Release stages, queuing policies, and options

Azure Pipelines | Azure DevOps Server 2019 | TFS 2018 | TFS 2017 | TFS 2015


In Microsoft Team Foundation Server (TFS) 2018 and previous versions, build and release pipelines are called definitions, service connections are called service endpoints, stages are called environments, and jobs are called phases.

A stage is a logical and independent entity that represents where you want to deploy a release generated from a release pipeline. We'll examine these two characteristics in more detail to help you understand how to divide your release pipeline into stages in your DevOps CI/CD processes.

First, a stage in a release pipeline is a logical entity. It can represent any physical or real stage that you need. For example, the deployment in a stage may be to a collection of servers, a cloud, or multiple clouds. In fact, you can even use a stage to represent shipping the software to an app store, or the manufacturing process of a boxed product.

Second, you must be able to deploy to a stage independently of other stages in the pipeline. For example, your pipeline might consist of two stages A and B, and Azure Pipelines could deploy Release 2 to A and Release 1 to B. If you make any assumptions in B about the existence of a certain release in A, the two stages are not independent.

Here are some suggestions and examples for stages:

  • Dev, QA, Prod - As new builds are produced, they can be deployed to Dev. They can then be promoted to QA, and finally to Prod. At any time, each of these stages may have a different release (set of build artifacts) deployed to them. This is a good example of the use of stages in a release pipeline.

  • Customer adoption rings (for example, early adopter ring, frequent adopter ring, late adopter ring) - You typically want to deploy new or beta releases to your early adopters more often than to other users. Therefore, you are likely to have different releases in each of these rings. This is a good example of the use of stages in a pipeline.

  • Database and web tiers of an application - These should be modeled as a single stage because you want the two to be in sync. If you model these as separate stages, you risk deploying one build to the database stage and a different build to the web tier stage.

  • Staging and production slots of a web site - There is clearly an interdependence between these two slots. You do not want the production slot to be deployed independently of the build version currently deployed to the staging slot. Therefore, you must model the deployment to both the staging and production slots as a single stage.

  • Multiple geographic sites with the same application - In this example, you want to deploy your website to many geographically distributed sites around the globe and you want all of them to be the same version. You want to deploy the new version of your application to a staging slot in all the sites, test it, and - if all of them pass - swap all the staging slots to production slots. In this case, given the interdependence between the sites, you cannot model each site as a different stage. Instead, you must model this as a single stage with parallel deployment to multiple sites (typically by using jobs).

  • Multiple test stages to test the same application - Having one or more release pipelines, each with multiple stages intended to run test automation for a build, is a common practice. This is fine if each of the stages deploys the build independently, and then runs tests. However, if you set up the first stage to deploy the build, and subsequent stages to test the same shared deployment, you risk overriding the shared stage with a newer build while testing of the previous builds is still in progress.

The deployment pipeline of a release to a stage is defined in terms of jobs and tasks. The physical deployment of a release to a stage is controlled through
approvals and gates, deployment conditions and triggers, and queuing policies.


Queuing policies

In some cases, you may be generating builds more quickly than they can be deployed. Alternatively, you may configure multiple agents and, for example, be creating releases from the same release pipeline for deployment of different artifacts. In such cases, it's useful to be able to control how multiple releases are queued into a stage. Queuing policies give you that control.

Defining queuing policies

The options you can choose for a queuing policy are:

  • Number of parallel deployments: Use this option if you dynamically provision new resources in your stage and it is physically capable of handling the deployment of multiple releases in parallel, but you want to limit the number of parallel deployments.

  • If you specify a maximum number of deployments, two more options appear:

    • Deploy all in sequence: Use this option if you want to deploy all the releases sequentially into the same shared physical resources. By deploying them in turn, one after the other, you ensure that two deployment jobs do not target the same physical resources concurrently, even if there are multiple build and release agents available. You also ensure that pre-deployment approval requests for the stage are sent out in sequence.

    • Deploy latest and cancel the others: Use this option if you are producing releases faster than builds, and you only want to deploy the latest build.

To understand how these options work, consider a scenario where releases R1, R2, ..., R5 of a single release pipeline are created in quick succession due to new builds being produced rapidly. Assume that the first stage in this pipeline is named QA and has both pre-deployment and post-deployment approvers defined.

  • If you do not specify a limit for the number of parallel deployments, all five approval requests will be sent out as soon as the releases are created. If the approvers grant approval for all of the releases, they will all be deployed to the QA stage in parallel. (if the QA stage did not have any pre-deployment approvers defined, all the five releases will automatically be deployed in parallel to this stage).

  • If you specify a limit and Deploy all in sequence, and the limit has already been reached, the pre-deployment approval for release R1 will be sent out first. After this approval is completed, the deployment of release R1 to the QA stage begins. Next, a request for post-deployment approval is sent out for release R1. It is only after this post-deployment approval is completed that execution of release R2 begins and its pre-deployment approval is sent out. The process continues like this for all of the releases in turn.

  • If you specify a limit and Deploy latest and cancel the others, and the limit has already been reached, releases R2, R3, and R4 will be skipped, and the pre-deployment approval for R5 in the QA stage will be sent out immediately after the post-deployment approval for release R1 is completed.

Stage general options

While the most important part of defining a stage is the automation tasks, you can also configure several properties and options for a stage in a release pipeline. You can:

  • Edit the name of the stage here if required.
  • Designate a single user or a single group to be the stage owner. Stage owners are notified whenever a deployment of a release is completed to that stage. Stage owners are not automatically assigned any additional permissions.
  • Delete the stage from the pipeline.
  • Change the order of stages.
  • Save a copy of the stage as a template.
  • Manage the security settings for the stage.

Defining options and policies

Q & A

I need to deploy two Azure resource groups in order to deploy my application. Is that one stage or two?

A stage is a logical entity that represents an independent unit of deployment for your application, so you can deploy both the resource groups using a single stage. For more guidance on stages see the introductory section above.

At the end of my pipeline, I update the binaries in an app store. I really do not have any stage in this case. How do I model this in a release pipeline?

A stage is a logical entity that can be used to perform any automation. It doesn't need to map to any physical resources. Therefore, you can add a stage to your release pipeline and add tasks to it to upload your binaries to the app store.

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