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Category Direction - Feature Flags

Feature Flags

Feature Flags or Feature Toggle is a technique in software development that attempts to provide an alternative to maintaining multiple branches in source code (known as feature branches), such that a software feature can be tested even before it is completed and ready for release. For example, developers can test a particular feature during run time and disable it for other users.

Feature flag is a linchpin for our progressive delivery strategy; it allows many small incremental versions of software to be simultaneously delivered without the cost of constant branching and merging.

Our ultimate goal is to provide an easy way to configure and monitor feature flags that integrate into the continuous development cycle. Visual ties from feature flags to ongoing issues and merge requests will help understand the state and exposure of each feature and a comprehensive dashboard will allow developers to take action when necessary in order to minimize risk and technical debt.

The GitLab Feature Flag is built with an Unleash-compatible API, ensuring interoperability with any other compatible tooling, and taking advantage of the various client libraries available for Unleash. Unleash have recently announced that they are spinning up a hosted (paid) option while maintaining their open source offering. We will be monitoring this closely.

While Feature flags are a great tool for incremental delivery, they can introduce technical debt when applied improperly. For example, feature flags can be forgotten and left as stale code.

What's Next & Why

gitlab#220333 adds the ability to link feature flags directly from issues. The additional relationship context between issues and feature flags makes it easier to manage feature rollout and availability from either location within GitLab.

Maturity Plan

This category is currently at the "Viable" maturity level, and our next maturity target is Complete (see our definitions of maturity levels).

Our focus at the moment is on using the feature internally to deliver GitLab itself. This will be driving new requirements to the base features that are out there already, and also helping us to ensure the list for complete maturity is accurate. Our plan is for our feature flag solution to compete with other products on the market, such as LaunchDarkly or Rollout. As we work towards complete maturity, we expect that our primary adopters of this feature will be pre-existing GitLab users looking for incremental value. For buyers who are considering replacing other tools, and looking for something that integrates feature flags with issues, we will also provide a valuable solution as we head towards complete maturity.

Key deliverables to achieve this are:

Competitive Landscape

Other feature flag products offer more comprehensive targeting and configuration. The simplicity of our solution is actually a strength compared to this in some cases, but there is some basic functionality still to add.

A competitor review of LaunchDarkly can be found in gitlab&4102. If you have additional insights or are interested in joining in the conversation, please comment on the issue.

Analyst Landscape

Analysts are recognizing that this sort of capability is becoming more a part of what's fundamentally needed for a continuous delivery platform, in order to minimize blast radius from changes. Often, solutions in this space are complex and hard to get up and running with, and they are not typically bundled or well integrated with CD solutions.

This backs up our desire to not over complicated the solution space here, and highlights the need for guidance. gitlab#9450 introduces new in-product documentation to help development and operations teams learn how to successfully adopt feature flags.

Top Customer Success/Sales Issue(s)

Our top customer success issue, and one that comes up frequently in customer calls is gitlab#8239 which talks about feature flag permissions. This will explicitly give permissions to toggle feature flags on/off based on the environment.

Top Customer Issue(s)

Our top customer issue is gitlab#206666 which captures changes in feature flag strategy in an audit log. This will help in terms of compliance and in investigating historical feature flag changes.

Top Internal Customer Issue(s)

Being able to link feature flags to issues via gitlab#220333 is our most active internal customer issue. This gives users full context of when a feature is hidden behing a feature flag and allows direct access to the flag from the issue to allow managing it's strategies, environemnts and status.

Dogfooding Efforts

Our Fulfilment team has been actively dogfooding our feature flags and have requested the ability to warn users before removing an environment from a feature flag, which will in fact, disable the feature flag via 285127 and a way to easily locate feature flags from anywhere in the GitLab tool using quick search via gitlab#285130.

Top Vision Item(s)

One of our main themes in CI/CD is Progressive delivery. Feature flags, by definition, are a form of progressive delivery as they allow you to deploy code incrementally and control the audience that will receive the new code. Our top vision issues are connecting Feature Flags to issues, Merge Requests, and Epics so that our users can benefit from our single application toolchain. This will enable users to better understand the context of a feature flag and their state to the associated plan, release, and deployment.

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