What Is a Staging Environment? How to Get It Right

Feb 2, 2022

As user expectations continue to rise, DevOps teams are under enormous pressure to bring high-quality software to market. As such, teams are now paying more attention to pre-production testing and looking for ways to reduce flaws and vulnerabilities before releasing products.

Software teams typically integrate a dedicated staging environment into their continuous integration/continuous development (CI/CD) pipelines to simulate software before its release and remediate any underlying issues. In fact, staging is one of the most important parts of the pre-production testing process. 

Read on to learn more about what a staging environment is, why it’s important, and how it differs from a production environment. 

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What Is a Staging Environment?

A staging environment is essentially a test sandbox or a close replica of a live production environment where developers can freely test software.

Even though staging and production environments are very similar, they are completely separate. In a production environment, rollouts and rollbacks directly impact end-users. However, in a staging environment, all system changes take place internally. This gives software teams more freedom to experiment and make changes without impacting users. 

By going through staging, it’s possible to discover and eliminate issues that could lead to performance and security vulnerabilities for users. This leads to stronger user satisfaction and lowers development costs by reducing rollbacks and patching.

Given that a staging environment will provide a glimpse of how software will perform in a live production environment, the staging environment must mirror the same servers, databases, and configurations. We’ll touch on this more below.

How Does Staging Fit into a CI/CD Pipeline?

Staging is one of the last processes in the CI/CD pipeline. It sits directly between the build and production phases of the development life cycle.

Of note, staging can be a static environment for testing. It’s also possible to provision a dynamic environment with dedicated configuration code and infrastructure.

What’s more, data staging is a temporary storage area that connects to data storage and warehouse locations. It’s not meant for long-term data storage. With this in mind, your staging area should be able to quickly and securely pull data from source locations without compromising it. 

For this reason, it’s essential to use robust data management tools to visualize data flows and track information as it moves from one point to the next. This is particularly important in fast-moving DevOps environments that pull large volumes of data on a daily basis. Ideally, you should also consider using a strong information access management (IAM) solution to restrict access and ensure strong data governance.

What Makes Staging Different from Production?

While staging and production environments have similar underlying components, their processes are different. Let’s take a closer look at how they vary from one another.

Staging Processes 

Testing during the staging process is all about preparing software for production and addressing technical issues. 

Smoke Testing 

Smoke testing, or build verification testing, is a type of analysis that verifies whether a program’s critical supporting functions work properly. These tests ensure software is operationally sound.

Chaos Engineering 

Chaos engineering involves simulating potential failures before they occur in a secure testing environment. By conducting this type of analysis, engineers can identify potential issues before they occur in production, improving resilience and uptime.

User Acceptance Testing (UAT)

UAT is typically one of the last stages of staging. It occurs immediately before software goes into production. During this stage, engineers check to make sure that the software can handle real-world functions and meet user expectations. 

Production Processes 

Testing still takes place once software goes into production. Testing in production involves examining code changes on live user traffic and collecting continuous feedback. DevOps teams use this feedback to improve performance quality and increase user satisfaction.

Disaster Recovery Testing

Disaster recovery testing involves checking how well the company can recover data and restore operations after an outage. This is important for developing resilient applications. 

Visual Regression Testing 

System changes can sometimes interfere with existing software features and disrupt the user experience. To prevent this, engineers use visual regression testing to examine the visual interface and eliminate any inconsistencies. 

A/B Testing 

Developers often use feature flags to conduct A/B testing with real-life data to analyze how updates and rollouts compare with previous versions. A/B testing works best when testing in production, where there is live production traffic. 

What Is an Immutable Staging Environment? 

More and more teams are using cloud servers, which they can spin up and deploy with ease. For this reason, immutable—or unchangeable—staging environments are becoming increasingly popular. Simply put, immutable deployments eliminate the need to put new applications on existing infrastructure. 

The staging environment doesn’t change once it goes into production. If you need to alter an immutable deployment in any way, you’ll need to use new code and infrastructure. 

Supporting Your Staging Environment with Infrastructure as Code (IaC)

One of the downsides to using multiple environments like development, staging, and production is the potential for configuration drift. Configuration drift occurs when environments fall out of sync with one another. For example, a production environment might wind up with different configurations over time than staging or development. This discrepancy can lead to potential security and governance issues. 

With this purpose in mind, it’s a good idea to deploy an infrastructure as code (IaC) tool to safeguard against configuration drift. In case you’re unfamiliar, IaC is a technique for defining the systems your code needs to operate. For example, Chef and Ansible are two popular IaC tools that you can use to define your infrastructure. 

Evaluating Your Staging Environment 

DevOps teams often struggle to evaluate and manage their staging environments. As we explained in an earlier post, there is a common misconception today that there can’t be any difference between staging and production

In fact, it’s economically unreasonable to fully recreate a production environment at scale. In other words, your production and pre-production systems don’t have to be equal in every way. Rather than focusing on scale, it’s better to focus on quality. As long as you have enough hardware to support qualification, you should be fine. 

Best practices call for using the same clustering approach that you would in production and testing with a minimum level of redundancy.

Streamline Test Environments with Plutora 

At the end of the day, software testing is supposed to save time and reduce aggravation for DevOps teams. However, this isn’t always the case. DevOps leaders often lack visibility into production environments, suffer from scheduling issues, and waste time on complex configuration hang-ups, among other things.

Enter Plutora, which addresses all of these issues through the comprehensive test environment management platform. This tool streamlines application delivery end to end, providing a single repository where DevOps teams can plan, test, track, and collaborate together as a group.

Using Plutora’s test environment management platform, you can automate testing workflows and centralize schedules for maximum efficiency. The platform also makes it possible to predict and remediate contentions and follow configuration change requests from a central location. Plutora also aggregates release data so delivery teams can make quick decisions.

Plutora is currently offering new test environment manager solution bundles with aggressive pricing, standard reports and capabilities for specific use cases, and quick implementations. To learn more about how Plutora can accelerate your DevOps evolution, check out our product page. While you’re at it, you can also take Plutora for a spin by requesting a demo.

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