If I were to make a prediction, I would say that build numbers are something that are rarely treated as being important in the agency world of web development. That's not to say milestone releases aren't given names like "Phase 2", "August Release" or a major feature name, but every build / release of a project in between, I'd sense largely have build numbers either ignored or never created.
It's also easy to see why, after all it's not like we're producing software that's going out to the masses to be installed. The solution is essentially just ending up having 1 install on a set of servers. When a new version is built, that replaces everything that came before it and if a bug is found we generally roll forward and fix the bug rather than ever reverting back.
Why use build numbers?
So when we're constantly coding and improving applications in an agile world why should we care about and use build numbers?
To put it quite simply its just an easy way to identify a snapshot of code that could have actually have been built and then released to a server. This becomes hugely useful in scenarios such as:
- A bug being reported by an end user
- An issue being identified by some performance monitoring
- An issue being picked up in some functionality further on from the site. e.g. in an integration
Without build numbers the only way to react to these scenarios is to look at commit dates in source control or manual release notes that may have been created to try and work out where an issue may have been created and what changed at that time. If the issue had subsequently been fixed you also can't really give a version description when it was fixed other than a rough date.
Other advantages of build numbers can include:
- Being able to reference a specific version that has been pen tested
- Referencing a version that's been tested with integrations
- Having approval to release a specific version rather than just the latest on master
- Anywhere you want to have a conversation referencing releases
Build numbers for deploys
The first step to use build numbers and with the rise in CI, possibly the one thing most people are doing is to start creating build numbers via a build server. By using any type of build server you will end up with build numbers. This instantly gives you a way to know when a build was created and what commits were new within the build.
Start involving an automated deployment setup either using your build server or with other tools like Octopus Deploy and you will now start to get a record of when each build was deployed to each server.
Now you have an easy way to not only reference what build was on each environment and when through the deploy history, but also a way to see what went into a build through the build servers change log.
Tag builds in source control
Being able to see the changes that went into each build on your build server is all very good, but it's still not an ideal situation for finding the exact code version a build relates to.
Thankfully if your using Team City it's really easy to set it up to create a tag in your source control with each build number. Simply go to the build features section of your projects configuration and add a feature called "VCS Labeling". This is a step that happens post build in the background and will create a tag in source control including the build number. It has lots of other configuration options, so if you need different tag formats for different branches its got you covered.
If your using GitHub once this is turned on you will be able to see a list of all the tags in the releases section.
Update Assembly info
Being able to identify a build in source control and view a history of what should have been on a server at a particular time is all very good, but its also a good idea to be able to easily identify a build for a published version of code. That way just by looking at the code on a server you can tell which build version it is, and not rely on your deployment tool to be correct.
If your using Team City this also also made super simple through a build feature called "Assembly info patcher". When using this the build number will automatically get patched in without having to edit AssemblyInfo.cs.
By following these tips you will now be able to identify a version by looking at the published code, see a history of when each version was not only built but also released to each environment and also have an easy way to find the exact source for that build.
The build number can then be used in any conversations around when a bug was introduced and also be referenced in release notes so everyone can keep track of what versions included what fix's in a simple to understand format.