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Harness baits CI/CD set with feature flags, cloud auto-stop

New modules from Harness may entice customers to buy more of its CI/CD software, but unseating DevOps pipeline tools from larger vendors remains a daunting challenge.

Harness rolled out a revamped CI/CD platform this week that includes feature flags, new cloud cost management features and an enterprise version of the Drone CI tool it acquired last year. But it remains to be seen whether the new features will sway the enterprise market in its favor.

The company began as a purely continuous delivery (CD)-focused vendor, which used AI and machine learning to identify problems in application deployments and roll them back automatically if necessary. Harness then bought open source continuous integration (CI) vendor Drone.io last August, expanding its product line to encompass the entire DevOps software delivery process.

Earlier this year, Harness and Drone officials discussed plans to add Harness machine learning to the Drone tool to speed automated testing, a feature now called Test Intelligence that became generally available this week.

This week's update also includes a new feature flags product based on a system developed by Harness for its own software delivery process. Feature flags, also available from CI/CD vendors such as CloudBees and specialists including LaunchDarkly, allow software product teams to toggle features on and off based on their intended audience, and deploy applications "behind the scenes" for testing in production prior to their release to customers.

Harness feature flags are available separately from the overall Harness CI/CD platform in a standalone software module, priced starting at $15 per developer user per month, plus a variable resource cost based on monthly active users. But for one Harness CD user, it's convenient to get feature flags from a familiar vendor.

Jeff Green, Tyler TechnologiesJeff Green

"We had looked at [CloudBees'] Rollout and LaunchDarkly, but we're already Harness customers and Harness feature flags have the features we need," said Jeff Green, CTO at Tyler Technologies, a government information systems software maker headquartered in Plano, Texas. "We're currently using homegrown [feature flags], and pretty much every team has built something on its own -- the nice thing about Harness is that it will give us a common platform and adds a UI that makes it easier for product managers to use."

Handing over feature releases to product managers is also the goal for another beta tester of the Harness feature flags module.

"We're a data-heavy company and a lot of our releases are complex, but [the Harness tool] means we can hand over control to product [teams]," said Sam Hall, head of technology at Metrikus, a small company that makes smart building products in London. "They can test with production data and marketing teams can use that to build documentation while keeping the experience the same for customers."

The Harness feature flags module tracks the usage of flags in production, generating reports and alerts about flags that linger without being turned on or removed -- though in its first release the tool does not automate the removal of unused flags.

Harness touts CI/CD feature flag integration

While the Harness feature flags tool is available standalone, its integration with Harness CI/CD is its primary differentiation, according to Harness CEO Jyoti Bansal.

"Every change and variation to the flag goes through the same testing process as other code changes" in the integrated platform, Bansal said. "Developers can control what tests run when the flag state changes ... so the likelihood of that change breaking something [is] significantly [reduced.]"

Harness Test Intelligence
Harness CI Enterprise Test Intelligence

Integration with Harness CD also means its machine learning feature can evaluate the potential effect of toggling a feature flag in production ahead of time, Bansal said.

Still, interest in Harness feature flags doesn't automatically equate to further purchases among beta testers so far. For Metrikus, a firm with 30 full-time employees, the full Harness CI/CD platform isn't within a comfortable price range, Hall said; the feature flags module alone was an easier sell to management. However, Hall said Metrikus may consider the broader platform as the company grows.

For Tyler's Green, the integration between Harness CI Enterprise and feature flags for testing is unlikely to move him away from using GitHub Actions for CI.

"Right now, we have no intention to change, and it would be difficult to change" any part of the production DevOps toolchain, Green said.

This also means it's unlikely that GitHub Actions tools will replace Harness CD.

"They really were the first and best [product] in CD optimized for cloud and containers," Green said. "I still think they do a better job at that than anybody else, with features like continuous verification [of deployments."

Cloud AutoStopping bolsters cost management

Another module Harness introduced with its CD product last year, originally called Continuous Efficiency and later renamed Cloud Cost Management, added a new feature this week called Cloud AutoStopping based on Harness's acquisition of stealth startup Lightwing this year. Cloud AutoStopping uses a proxy server to monitor traffic to cloud infrastructure resources and suspends or scales down those machines when traffic declines.

The Cloud AutoStopping feature suspends a cloud VM instance or keeps a snapshot backup on standby for requests rather than shutting it down entirely, and can scale down Kubernetes clusters if the app is container-based. There's still a delay when the tool spins those resources back up when demand resumes, but less of one than if the machine were entirely shut down or deleted, Bansal said.

Harness is positioning Cloud AutoStopping for dev/test workloads with this release, but one Lightwing early adopter uses it in production.

"Before we started using Lightwing about a year ago a lot of our resources were running 24/7," said Dheemanth Ramesh, CTO at Discover Dollar, a data analytics company in India that was one of Lightwing's first customers before the Harness acquisition. "Our environment was heavily under-optimized, but we've seen a 60 to 70% cost savings without any hassle for our infrastructure management teams."

As with feature flags, however, the absorption of Lightwing's IP into the Harness platform hasn't yet pulled Ramesh's company away from GitHub Actions for CI/CD.

"I can't say somewhere down the line we won't look into it," he said.

Harness CI Enterprise wields AI against market headwinds

For much of the mainstream enterprise market, Ramesh's viewpoint is backed up by analyst research. While DevOps early adopters wanted to build their own toolchains, the enterprise mainstream is increasingly looking for pre-integrated platforms, according to Christopher Condo, an analyst at Forrester Research.

An end-to-end tool set has its own return on investment. Not everyone wants to spend their time plugging tools in.
Christopher CondoAnalyst, Forrester Research

"When we did a CI [survey] in 2017, GitLab came in [among the top products], and everybody was completely shocked," Condo said. "But people liked that they offered a complete platform ... an end-to-end tool set has its own return on investment. Not everyone wants to spend their time plugging tools in."

But Harness is far from alone in marketing a broad tool set in 2021. In addition to GitLab, Harness must contend with Microsoft's Azure DevOps platform in addition to GitHub Actions, CloudBees' software delivery management suite, Atlassian Open DevOps and many more.

Harness CI Enterprise does offer the same AI and machine learning features that made Harness CD stand out in the past. The Test Intelligence feature assesses which tests are actually necessary and performs only those tests, in order of the likelihood they will fail, so developers don't go through a long testing cycle only to have a failure at the last minute.

Still, it remains to be seen if that will be enough to pull a significant chunk of the market toward the Harness platform.

"As for why people should choose an upstart over established players like Microsoft, that's an open question," Condo said.

Beth Pariseau, senior news writer at TechTarget, is an award-winning veteran of IT journalism. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @PariseauTT.

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