Agile Practices and Installation Development

Both commercial and custom application development projects are increasingly using agile processes to deliver software. Agile processes are characterized by multiple iterations and frequent delivery of working software to users, who provide rapid and almost continuous feedback on the scope and direction of the application. This approach enables teams to successively refine the look and feel of software, while also making rapid changes to feature sets in response to changing business opportunities.

However, the ability to create and manage a flexible installation package is a critical part of meeting the goals of agile projects. Good installation packages enable teams to rapidly deliver new builds into a single unit that allows users to easily install and uninstall, supporting several of the most important goals of agile development practices. Agile teams focus on delivering software iteratively with a positive user experience and seek an automated solution for developing installation packages.

Business Drivers of Agile Development

The business environments that are served by the many software applications available tend to change rapidly. Business groups are driven by market opportunities, regulatory and legal changes, new business relationships, and staff changes. Often these occur with little or no forewarning, and windows of opportunity tend to close quickly. New applications or new features to existing applications are often needed in order to take advantage of these opportunities.

These realities apply to packaged commercial applications as well as in-house custom applications. Customer needs change quickly, and missing out on those needs may drive them to seek other alternatives.

An application can commonly take a year or more in development and test prior to release. Even adding new features to an existing application typically takes at least several months of effort. In traditional methodologies, requirements are frozen at the beginning of the process to make for a predictable development effort, with little or no further input from the user community until the software is delivered. While there is sometimes a period of beta testing just prior to final delivery, the purpose of beta testing is to identify defects, not change features or look and feel.

If user or business needs change in the interim, there is little that a development team can do to adjust to new requirements. In most cases, changing requirements or adding new requirements adds a significant amount of additional time and money to the development effort. In other words, traditional ways of developing software weren’t designed for the needs of business today.

These business realities have led development teams to adopt agile techniques in order to better meet the needs of the user community. Agile development enables teams to:

  • Get important features into the hands of users more quickly by iterating development on a few features at a time.
  • Make mid-course corrections based on changing business needs, in response to changes in user needs during the course of the project.
  • Fine-tune features and user interfaces with regular user feedback, based on the iterative releases.

Even teams building commercial packaged software find agile methodologies useful. In addition to being able to deploy a few compelling features quickly, it provides for a mechanism to adjust the feature set based on new technologies or large shifts in their target markets.

Commercial application developers usually do not seek to satisfy a single customer or group of users. But timely feedback from multiple customers can help product managers and development teams make adjustments on subsequent iterations in response to feedback from early adopters willing to work with multiple releases.

Common Characteristics of Agile Processes

There are many different agile methodologies, including Scrum, Feature-Driven Development, and Extreme Programming. Choosing a specific agile methodology often depends on the previous experience of team members. In practice, many teams research agile methodologies and pick and choose individual techniques and practices that best match their skills and culture.

While agile methodologies vary in a number of details, there are several common characteristics. First, agile teams develop software in a series of iterations, typically ranging from one week to one month. This enables teams to focus intently on only a few features, for a limited period of time, and deliver those features to the best of their ability. Successive iterations are planned just prior to execution. They may be used to add additional features, make changes to existing features, or address defects or other limitations.

Agile methodologies place a premium on delivering working software at the end of each iteration. This means that the team is building early and often, finding and fixing defects in real time, and making sure that most builds result in software that can be installed and used. Working software requires enabling the user community to easily install and start using the software, and to replace it seamlessly once a new iteration becomes available.

Daily or continuous integration of each developer’s code support the ability to deliver working software. Each integration is verified by an automated build to detect integration errors as quickly as possible. Many teams find that this approach leads to significantly reduced integration problems and allows a team to develop cohesive software more rapidly.

Agile methodologies also depend on talented and motivated developers. Often developers who make up agile teams are specialists who work in different geographic locations, and collaborate at a distance. These professionals are able to work independently on specific components while also ensuring that everything is able to work together when built.

Limitations of Agile

Despite the apparent benefits, agile methodologies can also create challenges development teams must overcome. Probably the most significant challenge is delivering software that cleanly installs and uninstalls at the end of each iteration. In many cases, Registry keys are either skipped entirely, necessitating temporarily setting paths or privileges. Or users are required to manually move files around and set individual Registry keys.

Frequently, either the team delivers a zipped set of files that has little organization or installation integrity, or it works an inordinately long time after each iteration to ensure that installation is safe and convenient for users. Neither alternative represents an efficient use of time or resources.

Because agile teams may be geographically distributed, development must be planned out carefully, enabling individual developers to write code to a defined set of interfaces. In most cases, geographically separate developers or small teams may each hold parts of the installation code, which must be put together seamlessly in order for the installation project to build and execute successfully. Even with close coordination, initial builds and installation success requires a lot of back-and-forth between team members.

As a result, agile teams tend to struggle with installation. This is especially a problem in agile development, with its many delivery requirements and little ability to move around tasks when delays occur. These limitations call for a better way to develop installation projects for applications that are developed iteratively and delivered to users in several successive releases.

Best Practices for Application Installation

Installation is a vitally important component of an agile development effort. Without the ability to quickly and easily install and uninstall successive versions of an application, it is impossible to obtain user feedback on the quality and direction of those features. Further, difficult or timeconsuming installation and uninstallation will cause users to become reluctant to continue to use the software, depriving them of the immediate benefits of new features.

Software teams who practice agile development, therefore, desire best practices in order to offer the best user experience, deal with fewer support calls, and achieve greater acceptance of their software. Teams should plan for installation as a part of scoping and designing the application, with a determination of the files required, privileges and locations of those files, required Registry keys and locations for those keys, directories used, and components to conditionally install. Once the design is complete, install should be developed concurrently with one of the first iterations.

As development teams strive for the first successful build of a new project, they must also focus on the complete install package for that build. Even adding files or other objects at a later time should be straightforward as long as the fundamental architecture is solid.

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