Matt Netkow

Matt Netkow

Developer Advocate

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Matt Kremer

Product Manager, Appflow

Integrating Appflow With Your Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery (CI/CD) Platform

Continuous integration and continuous delivery platforms (CI/CD) are one of the fastest-growing sectors of the developer market. Discover how to integrate Ionic Appflow features into your existing CI/CD pipeline.

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The Emergence of Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery Platforms (CI/CD)

Continuous integration and delivery platforms (CI/CD) are one of the fastest-growing sectors of the developer market. It has transformed the way developers build and ship software.

But what is CI/CD? CI/CD enables teams to continuously test and integrate their apps—instead of performing these steps all at once before shipping— then automate the delivery of those apps. A staple in the backend—and more recently frontend—ecosystems, CI/CD services help developers perform a set of common tasks on every commit to their app, including:

  • Running builds for every commit pushed to a git repo
  • Running test suites, tracking failing and succeeding tests
  • Performing webhooks and other actions after builds
  • Launching or deploying apps to hosting destinations after successful builds

These tasks need to be performed on nearly every type of software application, whether a backend, frontend, or mobile app. However, as we’ll explain in the sections below, completing these tasks in a mobile project is easier said than done.

The Challenges of Continuous Integration and Delivery for Mobile Apps

For teams building and deploying apps to various app stores, a mobile CI/CD solution is critical. As the CI/CD pipeline has many steps and continuously runs throughout the development cycle, its inherent complexity can cause countless problems. It continues to be a huge hassle for most development teams. 

Even with the prevalence of general purpose continuous integration tools like GitLab and CircleCI, most aren’t optimized for mobile, and many still require advanced DevOps expertise. The average mobile or web developer doesn’t have the expertise needed to master DevOps and mobile CI/CD. As a result, nearly a quarter of developers aren’t using any type of DevOps solution and it shows in their sporadic release cadence. 

According to Ionic’s “The State of Enterprise Mobile App Development” research, 59% of teams without a CI/CD solution release software less than once per month, and 17% will release less than once per quarter.

DevOps and CI/CD tools can have an enormous impact when it comes to accelerating the pace and frequency of software delivery. These strategies and tools help companies streamline software development, testing, and deployment which increases the frequency of software launches and app updates. CI/CD closes the delivery gap for mobile apps in the enterprise.

Defining Continuous Integration and Delivery for Mobile Apps

Mobile app development is extremely complicated. Mobile apps require extensive native compilation, rigid operating system protocols, rigorous code signing, frequently-updated SDKs and tooling, complex operating system licensing, device testing, and app store submissions. 

For a mobile CI/CD platform to perform at the highest level, it will need to include extra features to cover mobile app development demands: 

  • Managed build environments for iOS, Android, and mobile web apps (for teams building Progressive Web Apps
  • Managed servers and server infrastructure as a service for legal, licensed builds on macOS and Linux 
  • Per-platform tooling: Xcode for iOS, Android SDK for Android, etc. 
  • Certificate and profile management for mobile code signing 
  • Deployment of web assets for hybrid mobile and Progressive Web Apps 
  • Multiple deployment channels to enable easy development, beta, and production tracks 
  • Automatic submission to Apple App Store and Google Play Store 
  • Frequent security patches and upgrades for safe builds on the latest Apple and Google approved tools and SDKs

These features are specialized mobile tasks that most traditional CI/CD services do not handle, so mobile teams will need mobile-specific CI/CD services and infrastructures to meet their development goals.

Appflow: Ionic’s Mobile DevOps Platform

Appflow handles the entire mobile app delivery process from building a native binary to publishing on the app stores and updating apps over time. Development teams can focus completely on the unique features of their app and outsource the complicated app delivery process to Appflow. As a mobile DevOps platform, Appflow powers mobile app continuous integration and delivery at companies like Burger King, AAA, BCBS, and more.

The following tasks—necessary to build and release apps—are not available in general purpose CI/CD platforms. Appflow fills in the gaps left by these general purpose CI/CD systems. It is built to support these tasks and more: 

  • Set up consistent, repeatable mobile build environments so apps can be built on every commit, using predictable dev tools, a blank slate, and operating systems
  • Build app binaries and artifacts for iOS, Android, and web
  • Run tests and other scripts on every commit to ensure apps stay working 
  • Connect to existing GitHub, Gitlab, Bitbucket and other repos, to perform builds on every commit
  • Release working updates to users in real-time (for web updates), or to the app stores (for binary updates)
  • Manage different versions of apps between testers, stakeholders, and production users

CircleCI, GitHub, and other generic CI/CD build services, merely provide build servers: a way to trigger builds and hooks for sending those builds elsewhere. But they do not provide the tools or pipeline for mobile-specific builds, handle the deployment of your app, or manage build environments.

