management as follows:

Release management is the part of the software management process dealing with development, testing, deployment, and support of software releases to the end user. The team involved in this process is referred to as the release management team.

These definitions seem clear enough. They agree that, in short, release management is the process responsible for getting the software in the hands of the final user. But why would such a full-fledged process be needed in the first place?



Why Do You Need Release Management?

To understand why software organizations need release management, we must first define what we mean by “release” in the context of this post.

What Is a Release?

For the purpose of this post, “release” refers to a product release. A product release means the launch of either a new product or new features in an existing product. What matters is that whatever gets released is something that will generate value for users or customers.

The definition of release seems simple enough, right? However, it’s common for teams to confuse things and think that a release is comprised of just a deployment. As it turns out, the deployment is just the first step—there’s a lot more to a release than providing access to new features. It’d be useful to think of a release as the act of delivering and thoroughly supporting a new user experience.

When your team thinks of “release,” they should consider all of the tasks that come with delivering a new version of the software. For instance, you might have to update the project’s website with the date, version number, and release notes of the latest version. Other additional tasks may need to be performed, such as customer training or even social network updates.

In short, a release might be much more than just deploying some code and calling it a day. With this new definition in mind, it’ll become much easier to understand why software teams need a more involved release management process.

The Need for Release Management

Release management’s primary goal is to oversee the release of software features into production environments. The team needs to plan, schedule, and perform each release. By employing proper release management, companies can ensure that only software components (services, features, and so on) that were thoroughly tested and are up to the quality standards can reach the customers.

A stable release management process can also provide some additional benefits to the organization that adopts it. For starters, your customers will get new features and updates faster than before. Speed isn’t the only reward you get, though—security also comes with the package. Release management can reduce the likelihood of nonauthorized releases creating havoc in production, resulting in downtime and frustrated customers. In the same vein, the release management process, when properly applied, will result in a predictable schedule of releases. Such a schedule can help your organization minimize the risk and impact of deployments.

Finally, the release management process is a great tool to ensure deployed services meet customer requirements.



What Does Release Management Look Like?

Up until now, the post has mainly concerned itself with definitions. We’ve covered what release management is and proceeded to thoroughly define what a “release” means in modern software development. Then, we covered the “why” of release management, explaining why such a process is needed in the modern software development landscape.

Now we’re going to dive a little deeper on the details of release management. What does it involve? What are its components and standard practices? That’s what we’re going to see now.

Release Management Components Glossary

In this section, we’ll offer a brief glossary of some of the most critical components of a release management process.

  • Release pipeline. The complete path from planning a feature to successfully delivering it.
  • Release template. A template for a release pipeline. It should contain both automated and nonautomated tasks.
  • Release plan. An occurrence of a release template for a given release.
  • Release unit. A set containing one or more release artifacts, delivered into production together to implement the approved feature.
  • Release package. A package comprised of one or more release units that are deployed together.

Release Management Essential Practices

Now you can see that release management is a vast area that covers many different activities. What all of those activities have in common is that their goal is one and the same—deliver value to the customers. Despite being comprised of all of those different tasks, release management is defined by some practices that help manage the release process in a cross-functional manner. You’re now going to learn about the four essential practices that define release management, namely multi-project release coordination, environment management, automated release reporting, and continuous process improvement.

Multi-project Release Coordination

Software organizations will often work in massive releases that include several projects, and they need to keep a consolidated calendar for all of these projects. Such a calendar would include the deployment of the component projects to the enterprise environment.

Environment Management

This practice has to do with metrics. It consists of tracking requirements for the environments used for delivering software. It supports decision making about the provisioning of such environments.

Automated Release Reporting

This practice, like the previous one, is all about metrics. It refers to tracking metrics and KPIs (key performance indicators) related to every process and resource related to the releases, and the posterior display of such metrics for the interested stakeholders.

Continuous Process Improvement

The last one of the practices that define release management has to do with improving the process itself. Since you can’t improve what you don’t measure, it’s crucial to track and measure metrics that are related to the performed releases. By tracking these metrics across the whole pipeline, organizations can put an iterative approach in place in order to improve their delivery processes.



Release Management Is a Must for Modern Software Organizations

If software development were an animal, it’d be a dramatically different one than the normal biological beasts that exist in the world. While the latter evolve over the course of thousands or millions of years, the former changes almost daily.

When we compare the software development process we have today with the way things were one and a half decades ago, we see striking differences. One of the most obvious is that the number of deployments skyrocketed. Many software teams will deploy to production dozens of times a day. That’s fantastic news—it’s a testimony to agile methodologies and the wisdom of shorter and more frequent release cycles.

In order to support this ever-increasing number of releases, though, software organizations can’t rely on manual, outdated practices. Instead, they must adopt a more sophisticated approach to releases, and that approach is release management.

This post explained release management from the ground up. We’ve defined it, explained the reasons why you need it, and covered the practices and components that define it. Of course, there’s more to release management than we could’ve covered with a single blog post, so now it’s up to you to continue your studies. Continue reading about this process, learn about available tools that can help you, and keep checking this blog, where you’ll certainly find more useful content on this topic and many others.

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Carlos Schults

This post was written by Carlos Schults. Carlos is a .NET software developer with experience in both desktop and web development, and he’s now trying his hand at mobile. He has a passion for writing clean and concise code, and he’s interested in practices that help you improve app health, such as code review, automated testing, and continuous build.

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