How to visualize your branching strategy
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In the world of software development, speed and agility is king. But for a team with multiple developers, branching and merging code can easily become messy and time-consuming—threatening not only the team’s ability to ship code quickly but also making it hard to manage versions and ensure clean code from start to finish.
That’s where a branching strategy comes in.
A branching strategy helps reduce developers’ stress by enabling parallel development and facilitating more structured releases. This helps speed development while improving quality and efficiency throughout the release process.
In this article, we’ll cover what a branching strategy is and how you can visualize the strategy to effectively understand and implement it across your DevOps team.
What is a branching strategy?
A branching strategy outlines the workflow a software development team uses when writing, merging, and shipping code. The purpose of a branching strategy is to help teams effectively manage code changes.
DevOps teams working together on the same codebase need to share changes with each other, but without a clear strategy, it is challenging to efficiently merge versions without disruption. A branching strategy addresses this problem by creating a clear process for making changes to source control and enabling teams to work in parallel for faster releases and fewer conflicts.
Branches are independent lines of code that “branch” off of the main code line, allowing developers to work independently before merging their version back to the main code line again.
Your branching strategy should:
- Improve productivity
- Enable parallel development
- Support multiple versions of released software
- Map a clear path for software changes through production
What are some branching strategies?
There are multiple branching strategies to choose from (or combine) to organize your workflow. Here are two of the most common:
Feature branching strategy
Feature branching is when developers open a branch for each new feature they work on. This approach allows developers to work concurrently on separate issues. Each team can work on their task and merge their changes into the mainline when they’re done. By waiting to merge the feature branch until the feature code is finished, it condenses the risk to one integration.
This is why feature branching only works well when teams branch and merge frequently. Leaving feature branches up for extended periods of time can isolate developers from the mainline, introducing complexity and potential conflict with other branches and code changes.
To avoid this conflict, teams should plan to test and merge their feature branches often—daily when possible. Continuously testing and integrating code allows teams to “fail fast” so they can make needed adjustments to the code and ship a higher quality product more quickly.
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Release branching strategy
Release branching involves creating a branch for each new release, containing all the applicable stories. Release branching is an effective strategy when your team needs to support multiple releases or patch versions over time.
However, working on a lot of releases at once is challenging and can lead to instability in your codebase and confusion for the team. It can also create extra work for developers as they must maintain and merge changes for multiple parallel versions.
How to visualize a branching strategy
Whatever branching strategy you follow, you’ll need a clear map to visualize your plans and clarify your workflows. Visualizing your branching strategy will help the team quickly understand the processes and keep everyone on the same page so you can avoid costly delays or conflict.
Use a whiteboard or diagramming software to map out your branching strategy:
Draw a master branch.
The master branch represents your mainline code and production releases. All changes and development work will integrate into this line.
Draw a line and add circles or points along the line to indicate the versions you’ve planned.
Outline a development branch.
Draw a second branch below the main line to represent your development process for pre-production code. This will include the work between released versions of your product.
Add circles to indicate work in progress on the development line.
Connect the branches.
Draw arrows between the circles on the master and development branches to show the process flow where work is created and merged.
Add additional branches for features and releases.
Depending on your branching strategy, you’ll also want to add branches to represent features and releases.
Draw the feature branch as an additional line below the development branch. This describes the workflow of feature development off the regular development branch and indicates when and where it merges with the development branch.
Add the release branch between the master branch and the development branch as it describes the workflow from development to production.
Once you have your branching structure mapped out, add colors or other styling to make it easy to understand the workflow at a glance.
Lucidchart is an intelligent diagramming solution that helps teams visualize their data and optimize their workflows. Use Lucidchart to create powerful branch diagrams that quickly communicate your strategy and help everyone get on board from start to ship.
Branching best practices for all branching strategies
Know and communicate your branching strategy for a project
Managing branching strategies effectively requires clear communication from the start. Make sure your team understands when and where to branch and merge (and how often).
Use documentation and visualizations to outline and clarify the plan. Make sure the strategy is accessible so your team can refer to it regularly. This will help keep the team on track and ensure everyone is on the same page from the beginning.
Minimize how long code is checked out
The longer your code is checked out, the greater risk for complication and conflict. Make sure your team regularly copies down code and merges their branches so they are working on the most up-to-date versions.
Figure out your dependencies
When working on a branch, it is critical to understand how those changes could impact your mainline and what teams might be affected. Before you branch, consider how changes should be produced and when and where to merge them for the smoothest integration.
Review your integration process
When you’re dealing with multiple changes and integrations and your code breaks, it can be difficult to zero in on the change that caused the problem.
Review your integration process to make sure your teams are merging frequently. The more often you merge, the less likely you’ll experience code breaks. And integrating code earlier, one team at a time, helps you isolate any potential issues quickly.
Pick the right version control system
A version control system is a tool that helps teams manage changes to source code over time, allowing them to work faster and more effectively.
Choose a system that can not only handle branching but also has the capacity to manage the volume of files, contributors, and build demands you need.
Executing a strong branching strategy requires careful planning, clear communication, and buy-in from your teams. No matter what branching strategy you choose, set your teams up for success by visualizing your branching strategy. This will ensure everyone understands where code should merge and flow and makes it easy to troubleshoot issues as they arise.
Start visualizing your branching strategy today with Lucidchart.
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Lucidchart is the intelligent diagramming application that empowers teams to clarify complexity, align their insights, and build the future—faster. With this intuitive, cloud-based solution, everyone can work visually and collaborate in real time while building flowcharts, mockups, UML diagrams, and more.
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