Below is a look at the different approaches and how they compare:

CI/CD options - what Appflow does differently.

In theory, teams could build their own Appflow-style pipeline on another generic CI/CD platform like CircleCI or GitHub Actions, but that would require developers to orchestrate and keep updated a very complex chain of tools, operating systems, build environments, app store submission features, remote app deployments, and more. This would require a full team of engineers, with a different skill set than the typical development team, to build the entire process and manage new mobile and desktop operating systems released each year. 

But what if your company already invested in traditional CI/CD tools? Can you still integrate the benefits of Appflow in your existing system? Yes, you can.

Creating a superpowered mobile pipeline with your own CI/CD platform and Ionic Appflow

If your organization already uses a CI/CD platform (like Azure DevOps, GitLab CI/CD, GitHub Actions, Jenkins, Travis, or CircleCI), you can continue to utilize that system for all of your DevOps orchestration while still receiving all of the benefits of Appflow’s features.

Your DevOps, QA, and development teams can continue to collaborate using their existing processes while reducing the management burden of a cross-platform, continuous integration and delivery setup for mobile apps.

We’ve found that large organizations—with or without existing DevOps teams—can unlock true iteration and save countless headaches and hundreds of maintenance and development hours per year by adopting Appflow in this way.

The entire Appflow suite at your fingertips, in a matter of minutes

With our simple Cloud CLI (command line interface), you can adopt Appflow in your existing CI/CD system in a matter of minutes and begin implementing Live Updates, Native Builds, and App Publishing—three features of the Appflow product.

By the end of this guide you’ll understand why and how to adopt one or more Appflow features into your own CI/CD pipelines. We’ll begin by breaking down each Appflow feature into more detail.

Live Updates: Update your app in real time to improve user experience and protect your bottom line.

Unlock the superpower of immediate deployments. Ship live app updates, critical bug fixes, content changes, beta features, and more as soon as they’re built.

This feature is unique to Web Native applications and allows your team to send live code changes directly to users and testers without submitting new native updates to the app stores.

Developers can make changes to JavaScript, HTML, CSS, images, and other web files and these changes are fully compliant with Apple and Android requirements.

Live Updates works seamlessly in the background, checking for the latest app updates and automatically upgrading to newer versions. Unless there’s a change to the native code, no user action is required to keep your apps updated. 

Why use Live Updates in your own CI/CD platform?

Provide better user experience and protect your bottom line

Ship experience-changing improvements to your users without annoying, interrupting, and delayed native updates. Protect your bottom line by launching bug fixes the moment they’re ready, and not a minute later.

True continuous delivery is only possible on a platform with Live Updates

Live Updates is a unique feature of Ionic’s Web Native ecosystem, and isn’t available on other technology stacks. Give yourself an edge above slow native app updates by launching improvements and fixes in minutes, not days or weeks.

Half a decade of end-user centric improvements

The Live Updates service has been used by hundreds of Ionic’s customers for over 6 years, and has an entire team of dedicated engineers working on improving update speed, managing update security, and adding new features every day.

Live Updates in Practice

Let’s take a look at a realistic scenario that a dev team could run into. 

One morning, disaster strikes: customers start calling in to report that they can no longer log into your company’s iOS and Android apps. Unfortunately, it’s determined that a bug was accidentally shipped to production the day prior. 

The dev team jumps on the issue and has it fixed within the hour. However, the company can’t afford to wait several days for a new app store release to be approved, since the company is losing money every hour that users can’t log in. Turning to Appflow’s Live Updates feature, they get to work deploying the fix.

Native Builds: Generate iOS and Android apps without running, managing, and updating Mac infrastructure.

Native Builds makes your iOS and Android binaries from scratch with every upload. Reduce configuration, troubleshooting, and collaboration time by building with your code as the source of truth, on fresh hardware, every time you make a modification.

Native Builds offers over a dozen build stacks running on Mac and Linux hardware, giving you greater control over your iOS and Android cloud build environments while unlocking better native build stability and easier troubleshooting. 

No need to maintain your own build infrastructure—Native Builds takes care of it for you.

Native Builds even ports the entire build output directly to your CI/CD server so it acts like it’s running on your own hardware.

Why use Native Builds in your own CI/CD platform?

No need to build & maintain your own Mac infrastructure

iOS binaries are required to be built on Mac hardware, which introduces a huge complexity and amount of work for companies who don’t have on-prem Mac infrastructure. Appflow provides managed Macs out of the box that we update for you, with no Mac hardware required on your end.

