What is a hotfix? Software Patches Explained


Patches are symptoms of a persistent problem in software development. While patches aim to quickly fix defects for customers, without waiting for the next full release, they also destabilize the production codebase.

Companies that rely too much on patches to improve customer satisfaction tend to make the problem worse and reduce the quality of their applications over time. One patch is followed by another, then another, until the application is patched or glued together.

Creating a patch requires quick planning and effective organization to avoid a recurring fire drill. Product owners, developers, and testers should plan an approach to manage patches and remove defects without causing additional problems. Overall, patches are a risky but possibly necessary part of software development.

In this guide, we’ll explain what a patch is, its purpose in software testing, the dangers these updates present, the keys to testing patches, and tips on how to avoid them in the first place.

What is a hotfix?

A patch is a quick fix to fix a bug or defect and usually bypasses the normal software development process. Patches are typically applied to high priority or serious bugs that require immediate correction, such as a bug that breaks software functionality or security.

Software development teams always generate defects or bugs — it’s the nature of the job; there are too many things to test and not enough time to do it. As bugs or defects are reported, the organization prioritizes them as critical, severe, high, medium, or low (or other similar terms). Critical defects require a fix in most cases based on the release schedule.

What’s the difference between patches, fixes, and bug fixes?

A fix and a fix each refer to the same quick fix of a defect. In some development teams, hotfixes refer to a service pack or a group of several hotfixes deployed at the same time. Patches and hotfixes are often called interchangeably.

A bug fix is ​​a standard defect fix that is coded, then tested, run through regression testing, and then deployed as part of a planned release. The majority of software development teams work from backlogs of previously entered defects or bugs.

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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 vital role in a robust regression strategy.

Bugs come from a variety of places, including customer reports through the support team, running QA tests, or developers finding issues while coding. Bugs are usually logged in a tracking system, then prioritized and fixed for each release. Testers evaluate bug fixes individually and then put them through a regression test suite that is run before release. Developers can also create unit tests in code to automatically test their bug fixes.

Patches are bug fixes, but they are done quickly. Typically, testers do not evaluate patches as thoroughly as bug fixes due to time and system constraints.

Typical patch timeline

Software developers and testers work in a sprint, a set of planned works, to create new features and bug fixes for each release. When a fix occurs, the organization compiles bug details, then developers and testers discuss a plan for a quick code and test routine. Other work stops until the fix is ​​coded, tested, and deployed.

Once the bug is coded, it undergoes unit testing and then the fix is ​​deployed to the test server(s). The QA professional assigned to the patch commits it to the test server. If successful, it is deployed to a secondary test server, usually called Staging – although it is sometimes deployed directly on Production. Depending on the nature of the fix, for example if it is a major security vulnerability or a critical feature defect, the QA tester usually runs a basic smoke test on all features and the bug fix in production, if possible. Test in a live Production server carries significant risks, which is why patch testing is often only performed until the Staging waiter.

Once the patch is deployed and live, the team returns to their sprint or release work.

The cyclical nature of patches and the risks of relying on them

Patches break the release flow for development and testing teams. It’s distracting to constantly change tasks and work priorities, but software development organizations make a habit of constantly releasing patches.

Constant patch releases destabilize the Production server – and introduce new bugs that only lead to more fixes. Once a company is on the patch carousel, it’s hard to stop. But, if this does not stop, the organization risks building a code base on top of patch code that is difficult or impossible to support. The regular release cycle is constantly interrupted, the code becomes unstable, and codebase support gets trickier every day.

The end result is missed release deadlines and an overall poor quality app. Customers may like quick fixes, until they provoke other quick fixes. At this point, the lack of consistency and chaos can cause the customer to no longer trust the app or the business.

Keys to Avoid Patches

The surest way to avoid patches is to increase the scope, breadth, and depth of software testing. Plan full regression testing against a Staging server that reflects the Production server exactly. Additionally, run tests on all back-end messaging, databases, APIs, and other dependent connections.

Test data should represent actual production data at least in type and structure. Testing should encompass configuration settings or customizable settings. Test servers should be running the same active connections as Production rather than relying on simulated connection processing or simulated data loading.

Other keys to avoiding patches include:

  • enhance user story or requirements documentation with actual functional details;

  • improve the design or consider using prototypes before coding;

  • create time for unit test development;

  • use automated built-in unit tests before each code deployment;

  • consider moving to continuous integration and continuous deployment;

  • create more in-depth documentation as part of development and testing.

4 testing tips for patches

In a tester’s career, they will probably test thousands of patches. They are essential. When everyone on the team is in fire drill mode and chaos reigns, what’s the best way to test a fix as thoroughly as possible?

Here are four critical actions every tester should perform before testing a fix.

Understand the work to be done. Discuss details with the developers coding the fix, including the bug itself and the expected outcome of the fix

To ask questions. Review expected features with the product team. Based on these conversations, determine what you can and cannot test.

Make a checklist of all items to test. In this list, include any built-in functionality affected by the defect. Checklists are quick to create and easy to follow during testing, ensuring that all relevant items are tested. Checklists also provide baseline documentation for all test cases written after deployment.

Regression test around the defect. Determine other functionality that may be affected by the hotfix fix. Test as many related features as possible. After patch testing is complete, add the test steps to the regression or smoke test suite for future execution.

Keep in mind that patches are an extreme measure and should not be common practice. To help increase your testing coverage and avoid serious defects in the first place, consider a more comprehensive testing strategy that uses global crowdtesters who can mimic real-world use of your product.

Contact Applause today to learn how some of the world’s biggest brands use crowd testing to deliver high-quality digital experiences.

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