Hotfixes are symptoms of an ongoing problem in software development. While hotfixes are intended to quickly fix defects for customers without waiting for the next full release, they also destabilize the production code base.
Companies that rely too much on hotfixes to increase customer satisfaction tend to make the problem worse and degrade the quality of their applications over time. One hotfix is followed by another, then another, until the application is patched or glued together.
Making a hotfix requires quick planning and efficient organization to avoid a recurring fire drill. Product owners, developers and testers need to devise an approach to manage hotfixes and remove defects without causing additional problems. All in all, hotfixes are a risky but perhaps necessary part of software development.
In this guide, we’ll explain what a hotfix is, its purpose in software testing, the dangers these updates pose, the keys to testing hotfixes, and tips for avoiding them in the first place.
What is a hot fix?
A hotfix is a quick fix to fix a bug or defect and usually bypasses the normal software development process. Hotfixes are usually applied to high or serious priority bugs that require immediate correction, such as a bug that breaks the functionality or security of the software.
Software development teams always generate defects or bugs — it’s the nature of the job; there is too much to test and too little time to do it. When bugs or defects are reported, the organization will prioritize them as critical, severe, high, moderate, or low (or other similar terms). Critical defects require a hotfix in most cases, depending on the release schedule.
What is the difference between hotfixes, patches and bug fixes?
A hotfix and patch each refer to the same quick fix from a defect. In some development teams, software patches refer to a service pack or a group of multiple hotfixes that are deployed simultaneously. Hotfixes and patches are often referred to interchangeably.
A bug fix is a standard defect fix that is coded, then tested, goes through regression testing, and then implemented as part of a planned release. Most software development teams work from backlogs of previously introduced defects or bugs.
The value of manual regression testing
Test automation plays a vital role in regression testing. But test automation is not a golden hammer and manual testing plays a critical role in a robust regression strategy.
Bugs come from a variety of places, including customers reporting through the support team, QA test run, or developers finding issues while coding. Bugs are usually reported to a tracking system and then prioritized and fixed for each release. Testers review bug fixes individually and then place them in a pre-release regression test suite. Developers can also create unit tests within the code to automatically test their bug fixes.
Hotfixes are bug fixes, but they are done quickly. Due to time and system constraints, testers don’t evaluate hotfixes as thoroughly as bug fixes.
Typical hotfix timeline
Software developers and testers work in a sprint, a planned series of work, to create new features and bug fixes for each release. When a hotfix occurs, the organization gathers the details of the bug, then developers and testers discuss a plan for a quick code-and-test routine. Other work stops until the hotfix is coded, tested, and deployed.
Once the bug is coded, it will be tested on units and the fix will be deployed to the test server(s). The QA professional assigned to the bug fix will validate it in the test server. If it succeeds, it will be deployed on a secondary test server, usually called staging – although it is sometimes used directly to production† Depending on the nature of the fix, such as whether it is a major security vulnerability or a critical defect in functionality, the QA tester will typically perform a basic smoke test on all functionality and the bug fix in production, if possible. Testing within a lifetime production server poses significant risk, so hotfix testing is often done only until the staging server.
Once the hotfix is deployed and live, the team will return to its sprint or release work.
The cyclical nature of hotfixes and the risks of relying on them
Hotfixes interrupt the release flow for both development and testing teams. Constantly shifting work tasks and priorities is distracting, but software development organizations make a habit of continuously releasing hotfixes.
Constant hotfix releases destabilize the production server — and introduce new bugs that only result in more hotfixes. Once a company is on the hotfix carousel, it is hard to stop. But if it doesn’t stop, the organization risks creating a codebase layered with hotfix code that is difficult or impossible to support. The regular release cycle is constantly interrupted, code destabilizes and supporting the codebase becomes more difficult every day.
The final result is missed release deadlines and an application with poor overall quality. Customers may like quick fixes until they cause more quick fixes. At that point, the lack of consistency and chaos can lead to the customer no longer trusting the application or company.
Keys to avoid hotfixes
The surest method of avoiding hotfixes is to increase the scope, breadth, and depth of software testing. Plan for full regression testing against a staging server that uses the . mirrors production server exactly. In addition, run tests on all back-end messages, databases, APIs, and other dependent connections.
Test data must represent real production data at least in type and structure. Testing should include configuration settings or customizable settings. Test servers must run the same active connections that: production rather than relying on simulated connection processing or simulated data loading.
Other keys to avoid hotfixes are:
improve the user story or documentation of the requirements with current functional details;
improve the design or consider using prototypes before coding;
allocate time for unit test development;
use automated integrated unit testing before any code implementation;
consider moving to continuous integration and continuous deployment;
create more in-depth documentation within development and testing.
4 hotfix test tips
In a tester’s career, they will likely test thousands of hotfixes. They are inevitable. What’s the best way to test a hotfix as thoroughly as possible when everyone on the team is in fire drill mode and chaos reigns?
Here are four critical actions every tester should perform before testing a hotfix.
Understand the work at hand† Discuss the details with the developers coding the fix, including the bug itself and the expected outcome of the fix
Asking questions† Review the expected functionality with the product team. Based on these conversations, determine what you can and cannot test.
Make a checklist of all items to be tested† Include in this list any integrated functionality that is affected by the defect. Checklists are quick to create and easy to follow during testing, ensuring all relevant items are tested. Checklists also provide basic documentation for test cases written after implementation.
Regression test around the defect† Determine what other functionality might be affected by the hotfix fix. Test as much of the associated functionality as possible. After the hotfix test is complete, add the test steps to the regression or smoke test suite for future execution.
Keep in mind that hotfixes are an extreme measure and should not be common. To increase your test coverage and avoid serious defects, consider a more comprehensive testing strategy that uses global crowdtesters that can mimic the use of your product in the real world.
Contact Applause today to find out how some of the world’s leading brands rely on crowdtesting to deliver high-quality digital experiences.
Holistic App Testing Strategies
A holistic testing strategy includes manual, automated, exploratory, user acceptance, and non-functional testing to ensure product quality. Read more about this approach.
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