Feature Flags – Managing a WordPress Beta Program

Let’s say that you’re an author of a premium (i.e. paid for) WordPress plugin or theme. You’ve been hard at work on an amazing new feature but it really needs some testing before it goes out to all of your customers. How do you manage this process? What’s the best way to get new code into the hands of your beta users with the least effort on your part? This blog post is going to walk you through the process of using Kernl Feature Flags to easily manage a beta program without having two separate builds of your product.

Table of contents

What is a feature flag and how does it work?

Feature flagging is a software best practice for controlling the release of features (sometimes called “gating”). Feature flagging is important because it allows you to turn features on/off without having to do a deploy. But how does this impact you? How does it make things easier?

Feature flags allow you to manage beta programs with a single version of your product. What most people currently do is have 2 version of their product at any given time: The live version (what everyone sees) and the beta version (what your beta users see).  Wouldn’t it be easier to just have one version, one deployment process, and highly granular control over who sees what features?

Feature Flags Product View

For example, in the image above you can see that I have two feature flags: “GitLab CI” and “Download Invoice”. Right now they are both active and people can see the features that they represent. If I decided to change “Download Invoice” to inactive, the feature would be immediately deactivated in my plugin. I wouldn’t have to do another deploy and release a new version to make it happen. It happens automatically in the code that’s already with your customers.

Seems great right? Let’s do a full example so you can truly appreciate the power of feature flags.

Example: Adding a feature flag to the Kernl Example Plugin

The Kernl Example Plugin is intentionally very simple. The goal of the plugin is to show off Kernl’s various features while not overwhelming the person who is looking at it. To illustrate how and why feature flags are awesome, let’s add a simple setting to the “Settings -> General” menu.

The example plugin currently looks like this:

<?php
/**
* Plugin Name: Kernl Example Plugin
* Plugin URI: https://kernl.us
* Description: The Kernl Plugin for testing.
* Version: 3.3.0
* Author: Jack Slingerland
* Author URI: http://re-cycledair.com
*/
require 'plugin_update_check.php';

$MyUpdateChecker = new PluginUpdateChecker_2_0 (
    'https://kernl.us/api/v1/updates/5544bd7e5b8ae0fc1fa5e7a5/',
    __FILE__,
    'kernl-example-plugin',
    1
);
?>
All it does is require “plugin_update_check.php” and instantiate the update checker. Let’s make things a little more complicated by adding a setting to the example plugin.

Add a setting to the plugin

// This is added below plugin update instantiation.

function feature_flagged_settings_api_init() {
   add_settings_section(
        'feature_flagged_setting_section',
        'Feature Flag Example Settings in General',
        'feature_flagged_setting_section_callback_function',
        'general'
    );
   add_settings_field(
        'feature_flag_setting_name',
        'My Feature Flag Setting',
        'feature_flag_setting_callback_function',
        'general',
        'feature_flagged_setting_section'
    );
   register_setting( 'reading', 'feature_flag_setting_name' );
}
add_action( 'admin_init', 'feature_flagged_settings_api_init' );

function feature_flagged_setting_section_callback_function() {
   echo '<p>This section is hidden completely behind a Kernl Feature Flag.</p>';
}

function feature_flag_setting_callback_function() {
    echo '<input name="feature_flag_setting_name" id="feature_flag_setting_name" type="checkbox" value="1" class="code" ' . checked( 1, get_option( 'feature_flag_setting_name' ), false ) . ' /> This checkbox is hidden behind a feature flag.';
}
 The above code simply uses the ‘admin_init’ hook to call the WordPress Settings API and add a menu item. It looks like this when you run the code:
Feature Flags Example Setting Image
 Awesome! We’re off to a great start. Now let’s wrap this in a feature flag so only our beta user’s can see it.

Create an On/Off feature flag

Kernl has extensive documentation for feature flag usage, but it all boils down to:

  1. Add the feature flag library to your plugin/theme.
  2. Create a feature flag product in Kernl. A good rule here is 1 plugin / theme to 1 feature flag product.
  3. Create a flag.
  4. Instantiate the feature flag library and wrap your code.
  5. Manage who see’s the feature using Kernl.

So let’s do step one. If you’re using Composer, follow the directions in the feature flag documentation. If not, you can go to https://github.com/wpkernl/WPFeatureFlags and download the WPFeatureFlags.php file and drop it into your plugin or theme.

