Ephemeral Environments

What is an ephemeral environment?

An ephemeral environment is a disposable and customized computing environment that is temporarily created to run applications, perform tasks, or host services for a short duration. These environments are often used for testing, since they allow evaluation of new features, configurations, or updates without the need to make changes to production or commit to long-term changes.

These environments reduce costs and DevOps overhead since they are created only when needed and are decommissioned afterward, so no long-term maintenance is needed. This approach also enhances security, since these environments exist only for a limited time and can be configured with minimal permissions, minimizing the attack surface.

Ephemeral environments characteristics

Ephemeral environments are created on developer demand for specific tasks such as running tests, previewing features, or staging deployments. Once the task is completed, they are disposed of. Here are some their key characteristics:

  • Temporary nature - They are designed to exist only for a short duration. They are spun up when needed and torn down immediately after their use case is fulfilled.
  • Isolation - Each environment is isolated from other environments. This isolation ensures that actions performed in one environment do not impact another. This is required when testing changes, to avoid risking stable environments like production or development.
  • Automated creation and destruction - Environments can be created automatically and triggered by a specific event. For example, after creating a PR. This ensures that the environments are consistently configured and eliminates the need for tedious human work. Automations can be triggered through CI/CD pipelines, Kubernetes and other tools.
  • Production clone - Ephemeral development environments are clones of the production environment, replicating the configurations, the data and more. This enables accurately assessing the impact of code and features without impacting production.
  • Scalability - Teams can generate multiple environments simultaneously for different features or for concurrent testing scenarios without significant overhead or delay.
  • Cost-effectiveness - Ephemeral environments operate on a pay-as-you-go model of resource usage. This reduces costs and minimizes the use of resources compared to maintaining permanent environments for testing or development.
  • Security - Limiting the lifespan of an environment reduces the window for potential attacks. Additionally, since these environments are often created in a clean state with the latest configurations, they are less likely to contain vulnerabilities.

Benefits of ephemeral environments in the dev cycle

Ephemeral environments enhance the development cycle. Here’s why:

  • Increased development speed - Developers don’t have to wait for access to a shared environment or risk stepping on each other's toes. As a result, multiple features can be developed, tested and prepared for release simultaneously.
  • Improved code quality - Changes can be tested thoroughly, ensuring that any potential issues are identified and addressed early in the development cycle.
  • Cost efficiency - Resources are used only when necessary, as opposed to constantly running a static set of environments. Automations also save time compared to manual setups.
  • Improved collaboration - Everyone involved - from dev to product to UX/UI - can see the effects of changes in a production-like environment without the delays associated with scheduling time in a permanent staging environment. This reduces misunderstandings and misalignments.
  • Risk mitigation - Less bugs and misconfigurations in the code enhance security and reduce the risks of vulnerabilities.

Ephemeral environments and the internal developer portal

Internal developer portals are user-friendly interfaces that enable developers to connect to internal developer platforms. Developers can then access development tools in an abstracted form, reducing the cognitive load, and perform actions in a self-service manner, providing autonomy.

Here’s how ephemeral environments can be integrated with an internal developer portal:

  • Developers can trigger environment setups with pre-configured settings directly from the portal.
  • The developer portal can monitor the environment, set up resources and adjust allocations based on demand, to reduce waste.
  • The portal can integrate with CI/CD pipelines, allowing automated tests and deployments in these temporary environments.
  • The developer portal can manage access to these environments, ensuring that only authorized users can create or interact with them. This setup helps maintain security and governance standards.

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