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Automate everything you possibly can, starting with your environment.

Photo of Kevin Moreland Kevin Moreland, Software Engineer
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Automate everything you possibly can from the very beginning before writing the first line of project code. This includes the set up of your development workstation, production servers, and QA environments. Although this can take a significant amount of time at the onset, it pays dividends later. You may be tempted to skip this step and go straight to project coding — don’t. At some point in time, you will have to reset your development machine or servers. You might as well be ready for the inevitable.

Ideally, you want the setting up of a machine/server environment down to a single command. Once this command is issued, your automated process (be it a script with resources, binary tool you’ve created, or boot image on a USB stick), walks you though all required steps of configuration, and at the same time asks for minimal input from you, the user.

Your automated process will detect errors along the way and terminate immediately upon failures. Because your automated method is so simple, painless, repeatable, well-thought out, and time-saving, you will never hesitate to run it. In a similar manner, automate your data backup and auditing, and keep them isolated. If you had to quickly reset your development OS environment and get back to work, how long would this take you?

Check your entire automated “process” into a version control system, because it too is a project. Running this process on a regular basis has the great side-effect of preparing you for future emergencies, minimizing downtime of production servers and development workstations, and also ensures that you keep your automation and its installation dependencies up-to-date.

The only time you should not consider automating an environment (or project) is in the case of a small server test or project prototype which has zero chance of going into production. Bear in mind, prototypes have a funny way of winding up in production.

If you have automated the set up of development and production servers and workstations, this paves the way for easier on-boarding of new team members.

Automate your project builds, testing, and deployment.

Once you have your environment configuration automated, the next step is to move towards automating your development workflow (builds, testing, and production deployments). For QA and production, you’ll likely need some sort of continuous integration server for running tests and rendering builds upon new commits, such as Gitlab (gitlab.com) + Docker images. If you've already created a non-interactive command line build tool that accepts arguments, integration with a CI server will be less painful when that time comes.

For a day-to-day development/test workflow, if possible, aim to get the whole thing down to a single command line tool.

Imagine how much faster your workflow could be if after making a code change, this single tool might do the following, given the right arguments:

Bonus points for:

Case study: Raspberry Pi Captive Portal + Server

Photo of Rpizw

This personal project is running on a Raspberry Pi Zero W. When the Rpizw boots, it automatically starts a WIFI hotspot (a captive portal), which redirects all client requests (for all hosts) to an internal server. No internet-thru access is provided to AP guests and they are isolated from talking with one another. The server is written in plain old Java (no frameworks), with only two libraries (gson and sqlite-jdbc), and is deployed as a fat JAR with bundled resources. Oracle 32 bit hard float is being utilized on the Rpizw. There are cron jobs that monitor and restart the server, as well as update the LCD once per minute.

The Rpizw environment is configured with a single script, which has only a few user prompts along the way. The entire process takes about 15 minutes to prepare the Rpizw for development/production.

It performs the following steps:

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