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Avoid code freezes

Teams building systems for the MOJ should avoid code freezes whenever possible as they generally increase the risks to your service and those services around it.

While code freezes are intended to reduce uncertainty and change when making changes to a system, they are typically a symptom of low trust in existing change processes around a given system, or of a previous traumatic event in the system’s past.

In most cases, it is better to make the system safer to change through smaller, more regular changes because regular releases reduce risk.

Code freezes introduce many risks

There are various types of risk that code freezes introduce, both to the team’s ability to resolve incidents and to the risk and impact profile of changes before, during, and after the code freeze.

Exceptional processes create uncertainty, and risk extending incidents

In a team’s day-to-day work, they will use a standard process for releasing changes to their systems. If they make changes regularly (as they should), they will be practiced experts in their normal processes. These processes will likely be well documented, well tested, automated, and easily reverted.

Even during a code freeze, however, incidents can happen that are out of everyone’s control, and that cannot be resolved without making changes.

Code freezes can introduce a new process with which the team may not be familiar. Using an unfamiliar process, even a well-documented one, is likely to result in the team making mistakes. If this process needs to be enacted during an incident—an already high-pressure situation, often outside business hours—the likelihood of a mistake is significantly increased.

If the code freeze exceptions process also involves sign-off from a named person or small group, those people may also not be available when needed, potentially extending the incident until they can be reached.

Changes can be rushed to ship before the freeze

If a code freeze is well publicised, teams may want to make sure their work is shipped before the code freeze to avoid being blocked by it. This can often mean that the team rushes to include changes that aren’t ready yet, and which may not have been fully tested. These rushed changes may risk the stability and predictability of the system such that it suffers an outage during the code freeze, requiring further changes (or rolling back of changes) to resolve it.

Changes made during the code freeze are waste until they can be released

From the perspective of a system’s user, any work to change that system whose results aren’t released to them are a form of waste. This means that any changes made during a code freeze that are unable to be released to users (or progress toward users) are a form of wasted effort.

This creates the risk that, by the time the change can be released, it will not meet the user’s need and, thus, will have to be removed or replaced. The longer the change is held back by the code freeze, the greater the risk of any change being waste becomes.

Batches of changes shipped immediately after the code freeze are high risk

If changes are made to the system but not released during a code freeze, those changes will need to be released after the code freeze is lifted. When that happens, there may be a large batch of changes waiting to be released.

If these changes are all released at once or in quick succession and an issue occurs, their interactions may not be clearly understood, increasing the risk they present to the system compared to being released independently. Further, releasing them as a batch makes remediation of any issues that occur more complicated.

Change freezes are typically ill-defined, creating ambiguity

When change freezes are instigated, they often have an unclear or extended time-frame, or are applied to any systems that interact with a system undergoing significant change. This can have unexpected impacts, and extends those risks described above to every affected system and all their connections, creating a growing sphere of increased risk around the system undergoing a change freeze.

Change freezes often cannot be applied to certain systems, however: for example, many suppliers’ practices and contracts are such that they do not follow requested change freezes. Typically, this is because they cannot accept the risks described above impacting other users of their systems, especially in cloud-hosted or other multi-tenant environments. If these suppliers require changes during a code freeze, the changes may have to be made through an exceptional process (with all the risks that entails), or risk violating the supplier’s contract.

Code freezes can be appropriate in limited circumstances

A code freeze may, despite all the risks outlined above, still be appropriate for your system if all these conditions are true:

  • The code freeze only applies to one system, or a small, closely related cluster of systems, all maintained by a group working on one problem.
  • The code freeze is time-limited to a very short window of at most a few days, preferably outside working hours.
  • No other work is planned on the system under code freeze during the specified window.
  • Confidence in the team’s ability to change the system predictably and regularly is low, and the effort to raise this confidence is significantly higher than the risk of the code freeze, or the work the code freeze permits would enable such changes.
  • Work is planned, after the code freeze, to remove or reduce the need for future code freezes.
  • The process to request exceptions to the code freeze is well documented and understood by all those who may be impacted by it (including teams whose systems interact with the system under code freeze).

If you cannot meet all those conditions, a code freeze will likely introduce more risk to your system. In that case, you should work to either meet these conditions or, preferably, iterate the system such that a code freeze is not required to make changes.

This page was last reviewed on 23 January 2024. It needs to be reviewed again on 23 April 2024 by the page owner #hosting .
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