Feature flags

Feature Flags are a time-honored way to control the capabilities of an application or service in a large decisive way.

An Example

Say you have an application or service that launches from the command-line that has a main method or function. Your feature flag could be --withOneClickPurchase passed in as a command-line argument. That could activate lines of code in the app to do with Amazon’s patented one-click purchasing experience. Without that command-line argument, the application would run with a shopping cart component. At least that’s the way the developers coded that application. The ‘One Click Purchase’ and ‘Shopping Cart’ alternates are probably also the same language that the business people associated with the project use. It gets complicated in that flags need not be implicitly a/b or new/old, they could be additive. In our case here, there could also be a --allowUsersToUserShoppingCartInsteadOfOneClick capability. Flags can be additive, you see.

Flags Are Toggles

Industry Luminary, Martin Fowler, calls this technique ‘Feature Toggles’, and wrote a foundational definition (see refs below). Feature Flags is in wider use by the industry, though, so we’re going with that.

Granularity

It could be that the flag controls something large like the UI of a component. In our case above we could say that OneClickPurchasing and ShoppingCart are the names of components. It could be that the granularity of the flag is much smaller - Say Americans want to see temperatures in degrees Fahrenheit and other nationalities would prefer degrees Centigrade/Celsius. We could have a flag --temp=F and --temp=C. For fun, the developers also added --temp=K (Kelvins).

Implementation

For the OneClickPurchasing and ShoppingCart alternates, it could be that a PurchasingCompleting abstraction was created. Then at the most primordial boot place that’s code controlled, the --withOneClickPurchase flag is acted upon:

Java, by hand:

if args.contains("--withOneClickPurchase") {
  purchasingCompleting = new OneClickPurchasing();
}

Java Dependency Injection via config:

bootContainer.addComponent(classFromName(config.get("purchasingCompleting")));

There are much more ways of passing flag intentions (or any config) to a runtime. If you at all can, you want to avoid if/else conditions in the code where a path choice would be made. Hence our emphasis on an abstraction.

Continuous Integration pipelines

It is important to have CI guard your reasonable expected permutations of flags. That means tests that happen on an application or service after launching it, should also be adaptable and test what is meaningful for those flag permutations. It also means that in terms of CI pipelines there is a fan-out after unit tests, for each meaningful flag permutation. A crude equivalent is to run the whole CI pipeline in parallel for each meaningful flag permutation. That would mean that each commit in the trunk kicks off more that one build - hopefully from elastic infrastructure.

Runtime switchable

Sometimes flags set at app launch time is not enough. Say you are an Airline, selling tickets for flights online. You might also rent out cars in conjunction with a partner - say ‘Really Cool Rental Cars’ (RCRC). The connection to any partner or their up/down status is outside your control, so you might want a switch in the software that works without relaunch, to turn “RCRC partner bookings” on or off, and allow the 24/7 support team to flip it if certain ‘Runbook’ conditions have been met. In this case, the end users may not notice if Hertz, Avis, Enterprise, etc are all still amongst the offerings for that airport at the flight arrival time.

Key for Runtime switchable flags is the need for the state to persist. A restart of the application or service should not set that flag choice back to default - it should retain the previous choice. It gets complicated when you think about the need for the flag to permeate multiple nodes in a cluster of horizontally scaled sibling processes. For that last, then holding the flag state in Consul, Etcd (or equivalent) is the modern way.

Build Flags

Build flags affect the application or service as it is being built. With respect to the --withOneClickPurchase flag again, the application would be incapable at runtime of having that capability if the build were not invoked with the suitable flag somehow.

A/B testing and betas

Pushing code that’s turned off into production, allows you to turn it on for ephemeral reasons - you want a subset of users to knowingly or unknowingly try it out. A/B testing (driven by marketing) is possible with runtime flags. So is having beta versions of functionality/features available to groups.

Tech Debt - pitfall

Flags get put into codebases over time and often get forgotten as development teams pivot towards new business deliverables. Of course, you want to wait a while until it is certain that you are fixed on a toggle state, and that’s where the problem lies - the application works just fine with the toggle left in place, and the business only really cares about new priorities. The only saving grace is the fact that you had unit tests for everything, even for code that is effectively turned off in production. Try to get the business to allow the remediation of flags (and the code they apply to) a month after the release. Maybe add them to the project’s readme with a “review for delete” date.

History

Some historical predecessors of feature toggles/flags as we know it today:

  • Unified Versioning through Feature Logic (Andreas Zeller and Gregor Snelting, 1996) - white paper.
  • Configuration Management with Version Sets: A Unified Software Versioning Model and its Applications (Andreas Zeller’s, 1997) - Ph.D. thesis.

There’s a warning too:

  • ”#ifdef considered harmful” (Henry Spencer and Geoff Collyer, 1992) - white paper.

Brad Appleton says:


The thing I do not like about feature-toggles/flags is when they end up NOT being short-lived as intended, and we end up having to revisit Spencer and Collyer’s famous paper. The funny thing is feature-branches started out the same way. When they were first introduced it was for feature-teams using very large features, and the purpose of the separate branches was because too many people were trying to commit at the same time to the same branch. So the idea was use separate branches (for scale) and teams would integrate to their team-branch daily or more often WITH at least nightly integration across all feature-branches [sigh].

References elsewhere

show references

29 Oct 2010, MartinFowler.com article
Feature Toggle
30 May 2011, TechCrunch article
The Next 6 Months Worth Of Features Are In Facebook's Code Right Now, But We Can't See
19 Jun 2013, Slides from a talk
Branching Strategies: Feature Branches vs Branch by Abstraction
10 Oct 2014, Conference Talk
Trunk-Based Development in the Enterprise - Its Relevance and Economics
08 Feb 2016, MartinFowler.com article
Feature Toggles