Ensure that each and every build is stable

Building binaries on developer machines introduces a large amount of variation in each build of your app, with each variation being an opportunity for unknown bugs. By utilizing Appflow’s build servers, every build starts with a clean server and utilizes your code as the source of truth.

Seamless integration with your CI/CD platform, logs and all

Configuring different build types for separate environments and certificates can be tricky. With just one CLI command, your CI/CD platform can build iOS and Android apps with a variety of options, including development, enterprise, or app store builds, various sets of development tooling, and more.

Native Builds in Practice

Here is a common use case for Native Builds.

After a new version of the web application has been built, the development team would like to build the iOS and Android versions as well so the QA team can test all three versions together. Currently, a member of the dev team builds and uploads the mobile apps on their machine. However, this takes time away from the development of new features or addressing customer issues. Turning to Appflow’s Native Builds feature, they can begin working to automate the mobile build process.

App Store Publishing: Ship live app updates, critical bug fixes, content changes, beta features, and more at the speed of development.

App Store Publishing allows you to automate the entire app delivery and release process: from building a native binary to publishing on the app stores and updating apps over time.

Just input a few basic data points, and we’ll take care of the rest. No Mac hardware is required, since iOS apps are built in our secure cloud environment.

When a new app version is checked in, the iOS and Android binaries are sent directly to TestFlight, the iOS App Store, Google Play, and Google Play Beta for testing or production.

Why use App Store Publishing in your own CI/CD platform?

Automate the entire app release process

Remove the most tedious and challenging steps of app store publishing, including certificate and configuration profile management, native binary builds, and various deployment destinations. When a new version is checked in, a sequence of events automatically triggers. Once approved by the app store, the new app store submission is deployed.

Get builds into stakeholders, customers, and QA hands faster

Increase delivery velocity in order to achieve rapid feedback mechanisms. Faster feedback means happier customers.

Seamlessly integrate with your CI/CD platform, logs and all

Fit into your team’s existing and custom CI/CD processes. Send a test build of the app directly to the QA team’s devices so they can view and test the new version seamlessly. Once approved, send a production build directly to the app stores.

App Store Publishing in practice

The following is another common use case for App Store Publishing.

The DevOps team is initially satisfied with their new Native Builds addition to the CI/CD pipeline, but quickly realize there are more manual tasks that could be automated. Specifically, they’d rather send a test build of the app directly to the QA team’s devices so they can view and test the new version seamlessly. Then, once it’s approved, send a production build directly to the app stores.

By leveraging Appflow’s App Store Publishing feature, the DevOps team sends the QA build of the native app to TestFlight, Apple’s online service for over-the-air installation and testing of mobile applications. Once the QA team has verified the QA build, the next step in the CI/CD process is to build a production native binary. This time, the app-store build type is specified along with the Production signing certificate.

With both the native Android and iOS apps uploaded to the App Store, the DevOps team adds release notes, then submits the builds for review. Shortly after, the new version is live and in users’ hands.

Continuous integration and continuous deployment: The bottom line and common questions

Enhance your existing CI/CD pipeline with Appflow—Ionic’s mobile DevOps platform. With Live Updates, Native Builds, and App Store Publishing, your team will save development time and cost to build, deploy, and update mobile apps. Focus on developing mission-critical apps for your customers, and we’ll take care of the complicated mobile CI/CD automation.

Common Questions

What’s the architecture of the Appflow system?

Appflow’s services run on the Amazon Web Services (AWS) platform in a fully managed virtual private cloud (VPC).

Do I have to use the entire platform?

No. You can use Live Updates, Native Builds, or App Store Publishing features individually, or mix and match.

Do I have to send/upload our company’s source code to Appflow?

Yes, Appflow has temporary access to your source code while a web or native build is performed. However, code is stored on a temporary cloud runner that is destroyed after each build. We never keep a copy of your source code.

Do you work with my on-premise Git repository?

We support BitBucket Server, Azure DevOps, and GitLab Self-Managed. For more detailed information, please reach out to us about your requirements.

About Ionic

Ionic is the leading cross-platform developer solution with 5 million developers worldwide. It powers 15% of apps in the app store, not including thousands of apps built internally at enterprises for every line-of-business need. Ionic is unique in that it takes a web-first approach, leveraging HTML, CSS, and Javascript to build high-quality iOS, Android, desktop, and Progressive Web Apps.

Ionic is a leader in enterprise app development. Thousands of enterprise customers use Ionic to build mission-critical apps for their customers, both external and internal.

You’re in good company. Ionic powers millions of apps at some of the smartest companies in the world.

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