We have always been committed to making the user experience as painless as possible. Our goal has always been to create products that are incredibly easy to setup and administer; however, we went without developing an upgrade framework for some time.
Why did we wait until now? Well, because upgrades are generally viewed as a "one time" thing and we always had more demanding feature requests. When we embarked on building Clearspace however, we knew from the start that building an upgrade framework would be a valuable investment, and help us reach the goal of making upgrades painless for both our existing and our rapidly growing customer base.
We knew that we needed a tool that did more than execute simple SQL scripts. We knew that it needed to be as robust as our setup tool. That means that it needed to be secure by requiring a system administrator to authenticate, concise by prompting the user that an upgrade needs to take place, and informative by alerting the user if a task has failed for any reason and providing them with the ability to manually perform that task.
You know that feeling when you get something free? Whether it is a free Ipod with your new Macbook Pro, or simply a free sample at Costco, it's a good feeling. Having developed this upgrade framework with the mindset of making our customer's lives easier, we quickly found many other benefits of having developed an upgrade framework:
Improves the user experience by allowing painless automated upgrades.
Customers no longer have to pour through documentation and gain access to their database administrators to execute scripts. The system will automatically determine which version is installed and perform all necessary upgrade tasks. Customers will be more willing to upgrade to new releases, which will result in reduced support costs and increased revenues.
Enhances the development process
How many times have you updated from version control and no longer been able to start up the application because of some changes made by another developer? How many times have you been working on a project when you receive an email from one of your team members saying that table xyz has been changed and all the developers need to execute some script? This unnecessary frustration and cost of development is solved with the upgrade framework and helps to decrease the cost of development.
Manages exact changes between versions
As a developer, I generally can not remember all the changes I made last week, let alone last month. Unless you are highly disciplined and you keep notes of every major change you have made, you will likely miss something when it comes time to worry about upgrades. By writing an upgrade task when you make a change, you are effectively documenting your changes and will be ready to go when it is time to release.
Allows for demo servers to be up running during development
Having a demo server up for the company to use during development is beneficial in many ways. It allows your company to 'eat its own dog food' and test the functionality and usability of an application months before the beta process. However, managing the state of a demo server during development can be a daunting task. Not if you have an automated upgrade framework. Day to day changes will be picked up and your demo server will always be the latest and greatest.
Lowers the support burden for new releases and upgrade
When upgrades go smoothly, the cost of upgrading is lowered for both the customer and the company.
Improves the productivity of the Professional Services Department
Having previously worked in our professional services department, I know first hand how managing various projects can be difficult. Having an upgrade framework facilitates the process of making customizations to the core product. Not to mention two years down the road when the customer wants to upgrade the core product and keep their customizations.
Enables plugins to provide their own upgrade path.
Similar to customizations made by the professional services department, having the ability to provide automated plugin specific upgrade paths is insanely powerful.
For any of you looking to justify investing in an upgrade framework, it has been our experience that an upgrade framework will benefit everyone involved, and will pay for itself in a matter of weeks. In fact, I would go so far as to say that developing an automated upgrade framework is as essential a practice for enterprise applications as unit testing.