Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Feature Flags Pattern





I was listening to Episode 1101 of the podcast Dot Net Rocks. Jez Humble was talking about the concept of Feature Toggles or Feature Flags. Feature Switches? While the term has some opinionated definitions, the concept that I found most interesting was the idea of deploying software with the new features initially disabled, or switched off by some mechanism. After you think the feature is ready for production, switch on the feature. If there is an issue, you don't have to roll back the version or deploy another release, just switch the feature back off again and replace its .dll. Didn't get enough debug information? Switch the feature back on and let a few crash reports trickle in and then switch it back off. If you feature is particularly processor or network intensive, you can perform load testing by slowly releasing the features to select clients or only part of the population/userbase.

While I personally choose an SQL table for my approach to storing the toggle switches (internal business app), one could use the application's .config file. An application could pull the settings from a .config file on a networked drive as a way of controlling multiple application instances by making one changed to a centralized location. Below I show a minimalist implementation by creating a Dictionary from the <appSettings> in a App.config file.

Behold:


public static Dictionary<string, bool> GetFeatureFlags()
{
  return ConfigurationManager.AppSettings.AllKeys.ToDictionary(s => s, IsFlagSet);
}

public static bool IsFlagSet(string settingName)
{
  bool result = false;
  bool.TryParse(ConfigurationManager.AppSettings[settingName], out result);
  return result;
}

Of course with a dictionary you have to be careful that you don't try an access a column that does not exist with the indexer, so you might be better off using IsFlagSet(string), which will never throw. Although this is of limited use (AppSettings is already a NameValueCollecion), perhaps you can make use of this generic function I wrote that uses generics to convert AppSettings into a dictionary with the type of the value being the generic:


public static Dictionary<string, T> GetDictionary<T>()
{
 return ConfigurationManager.AppSettings.AllKeys.ToDictionary<string, string, T>(s => s, GetSetting<T>);
}

public static T GetSetting<T>(string settingName)
{
  try
  {
    T result = (T) Convert.ChangeType(
      ConfigurationManager.AppSettings[settingName],
      typeof (T)
    );
    if (result != null)
    {
      return result;
    }
  }
  catch { }

  return default(T);
}

Please note that swallowing an exception ("catch { }") is typically considered poor form. In this particular scenario, I am aware of the possible exceptions that can be thrown by this code and I want the code to return the default(T) in this scenario and never throw.



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