Effective Feature Flagging on Mobile

May 14, 2018

Feature flagging is a great way to reduce risk by allowing features to be turned off remotely, but only if it's done correctly. I recently incorrectly feature flagged some code at Yelp! and wanted to share some lessons learned to help avoid similar issues in the future.

First, Some Context

Our team is currently working on migrating our App's analytics system to use a new event logging library.  Getting correct metrics is important, so we decided to start by dual logging all of our analytics through our legacy library and the new library and then comparing them for consistency. We had tested the new library, but we weren't totally sure how it would behave in production, so we decided to put it behind a feature flag in case anything blew up.

This process initially seemed super easy: as all we needed to do was add some code in our base Application class that looked like:

    LegacyAnalyticsSystem legacySystem = LegacyAnalyticsSystem();
    if (Features.new_logging_infra.isEnabled()) {
        // The legacy system publishes its analytics as a stream.  The new
        // subscribes to that and transforms them.

Before shipping we did all our normal dilligence. We wrote unit tests for the new system and tested cases where the flag was both on and off. Everything came up green, so we happily shipped to production with the flag turned on.

Once our release rolled out, our backend engineers started reporting issues where we were logging incorrect data from the new system. That wasn't great news, but fortunately, we had a feature flag we could use to run it off! We went into our feature flagging system, turned the feature off, and... the errors still persisted. This left us feeling a little like WTFMate?

After thinking about it a little more, we realized that we had incorrectly feature flagged this code. Our feature flag was only getting checked in our base Application class on app startup. This meant that the application would need to get killed and restart in order for our changes to take effect. Talk about bad!

What should we have done instead?

We had the right idea with feature flagging this code, but our error here was WHEN we actually checked the feature flag. Instead of feature flagging the point of subscription to the existing analytics system, we should have feature flagged the actual point of logging.

This would mean that our Application class had code that looked something like:

        legacySystem = LegacyAnalyticsSystem();
Then, in our subscribeTo method, we should have included code which looked something like:
      fun subscribeTo(analyticStream: Observable):
            if(Features.new_logging_infra.isEnabled()) {
                // Send the log event via the new infrastructure.

This would check whether the feature flag is enabled before sending any analytics, which would have meant that any changes on the backend were immediately seen on the client.

So what did we learn from all this?

This process left me with two big takeaways.

  1. Feature flagging is great, especially for new infrastructure that you want to expose to production situations, but you're not entirely confident in.
  2. Make that if you are feature flagging a piece of code, that the flag itself is checked frequently. A flag that is only checked once per application lifecycle is harder to turn off than one which is checked frequently.

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