Canary testing is an integral part of software development. It is used to test out new code releases and changes before they are deployed on production servers. Canary testing allows developers to test their software safely without impacting the live system or end users.
I’ve written numerous blogs on topics like canary release and tech and digital product development on WP Experiments. So, you’re in the right place for everything you need to know about doing a canary test.
What is Canary Testing?
Canary testing releases new code and features to a subset of users before they are released to all users. Canary tests are done to ensure the quality of the release, as well as to make sure that there are no unexpected issues. The idea of canary testing is like the “canary in a coal mine,” used for detecting dangerous gases in mines.
Canary testing is a great way to quickly test the impact of changes on your application. It allows developers to find and fix issues before deployment to production, ensuring smoother and quicker software updates.
How To Perform A Canary Test?
Performing a canary test requires careful planning. The ideal way to approach it is to take a step-by-step method. The purpose of a canary test is to evaluate the effects of new code changes. Therefore, you should identify the feature you want to test and determine which users should receive it.
Step 1: Identify Your User Segment
Before applying the canary process to your software usability, you’ll need to identify who will use your innovation. Your user segment is the people who will be using the feature. Knowing who your users are lets you accurately test the usability of your software’s code about what they expect and need for your innovation.
Without first identifying your user segment, your canary test will not be as accurate and could cause more harm than good. In essence, you’ll get the wrong data from users that won’t correctly progress your development. In addition, that risks wasting time and resources in developing software that doesn’t fit user needs and goals.
Step 2: Test On A Small Scale
Once your user segment is identified, you can begin rolling out your innovation on a small scale. This test should be conducted on a small percentage of the total user base — usually between 1% to 5%. For example, if you have 10,000 users. It’s best to roll out the canary test to between 100 and 500 users first.
As you roll out your innovation, you’ll need to carefully monitor its performance concerning all user segments. Doing so should include critical monitoring metrics like page load time, user engagement, and feature usage data. These will help you better understand how the feature performs in real-world conditions.
As your test progresses, you’ll need to keep an eye on any issues that may arise. It’s also important to monitor user feedback and sentiment about the feature. All this information will provide valuable insights into how users perceive your innovation and how you can improve it before rolling it out on a larger scale.
Step 3: Prepare The Feature For Testing
After establishing the environment for testing, you will need to prepare it for testing. Preparation could include:
- Setting up a staging server.
- Creating a backup of your production system.
- Making other related preparations.
You mustn’t make any changes to the production code during this step.
As a best practice, always keep version histories of your code to keep track of any changes. Tracking any changes will help you to quickly identify which code was released in the canary test and ensure that bugs are not introduced into production systems.
Step 4: Monitor The Results
Monitoring the results of your feature is essential during a canary test. First, it helps you better understand how it performs in real-world conditions. The results you gather from your canary test will then go towards making user-centric adjustments. Additionally, monitoring results contributes to helping you establish your unique selling proposition for your new release.
A unique selling proposition is a unique benefit of your feature that sets it apart from the competition. Knowing this makes it more likely that users will choose your innovation, potentially increasing sales and engagement with your business.
Step 5: Increase The Scale Of Testing Gradually
The next step after the first round of results is to increase the testing scale. Increasing the number of test users gradually allows you to make gradual improvements and adjustments before a full launch. Taking this step is essential for ensuring any remaining bugs are caught before the feature rolls out to all users.
It also tests the capability of your innovation to handle a large number of users at one time. As the scale of testing increases, you’ll need to repeat many of the previous steps, like monitoring performance and user feedback. Doing so will help you identify any further necessary changes.
Step 6: Make Adjustments And Release The Feature
Once you have completed your canary test and made any necessary adjustments, it’s time to start your deployment strategy. Before doing so, however, you should conduct one last round of tests. This includes checking that the feature works correctly on all devices and browsers. It is also essential to ensure that all the necessary data is being collected before you roll out the feature to all users.
Benefits and Challenges with Canary Testing
No matter what type of software you have planned for development, canary testing it before launch will have its benefits and challenges. Knowing these benefits and challenges will help you make the best decisions for your business.
Canary testing has a handful of benefits for the software development process. These benefits are a few of the most important:
Controlled And Risk-Free Testing Environment
Canary testing provides a controlled and risk-free production environment for testing new features. By deploying your feature to a limited group of users, you can ensure that the only people who will potentially encounter any bugs are those who have been allowed access. Following this process prevents disruption or damage to the production system until all issues have been addressed.
Additionally, a controlled testing environment allows you to better analyze the performance of your feature and identify any possible user experience issues.
Deep Insight Into Customer Interaction
User interactions with your software provide invaluable insight into how it is performing and its potential usability and appeal. Gaining deep insight into customer interaction through canary testing allows you to make user-centric adjustments and improvements before the feature’s full launch. Keeping your users in mind is crucial to successful software innovation.
Helps In Identifying Your Unique Selling Proposition
Finally, the results of your canary test will also help you identify and hone your unique selling proposition. You can make customer-centered changes to your feature by monitoring user feedback and performance. You’ll also have the opportunity to plot out updates to your features to ensure they remain or become more user-friendly as it matures.
Although canary testing has many benefits, it is essential to note that it also comes with a few challenges. However, while there are challenges, these ultimately are easy to get past.
