5 Essential Practices to Unlock Your Staging Environment’s Full Potential

From developers writing the code to end-users getting the product, a software development lifecycle consists of many environments. In this post, we’re going to discuss the staging environment. We’re also going to talk about the importance, best practices, limitations, and alternatives to this environment.

Staging is the replica of the production environment. It means we run the code on the server rather than the local machine with the same architecture. Since the product is live, we can look out for any bugs and issues. Adjustments and polishing to the product are made in this phase before it goes to production. This environment is also useful for showing the client a live demo.

Why Use a Staging Environment?

Skipping staging is easy; we have seen many startups, and big companies do that. But are we really ready to face the losses of skipping this step? There are arguments that a functional testing framework can help in removing bugs or issues. But, can 2-3 people manually scripting these tests account for every possibility and iteration?

End-users have almost zero patience when it comes to poor performing apps, so we need to provide them with the best possible product. Staging is essential for having confidence in the code we write, the product we supply, and the infrastructure we provide. With a staging environment, we already have interactions, making it easier to test the countless iterations and possibilities.

A staging environment is essential to create sophisticated and valued software and give clients value for both their time and money.

Tests Performed On a Staging Environment

Staging consists of two main tests performed to eliminate bugs and issues to the maximum extent:

  • Smoke Test: New builds developed to the already existing software undergo smoke testing. The main aim is to check if the major functionalities are working correctly. After we do the smoke testing, we decide whether to send the software for further testing or revert to developers for more debugging.
  • User Acceptance Testing (UAT): Developers code the software based on their understanding of the requirements, but does the software have everything that the client wants? User Acceptance testing in a staging environment can help us to understand and answer the above question. End-user or the client will perform this test to see if their requirements are met without compromises or drawbacks.

Staging Environment: Best Practices to Follow

Let’s be honest, the staging environment setup costs more. Instead of having an excellent staging environment setup, we see that things get out of our hands pretty quickly. We must bring the staging environment as close as possible to the production environment to avoid chaos.

The following are some of the fundamental practices that unlock the staging environment’s power to its full potential.

1. Staging Should Be an Exact Replica of Production:

The value of a staging environment depends on how well it matches the production environment. We must make sure that every build or release goes through it. Mismatch in the configurations of staging and production will always lead to catastrophic results.

For example, consider that a new, developed build goes into the staging environment. We get a clearance from the staging environment, and we deploy the code in production without having a second thought. Suddenly there will be a complete outage in the product, and you don’t know the reason for it. The answer is that the configuration and environment mismatch.

Can our staging environment currently hold up with the real-time traffic that our production has? Does our staging environment have the same set of systems and services as production? These are the most critical questions we must ask ourselves to know the value of a staging environment. And if the answer is yes, then we are good to go.

2. Use Data to Test Iterations and Possibilities:

How many times have we seen empty tables in the staging area? Countless. Empty tables give us no information about the user experience. However, we can take the help of dummy data, with which we can test some but not all iterations and possibilities. Quantity and quality of the data present for testing in a staging environment is very crucial.

When the testing teams work with dummy data, their capacity is limited because they only have access to the dummy test account. However, we can add a whole new dimension to this by adding the real user and getting him to execute tasks on the product directly. This addition eventually adds a lot of clarity to the process.

We can also release code into staging weekly and daily, making it a lot easier. We can tackle the data quality by making staging product primary and channeling real-life tasks through it, rather than the production version. Since we are updating the builds and releases on a daily and weekly basis, users can try out new features, enhancements, and bug fixes.

This step may not generate the load the production usually gets. Still, we are at the benefit of various use cases that are always triggered in staging, which is a production mirror image. We can easily trace out high impact issues and bugs on the software.

3. Constant Monitoring and Updating:

To be the closest replica of production, staging needs to be monitored and updated at all times with extreme attentiveness. Every new build, release, and update goes through staging before entering production, making it very important to monitor and update it. We can’t even miss out on sending tiny things to the staging area because we have a lot to do.

As we have seen in the last step, it is apparent that we may have to push the code into staging regularly. Monitoring helps us in observing the patterns and errors that are present in the product. We can get a clear idea of what has to be improved and what has to be maintained.

When we provide the users with regular updates, we are getting an infinite amount of uses cases triggered spontaneously and simultaneously. We must identify the significant issues popping up and alienate them before this product goes into production and causes an outage.

However, we must be careful not to jeopardize some of the most critical user data with a staging environment. Like the emails and the personal details of the real-time, users should not be confused with staging data. 

If you’re looking for more resources on monitoring, updates, and performance, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of our DevOps Cycle series.

4. Don’t Hurry Through the Staging Area:

In some companies, a project developed for over six months will get rushed in a matter of days in the staging area. This will lead to insufficient testing, which will lower the value of the staging environment. The testing department should be provided with enough time to deploy products with fewer issues.

Problems like data corruption and data leakage often take time to show up. So, rushing the staging environment will lead to corruption and leakage in the production environment. These problems will lead to a complete outage of the application. We can avoid these catastrophic problems if we give a staging environment enough time.

5. Use Performance Metrics:

We must check our production environments with as many performance parameters as possible, including the chaotic ones. When we deploy the product, we may encounter many surprises and chaotic situations like crashing servers, Dos attacks, network outages, etc. We can benefit a lot by including these elements of wonder in our testing framework. 

