Sunday, July 3, 2011

Feature Flags made easy

I recently participated in the ILTechTalk week. Most of the talks discussed issues like Scalability, Software Quality, Company Culture, and Continues Deployment (CD). Since the talks were hosted at Outbrain, we got many direct questions about our concrete implementations. Some of the questions and statements claimed that Feature Flags complicate your code. What bothered most participants was that committing code directly to trunk requires addition of feature flags in some cases, and that it may make their code base more complex.

While in some cases feature flags may make the code slightly more complicated, it shouldn't be so in most cases. The main idea I'm presenting here is that conditional logic can be easily replaced with polymorphic code. In fact conditional logic can always be replaced by polymorphism.

Enough with the abstract talk...

Suppose we have an application that contains some imaginary feature, and we want to introduce a feature flag. Below is a code snippet that developers normally come up with:

While this is a legitimate implementations in some cases, it does complicate your code base by increasing the cyclomatic complexity of your code. In some cases the test for activation of the feature may recur in many place in the code, so this approach can quickly turn into a maintenance nightmare.

Luckily, implementing a feature flag using polymorphism is pretty easy. First lets define an interface for the imaginary feature, and two implementations (old and new):

Now lets use the feature in our application, selecting the implementation at runtime:

Here we initialized the imaginary feature member by reflection, using a class name specified as a system property. The createImaginaryFeature() method above is usually abstracted into a factory, but kept as is here for brevity. But we're still not done. Most of the readers would probably say that the introduction of a factory and reflection makes the code less readable and less maintainable. I have to agree... And apart from that, adding dependencies to the concrete implementations will complicate the code even more. Luckily I have a secret weapon at my disposal. It is called IoC, (or DI). When using an IoC container such as Spring or Guice, your code can be made extremely flexible, and implementing feature flags is turned into a walk in the park.

Below is a rewrite of the PolymorphicApplication using Spring dependency injection:

The spring code above defines a application and 2 imaginary feature implementations. By default the application is initialized with the oldImaginaryFeature, but this behavior can be overridden by specifying a -DimaginaryFeature.implementation.bean=newImaginaryFeature command line argument. Only a single feature implementation will be initialized by Spring, and the implementations may have dependencies.

Bottom line is: with a bit of extra preparation, and correct design decisions, feature flags shouldn't be a burden on your code base. By extra preparation, I mean extracting interfaces for your domain objects, using an IoC container, etc, which is something we should be doing in most cases anyway.