Rollback vs Hotfix (Fix Forward) — Rethinking My Preference

You’ve just deployed your latest update to production, and suddenly your system is unstable or crashing. What do you do?

With recent advancements in deployment tooling and practices, I now believe that establishing processes and norms to favor quick rollbacks is finally worth the extra up front effort—whereas just a few years ago, I felt the cost and overhead were too burdensome, often defaulting to a Fix Forward approach.

Much of this change in thinking has to do with advancements in fully automated deployment capabilities coupled with solid “immune system” capabilities built into the deploy process.

Case in point: Slack opts for rollbacks over hotfixes for several key reasons, all aimed at maintaining stability and efficiency, coupled with their fully automated deploy advancements:

1) Speed and Safety: Rollbacks are generally faster to execute than hotfixes. When an issue is detected, rolling back to a previous stable version of the software can be accomplished in minutes. This rapid response is crucial in minimizing downtime and the impact of bugs on users and operations.

2) Reduced Complexity: Hotfixes require identifying the problem, developing a fix, testing the fix, and then deploying it—a process that can be time-consuming and prone to errors, especially under the pressure of an ongoing incident. Rollbacks, on the other hand, simply revert the system to a known good state without the need to immediately solve the underlying issue in a rush.

3) Avoiding Quick Fixes Under Pressure: Developing fixes during an incident can lead to rushed decisions and potentially faulty coding as developers may feel pressured to resolve the issue quickly. Rollbacks eliminate this pressure, allowing for a more thoughtful and thorough investigation and solution to the problem at a later time.

4) Reliability of Known Good State: By rolling back to a previously stable release, Slack ensures the reliability of their service based on tested and proven software versions. This reliability is crucial for maintaining trust and functionality, especially in a high-stakes environment like Slack’s operations.

5) Strategic Long-term Fixes: After a rollback, the team can take the time to properly diagnose the issue and develop a more comprehensive and well-tested solution, rather than applying a quick fix. This approach often leads to better quality and more durable software improvements.

By favoring rollbacks, organizations like Slack prioritize operational stability, reduce risk, and ensure a high-quality user experience, while still enabling thorough enhancements.

What has your experience been—rollback or hotfix? Is it worth the investment to truly enable rollback as the preferred approach? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!

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