Even though all the parameters can’t be replicated practically, we must ensure that we have tested the application for maximum possible scenarios.

Don’t Forget the Limitations

Like everything else, a staging environment too has some limitations and drawbacks. These limitations occur mainly due to the limitedness of the environment and mismatching with production. If the staging environment configuration does not match production, then there is a chance of pushing buggy code into production, leading to many problems. Double-checking the settings before deployment will help us overcome this limitation.

Even though we replicate the staging environment exactly with production, it is impossible to load test the staging with traffic from production. This difference may produce slight turbulence when we release the product. Due to the limitedness of the staging environment, data corruption and data leak results may get delayed. This is not good if we have already deployed the code thinking there are no issues.

To sum it up, by pushing the code directly from development to deployment, we create uncertainty in the situation. This uncertainty puts the companies’ reputation and value on risk. A staging environment safely eliminates this risk. The importance of staging easily outweighs the limitations it has. We must ensure the best user experience by bringing a staging environment very close in replicating the production environment.

So, how efficiently is your staging environment matching up with the production environment? Do you have any suggestions that we missed for making the staging environment more efficient? Let us know in the comments below!

Staging Environment Best Practices and How to Fix Yours

Staging Envirnment Best Practices

Even gone cowboy-style and pushed code to production directly? Many experts argue that testing your production-ready code in staging first is essential and the most reliable way. In fact, staging environments have been central to proofing code ahead of production deployment for decades now. But not everyone gets the most value out of theirs. So let’s explore some staging environment best practices. So you can fix what may be broken by identifying the following issues.

Staging Environment best practices: It should be an exact production replica

Staging Environment Best Practices

This one’s easy. The point of having a staging environment is to use it as a mirror of the production environment. Staging is used to test ‘production-ready’ code for residual and/or potentially high impact bugs before production. If it isn’t an exact mirror image of production, there’s no value in putting your code through a staging environment.

Did the developer forget to retrofit some direct-to-production enhancements or bug fixes back to the staging environment? Did the project team deem integrating staging with a new backend system too expensive?

When we talk of staging mirroring production, we do mean an actual mirror image. Not an approximation with compromises. Staging should connect to the same set of systems and services as production. It should also have the high level of monitoring and controls applied to production.

Tip: Could you redirect customer traffic to the staging environment and expect it to hold up? If the mere thought sounds implausible, then your staging doesn’t mirror production.

Staging Environment best practices: Do you have enough data?

Staging environment best practices - is there enough data?

Data quality happens to be one of the big reasons that a staging environment sucks. Sure, you can’t have the same volume and diversity in data as in production. But you could put in an effort and set up test data that mimics real customers.

Real case study: While working on a project using staging data to deploy an online banking solution, the testing team only had access to ‘dummy’ test accounts. Which didn’t really have any credit balance. This severely restricted the type of testing they could do. 

Tip: Plan ahead of time to secure the right data you need for your staging testing to be effective.

Staging Environment best practices: Make real user data available

Staging environment best practices - make sure real user data is available

More than just test profiles that mimic a user. But also getting a real user to execute real, live transactions through staging brings a whole new dimension. And adds tons of value to the process. 

In the previous banking app case study, the project team was releasing code into the staging environment daily and weekly. Everybody on the project, from executive sponsor to developer, was using it.

To tackle the lack of real user data, they used staging as the primary app for banking services. Channeling some real-life transactions through it, rather than the production version. This lets them use the staging environment to try out new features, enhancements, and bug fixes for several weeks prior to production.

With close to 50 users hitting the server regularly, the staging environment may not simulate the load that production usually gets, but it does give you the benefit of having a variety of use cases being constantly triggered in a production mirror image. This makes it easier to identify and report high impact issues.

Staging Environment best practices: Test on staging often

Some teams rush through staging in a matter of days for projects that have run for 6 months. Such a short, rushed test period eventually results in insufficient testing. Thus, significantly diminishing the value of using a staging environment.

For teams running Agile and/or Scrum, make sure your code hits the staging environment at the end of every sprint or iteration. The team should push code onto the staging environment in increments every week, every other week or even every day.

You can have real users play around with the staging environment. This gives you the benefit of an incremental yet perpetual staging test while sprints continue.

For believers in Waterfall, the duration of testing in staging environment should reflect the length of your test cycle. As a rule of thumb, staging should be at least half as long as your user testing cycle. If your UAT was 4 weeks, staging testing should run at least 2 weeks.

This solid staging environment can help you

Staging environment best practices - Plesk WordPress Toolkit

You could obviously go cowboy like the staging-haters, and deploy code straight to production. And this may, in fact, work for you – until suddenly it doesn’t. If you want to protect your customers and your reputation, it’s best to play it safe. Then you’ll need a solid staging setup that prevents you from all that uncertainty. Instead of providing a reliable way to catch those sneaky bugs before live code can embarrass you.

Plesk offers a reliable solution for setting up a staging environment and applying those changes. You can also deploy easily to synchronize your data. We’re talking about the WordPress Toolkit (pictured above). One of the main features being a coding playground where you can code risk-free. Find out more about risk-free coding by clicking below.