Canary testing is a highly time-consuming process, especially when dealing with a complex software system. Developing and deploying the feature to a select test user group and monitoring and collecting data for weeks or months can be tedious. Additionally, you may need to make several changes to the feature based on the feedback you have been receiving. This can be a complex process, especially with large software systems.
Costly For Smaller Companies
For companies with limited budgets, canary testing can be pretty costly. From developing and deploying the feature, as well as monitoring, collecting data, and making adjustments – all of these require significant investments. For smaller companies, investing in such a process may not be feasible upfront.
Finally, canary testing requires technical expertise and experience. You will need access to experts who understand the software development process and are skilled enough to develop, deploy and monitor the feature. This could be difficult for some companies, particularly those with limited resources.
Canary testing is a beneficial process in software development. While there are many benefits, it also presents a few challenges that must be addressed. With the right expertise and careful planning, you can ensure your feature is tested carefully and efficiently before launch. In addition, with canary testing, you can be sure that your feature is ready for the public.
Top 3 Companies That Implemented Canary Deployment
Performing canary testing is a great way to ensure that new features are ready for launch. Despite the challenges it presents, companies with the resources to do so have had great successes with it.
Google is known worldwide for its exceptional ability to innovate. The tech giant utilizes both canary testing and A/B testing to ensure that their products meet the needs of its users. Doing so allows them to quickly identify any issues with their features and optimize the user experience.
Every time there is a new update or release, Google tests it with a small group of users first. Taking that step helps them identify potential bugs and other issues quickly and efficiently, so they can launch their feature soon after without disruption.
Netflix is another company that utilizes canary testing to ensure its product delivers a great user experience. By deploying new features in stages, they can monitor and test any new updates before exposing them to the entire user base. This allows them to identify any problems with the feature early on to provide continuous delivery of user-friendly features.
Instagram is a social media platform with millions of daily users. With such a large user base, it is essential for the company to continually update its product so that its users have an enjoyable experience. To do this, Instagram utilizes canary testing to ensure that any new features are up to par before unleashing them on the entire user base. Proceeding with canary testing before launch prevents user frustration and allows Instagram to keep its platform user-centric and top of mind.
Canary testing is invaluable in ensuring that your feature is ready for launch. Although it presents some challenges, it can be a great asset to companies with the resources to utilize it. By taking this extra step, you can ensure that your new product or feature meets user expectations and does not lead to any issues upon deployment.
Canary Testing vs A/B Testing: Which Method Is Best To Test For Software Changes?
The main difference between canary and A/B testing is the size of the group used to test a feature. A/B testing involves two distinct groups: one group receives the control (i.e., no changes), while another gets the variation (i.e., new feature).
On the other hand, canary testing involves rolling out a new feature to a smaller subset of users first and then gradually expanding it to the entire user base. Taking this route allows testers to monitor the performance of the feature on a smaller scale before deploying it in its entirety.
Both canary and A/B testing are great tools for software developers, but the best depends on the size and scope of the change being tested. A/B testing is likely the best option for minor modifications as it saves time and resources. For more extensive changes, however, canary testing may be a better choice since it allows developers to monitor the feature’s performance on a smaller scale before deploying it to the entire user base.
Ultimately, there isn’t one right method for software changes. The best option will depend on the size and scope of the feature being tested and the resources available. In utilizing both the canary and A/B testing, developers can ensure that their new features meet user expectations and do not lead to any issues upon deployment.
When NOT To Deploy Canary Testing?
Canary testing is helpful in many situations, but do not deploy a canary test for changes that could significantly impact your system’s performance or security, as testing those changes in a small-scale environment may not be enough.
Instead, it is vital to thoroughly test these changes and deploy them only after you are sure they won’t cause disruption. Also, if the change requires extensive integration with other systems or services, it’s best to first deploy the difference in a safe environment.
In addition, when dealing with sensitive user data or information, it is essential to weigh the pros and cons of canary testing before making any decisions. For example, it may be better to opt for A/B testing instead, as this method does not expose your users to potentially insecure processes.
Before implementing this method, it is crucial to understand the potential risks of canary testing. While it can be an effective way to test software changes, it should not be used in all cases and should only be deployed when necessary.
Frequently Asked Questions
It is essential for software developers to understand what canary testing is and when to use it. To help, here are some of the most commonly asked questions about canary testing:
Is the canary test the same as the A/B test?
No, the canary test and A/B test are two different methods for testing software changes. The main difference between them is that the canary test involves rolling out a new feature to a smaller subset of users first and then gradually expanding it to the entire user base. At the same time, with an A/B test, two distinct groups receive either the control (i.e., no changes) or the variation (i.e., new feature).
What is the difference between blue-green and canary deployment?
The difference between a blue-green environment and canary deployments is that two versions of the software are deployed with a blue-green deployment. Still, only one version is active at any given time. With canary deployment, however, both the existing and the new versions are simultaneously running and tested before being fully rolled out to all users.
Why is it called canary testing?
The term “canary testing” comes from the phrase “canary in a coal mine“, which miners used to describe an early warning system using a canary bird. In software development, canary testing is used to test changes before they are released to all users, allowing developers to detect any issues before affecting the entire user base.
When is canary testing useful?
Canary testing is often used to test more extensive changes that may not be suitable for A/B testing. This method allows developers to monitor the feature’s performance on a smaller scale before deploying it to all users, thus ensuring that potential issues can be detected and addressed beforehand.
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