Martin Fowler and feature branches revisited

Fábio asks me this by e-mail:

I found this very interesting article (http://web.archive.org/web/20110721063430/http://jamesmckay.net/2011/07/why-does-martin-fowler-not-understand-feature-branches/) that once was in your blog, and it seems it can only be accessed in the archive, or at least I was not able to find it in the live version of your blog.

Is there a reason for that? Do you still keep the same opinion? If not, can you give me a quick hint of what to read to reach the same conclusion?

In answer to his question, I took the original blog post down in January 2013 along with everything else on my blog, because I wanted to give it a complete reboot. In the years since then, I’ve restored some of them going as far back as 2009,  but I hadn’t restored that particular post, mainly because I felt that I’d been too confrontational with it and it hadn’t made me look good. However, since it’s out there in archive.org, and people are still asking about it, I’ve now restored it for historical reference. Unfortunately, I haven’t restored the comments because I no longer have a backup of them.

A bit of historical background.

I wrote the original post in July 2011. At the time, distributed version control tools such as Git and Mercurial had been around for about six years, but were still very new and unfamiliar to most developers. Most enterprise organisations were deeply entrenched in old-school tools such as Subversion and Team Foundation Server, which made branching and merging much harder and much more confusing than necessary, most corporate developers were terrified of the concept, and vendors of these old-school tools were playing on this fear for all it was worth. This was intensely frustrating to those of us who had actually used Git and Mercurial, could clearly see the benefits, and yet were being stonewalled by 5:01 dark matter colleagues and managers who didn’t want to know. To us, Subversion was The Enemy, and to see someone of Martin Fowler’s stature apparently siding with the enemy was maddening.

On the other hand, these tools weren’t yet quite enterprise ready, with only weak Windows support and rudimentary GUIs. SourceTree was not yet a thing. Furthermore, the best practices surrounding them were still being thrashed out and debated by early adopters in the blogosphere and at conferences. In a sense, nobody properly understood feature branches yet. If you read all the discussions and debates at the time, we didn’t even agree about exactly what feature branches were. Martin Fowler, Jez Humble and others were working with the assumption that they referred to branches lasting several days or even weeks, while people such as Adam Dymitruk and myself went by a much broader definition that basically amounted to what we would call a pull request today, albeit with the proviso that they should be kept as short as possible.

These days, of course, everybody (or at least, everybody who’s worth working for) uses Git, so that particular question is moot, and we can now freely discuss best practices around branching and merging as mature adults.

The state of the question in 2017.

I’m generally somewhat more sympathetic to Martin Fowler’s position now than I was six years ago. Most of his concerns about feature branches are valid ones. Long-lived feature branches can be difficult to work with, especially for inexperienced teams and badly architected codebases, where big bang merges can be a significant problem. Feature branches can also be problematic for Continuous Integration and opportunistic refactoring, so they should very much be the exception rather than the rule. Feature toggles can also provide considerable benefits. You can use them for A/B testing, country-specific features, premium features for paying customers, and so on and so forth. I even started writing my own .NET-based web framework built around feature toggles, though as I’m no longer working with .NET, it’s not being actively developed.

However, many of my original points still stand. Short-lived branches, such as pull requests, are fine, and should in fact be the default, because code should be reviewed before it is integrated, not after the fact. Furthermore, if you’re using feature toggles solely as a substitute for branching and merging, you are releasing code into production that you know for a fact to be immature, untested, buggy, unstable and not fit for purpose. Your feature toggles are supposed to isolate this code of course, but there is always a risk that the isolation could be incomplete, or that the toggle could be flipped prematurely by mistake. When feature branches go wrong, they only go wrong in your development environment, and the damage is relatively limited. When feature toggles go wrong, on the other hand, they go wrong in production—sometimes with catastrophic results.

Just how catastrophic? The feature toggles article on Martin Fowler’s own website itself cites an example where badly implemented feature toggles cost one company $460 million in just 45 minutes. The company concerned, we are told, “went from being the largest trader in US equities and a major market maker in the NYSE and NASDAQ to bankrupt.” To be fair, there were other problems—they relied extensively on manual deployment processes, for example—but it is still a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks feature toggles should always be viewed as a Best Practice without exception.

Of course, not all feature toggles carry this level of risk, and in many cases, the effects of inadvertent exposure will be mostly harmless. In these cases, feature toggles will indeed be the better option, not least because they’re easier to work with. But in general, when deciding whether to use a feature branch or a feature toggle, always ask yourself the question: what would be the damage that this feature would cause if it were activated prematurely? If it’s not a risk you’re prepared to take, your code is better off on a separate branch.

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