Continuous integration, testing and automated deployment for cross-platform mobile apps
Backed by some of the best investors in Silicon Valley, Pillow is a technology-driven hospitality company that helps short-term rentals work for everyone. Committed to disrupting an archaic industry, Pillow’s innovative platform provides the first collaborative solution and revenue share program between multifamily building management and residents, providing the legal framework and full suite of management and support services to legally host guests with ease and security – all from one online dashboard.
At Pillow, we believe in using the best tool for the job. And when React Native was released in March 2015, we were pretty excited about it as it showed great promise by providing better developer efficiency as well as the technology to develop cross-platform mobile apps. In the same year of its release, in November 2015, we started working on our first production app, written in React Native, for the guests using our service. Since then we have also written our Pillow Pro app (iOS & Android) in React Native and are extremely happy with how far we have come since then.
So what’s the problem?
One of the biggest pain points we experienced with React Native apps (and mobile apps in general) is how slow the (build => release) cycle was. There are a couple things that we thought were important to address:
- The release builds were done manually. This meant that almost every developer on the team had to be aware of the build process, which was highly inefficient.
- We worked on a 2-week release cycle which was pretty slow compared to our web app. (For comparison sake, we deploy our web app about 2–3 times per day. That’s about 3578 continuous deployments since Pillow first went live 3.5 years ago.) This meant that a non-critical bug would have to wait 2 weeks until it was fixed, which wasn’t effective.
Since we are a small engineering team, developer productivity and technology efficiency are very important to us and so we set out to solve this problem. (And also because we like to tackle challenges.) 🚀
The ultimate goal for us was to make it extremely easy and quick to deploy a new build and also provide instant feedback of whether the build passed or failed, so the developer can iterate quickly without having to worry about the deployment process.
- Bitrise – Continuous integration platform for mobile apps
- CodePush – Easy, and fast over-the-air (OTA) updates for mobile apps
Let’s break it down:
- Conditional workflow; having the ability to run an IFTTT scenario is important as we can now combine multiple workflows into one and only run certain workflow steps conditionally. For instance, we used this to figure out if we should deploy a new build (and CodePush) or directly CodePush the changes.
- Environment variables; be able to use multiple envs such as development/qa/staging/production to test the app.
- Tests workflow; every new commit runs unit and end-to-end tests and sends a pass/fail Slack message to the team.
- Efficient Bitrise workflows; be able to hook up specific workflows to environment branches and share most of the other workflow steps.
- Use the latest Bitrise workflow steps; such as automatic deployment to the Google Play Store, use Xcode archive to build and send contextual Slack messages.
Now that we have a basic understanding of what the workflow looks like, let’s walk through a use case.
Step 1: On a commit to qa branch, the qa workflow is triggered.
Running workflow: qa
Switching to workflow: _init_install
Step 2: Set Build
We use Bitrise’s envman tool to set a environment variable RUN_XCODE_ARCHIVE so we can use it in later steps of the build. Wet set this by checking the commit message to see if the keyword [FULL BUILD] exists. If it does then we set RUN_XCODE_ARCHIVE to a value of 1 else it’s set to o (zero).
Switching to workflow: qa
Step 3: Set Environment
Here we set the ENVIRONMENT variable to designate which build environment we want to target. And we set the BITRISE_SCHEME to designate in the Xcode Archive step which scheme to use.
Each of our environments (qa/staging/production) has a workflow associated with it which sets it’s own ENVIRONMENT variable and BITRISE_SCHEME. All the other workflow steps are shared.
Switching to workflow:
Step 4: Xcode Archive
This step uses Xcode Archive tool to generate a new iOS build. In this case, this step is skipped because the RUN_XCODE_ARCHIVE was set to o (zero) in Step 2: Set Build above.
On the corresponding Android Bitrise project, this step would be substituted by the make_apk step that would conditionally generate a new .apk file.
Switching to workflow: _code_push
Step 5: CodePush Deploy
Switching to workflow: _slack_message
Step 6: Slack Message
Finally, a Slack message is sent with the status of the build.
Overall, the entire build took about 8–9 mins (507 sec).
In an effort to cut down build time, we used the npm-cache module in conjunction with bitrise-cache to ensure that we weren’t downloading our node modules on successive builds. This helped us cut down our build time from 13 minutes to 9 minutes.
Case 1: OTA updates
We use CodePush to push live updates without needing to download a new build from the Google Play Store or App Store. This satisfies our needs for almost all of our releases.
Case 2: Native Code Changes
In the case that a given release has some native changes such an updated app icon, a new native module etc., making a new commit with the keyword [FULL BUILD] in it will generate a new build and also CodePush the updates to the existing builds.
You might be wondering why we CodePush alongside generating a new build since the CodePush update won’t have the new app icon/modules? Well, all of our CodePush deployments have an updated version number on them, so we can effectively compare this against the build number to make sure that when a new build is generated all the users with the old builds are notified about it and are asked to update the app for the best user experience.
Also I’d like to shoutout Taylor Daw, an awesome colleague who helped me with setting up Bitrise & reviewed this blog post as well.
Lastly, we’re hiring! Check us out: pillowhomes.com/careers 🙌🏽