One “beacon” that will keep your Agile product roadmap grounded, and your products moving in the right direction, is a simple function — the feature flag.
What are feature flags?
Feature flags are a software development tool whose purpose is to turn functionalities on or off in order to safely test in production by separating code deployment from feature release.
Thus, a feature flag ranges from a simple IF statement to more complex decision trees, which act upon different variables.
There are many types of feature flags, categorized based on their dynamism and longevity that serve different purposes.
Short vs long-lived feature flags
When we talk about longevity, we are referring to feature flags that are either meant to stay in your system for a short period of time while other flags could stay for years.
For example, feature flags may be short-lived to temporarily deploy new changes and test in production while other long-term flags, such as kill switches, remain in your system longer. Therefore, you will need to manage different feature toggles or flags depending on how they’re deployed.
Keep reading: Short vs Long-lived Feature Flags
Dynamic vs static feature flags
In terms of dynamism, which is how often you need to modify a flag in its lifetime, there are two categories of flags:
- Dynamic- allow their value to be changed at runtime.
- Static- only change through actual code changes or configuration file changes.
To learn more about the differences between static and dynamic flags and where to store them depending on which category they fall under, read our best practices article on where to store feature flags.
We can further break down feature flags into various categories of toggles, which should be managed differently. In other words, you will need to manage different feature toggles or flags depending on how they’re deployed. The main categories are:
- Release toggles
- Experimental toggles
- Operational toggles
- Permission toggles
For more details on these different categories of feature toggles, refer to this article.
Why use feature flags?
Feature flags can be employed across a wide range of use-cases, from the most simple to more advanced uses as various teams such as engineering, devops and production teams across organizations have begun to recognize their benefits in their software release strategy.
This will help you obtain valuable feedback from your most relevant users ensuring high-quality products.
Feature flags, then, allow you to A/B your features in real-world environments faster than ever before.
Read our guide to gradual rollout, which can help you achieve rapid releases in agile product development.
Progressive delivery can be implemented through techniques such as canary releases or ring deployments.
There are many methods to choose users with feature flags depending on your objectives.
For example, you can choose an ‘elite’ group of users for early access to a feature or you can ask them to voluntarily opt-in through beta testing. Some of the most widely-used techniques to progressively roll out your features through user segmentation include ring deployment, canary testing and dark launch.
Just as you give access to certain users, you can also block some users, for example, from a particular country or organization.
Feature flags can be used as a kill switch to disable these buggy features to turn it off for users until the issue is analyzed and fixed.
This comes in handy for ‘sunsetting’ features, which have been in your system for a long time and are no longer in use and so need to be retired to prevent the accumulation of technical debt.
Benefits of feature flags
There is no denying that feature flags have become a necessity when releasing new features rapidly and safely. Having an efficient feature management system can help streamline release processes.
The following is just some of the ways that they can bring value to your software development and release processes.
Challenges of feature flags
You can never have too much of a good thing and yet nothing is perfect. There are times when you may run into some pitfalls while using feature flags so while their use is encouraged and brings great benefit to your team’s workflow, proceed with caution, especially if you’re relying on an in-house feature flagging platform.
Integrate feature flags in software development
Software usually goes through a series of stages or phases to produce high quality software through the software development life cycle (SDLC).
The phases incorporated depend on the methodology used but the basic principles of SDLC are more or less the same.
For more information about the software life cycle, you can read more in our article about the different stages of the SDLC in conventional and Agile methodologies.
Based on the above, at the beginning of any software development process, teams and organizations must decide what methodology they will adopt to ensure high quality products. Waterfall and Agile are two of the most popular methods though Agile is rapidly gaining traction over Waterfall.
- Waterfall methodology is more of a traditional model. It adopts a linear approach to software development where each phase flows downward, like a waterfall, to the next; each stage must be completed before the next one begins.
- Meanwhile, Agile methodology is one that takes on a team-based approach to development. Instead of planning for the whole project, it breaks down development into small batches completed in stages. What makes Agile development innovative is it shifts the focus to the user as it relies on a very high level of customer involvement throughout the project.
However, incorporating feature flags into your release is what differentiates an agile roadmap from a Waterfall roadmap, which helps you stay focused on your core user-alignment activities. Read more to find out why an Agile methodology is the right way to go for modern software development and why you need to incorporate feature flags into your agile roadmap to keep your products moving in the right direction.
When it comes to release management strategies, there are some strategies to choose from depending on your use-cases.
- Trunk-based development is a branching model where developers collaborate in a single branch and make smaller changes more frequently. The idea behind this practice is to limit long-lived branches that may lead to ‘merge hell’. This is usually a good strategy to use to get features out fast.
- Feature branching, on the other hand, is when developers work separately on a branch and then once their changes are completed, they merge them into the mainline. This is an efficient method to manage large-scale projects with a large number of developers working on specific features.
Feature Flag best practices
There are many practices that need to be applied when working with feature flags. The following are some best practices that you will need to consider and implement to make your feature flag journey as smooth as possible:
How to implement feature flags
A typical feature flag implementation is based on (1) a management service that defines the flag, (2) a run-time query to figure out the value of the flag, and (3) an if-else programming construct.
There are many ways to implement feature flags. The simplest and often the starting point is to use if/else statements directly in your code.
You can also rely on open source projects and many libraries are available for your preferred programming language. Read more about the Top 10 feature flag related projects on GitHub.
However, feature flags go beyond simple boolean states to more complex logical statements. Therefore, if you want to delve into more advanced uses, you will need more complex feature flag management tools.
Before embarking on your feature flag implementation journey, it is important to consider the following:
- Identify pain points- it is important to consider your objectives and what issues you are trying to tackle in your software development process and in production.
- Determine your use cases- in other words, consider why you want to use feature flags and who will be using them in your organization besides developers.
- Consider whether to build or buy- there are many factors to consider when deciding whether you’re better off building or buying a feature flagging management system.
Choosing a feature flagging platform
Once you’ve decided you prefer to get a 3rd party solution, choosing the best feature flag management service to match your needs may prove to be a challenge. Visit our feature flag service comparison section to see how Flagship by AB Tasty stacks up against other solutions.
Flagship by AB Tasty may just be the solution you’re seeking, where it has been dubbed as a leader in the The Forrester New Wave™: Feature Management & Experimentation, Q2 2021 report.
Flagship could be the tool you're missing to master your development cycles. Flagship not only allows you to turn features on and off but it gives you full control over your feature releases by wrapping your features in flags and rolling them out based on the specific flag values you assign to different user segments. You can then make informed decisions according to the metrics and KPIs you choose.
If you would like more information on getting started with Flagship, check out our documentation to help you get started using the platform.
Alternatively, you can also click here to start your free trial of Flagship by AB Tasty!
Frequently Asked Questions
Feature branching sometimes is done using feature flags, especially when one developer is not yet finished with their changes but the release can still occur. Feature flippers would allow you to turn off these unfinished changes while completed features can still be released without delay.
With that said, A/B testing is not the only testing in production technique you can implement using feature flags, so they can help you run A/B tests but their uses extend beyond that.
First, the do-it-yourself method where you develop and maintain your flagging system on your own, using a bunch of if/else statements and some configuration file or database to control flags. This can be suitable for simple use cases.
If you are not willing to maintain a dedicated codebase, you can rely on open-source libraries.
Lastly, if you have hundreds of flags and advanced use cases like feature targeting and experimentation, the use of a managed feature flag management platform is probably the best choice.