<?php
// ... snip ...
require 'plugin_update_check.php';
require 'WPFeatureFlags.php';
// ... snip ...
Easy. Next, go to Kernl and add a new product in the Feature Flags section.
Feature Flags Add Product Button
When you click “Add Product” you’ll get to choose a product name. Since I’m using feature flags with my example plugin, I’ll name mine “Kernl Example Plugin”.
Feature Flags Add Product Modal
After you click save, you’ll see the new product at the bottom of your feature flag product list.
Feature Flags Created product in product list
Now here is something important! See the “key” next to your product’s name? You’ll need that to instantiate the WPFeatureFlags class. I’d go ahead and copy it to your clipboard now.
Next up, let’s add a simple feature flag for this new setting we’re adding. This is the thing that will control visibility for all of our users. Click “Manage Flags” in the product menu, and then click the “Add Flag” button. You’ll be presented with this screen.
Add / Edit Feature Flags screen
All the options look straight-forward, but let’s go over them anyways.
  • Active – Will this feature be toggled on or off for everyone.
  • Name – A descriptive name. I’m filling this in with “General Setting Checkbox Example”.
  • Identifier – This is how we identify the flag in code, so I like to make it short and easy to understand. I’ll be using “GENERAL_SETTINGS_CHECKBOX”.
  • Flag Type – Kernl has 3 different types of feature flags for your enjoyment.
    • On/Off – As expected, this toggles the feature on and off for every user. No granularity here, but super useful for quickly disabling things. We’ll be starting with this flag.
    • Individual – You can select specific users that a feature will be toggled on for. This is what we’ll be using eventually, but there are some caveats that come with it.
    • Percentage – Kernl will roll out your feature to a percentage of your user base. Nice if you don’t want to specify individual users, but also don’t want the feature turned on for everyone.

Edit feature flags example

When things are filled out, press save and get ready to move on.

Now that we have our feature flag created, let’s instantiate the WPFeatureFlag class and wrap our code.

<?php
/**
* Plugin Name: Kernl Example Plugin
* Plugin URI: https://kernl.us
* Description: The Kernl Plugin for testing.
* Version: 3.3.0
* Author: Jack Slingerland
* Author URI: http://re-cycledair.com
*/
require 'plugin_update_check.php';
require 'WPFeatureFlags.php';

$MyUpdateChecker = new PluginUpdateChecker_2_0 (
  'https://kernl.us/api/v1/updates/5544bd7e5b8ae0fc1fa5e7a5/',
  __FILE__,
  'kernl-example-plugin',
  1
);

// We add the feature flag code inside the init() function
// so that we can have access to who the current user is.
function feature_flagged_settings_api_init() {
  // The feature flag product key. Remember the key I said you should add to your clipboard? This is it.
  $kernlFeatureFlagProductKey = '5a24035ee48da05271310a71';

  // The user identifier is how Kernl identifies the user requesting flags.
  // This should be unique for every user.
  $current_user = wp_get_current_user();
  $user_login = $current_user->user_login;
  $site_url = get_site_url();
  $userIdentifier = "{$site_url} - {$user_login}";

  $kff = new kernl\WPFeatureFlags($kernlFeatureFlagProductKey, $userIdentifier);

  // This says "For the product defined above, does this flag exists, and if so, is it active for the given user?".
  if ($kff->active("GENERAL_SETTINGS_CHECKBOX")) {
    add_settings_section(
      'feature_flagged_setting_section',
      'Feature Flag Example Settings in General',
      'feature_flagged_setting_section_callback_function',
      'general'
    );

    add_settings_field(
      'feature_flag_setting_name',
      'My Feature Flag Setting',
      'feature_flag_setting_callback_function',
      'general',
      'feature_flagged_setting_section'
    );

    register_setting( 'reading', 'feature_flag_setting_name' );
  }
}

add_action( 'admin_init', 'feature_flagged_settings_api_init' );

function feature_flagged_setting_section_callback_function() {
  echo'<p>This section is hidden completely behind a Kernl Feature Flag.</p>';
}

function feature_flag_setting_callback_function() {
  echo'<input name="feature_flag_setting_name" id="feature_flag_setting_name" type="checkbox" value="1" class="code" '.checked( 1, get_option( 'feature_flag_setting_name' ), false ) .' /> This checkbox is hidden behind a feature flag.';
}

?>
Now that we have the feature flag in our code, let’s talk about some of the optimizations the WPFeatureFlag library has. One of the nice things about WordPress and PHP is that the code itself is stateless. Meaning that without some storage mechanism (MySQL, Redis, Memcache) the entire page and all of it’s data is rebuilt from scratch on every request. This is great for fast development cycles but not always for performance.
The WPFeatureFlag library helps with performance by storing flags for a given user as a WordPress transient for 5 minutes. This way repeated page requests by a user don’t constantly call Kernl and introduce network latency on the request. Kernl’s feature flag API is heavily cached but it’s better for the end user if flags are served out of your own store. What this means for you is that your user’s won’t see changes for a maximum of 5 minutes when you toggle a flag on/off. This is usually fine, but if you need shorter or longer intervals you can use the API directly.
That being said, go ahead and toggle the feature flag off in Kernl. In 5 minutes (or less) you’ll see the setting disappear from the admin. No code deploy needed. “That’s great!” you say, but what about beta program management? Easy. Let’s change this flag to an “individual” flag.

Create an individually targeted feature flag

The video below show’s you how to create an individually targeted feature flag. It’s the same as the on/off flag, except that you get to pick which user’s see the feature. One caveat with this is that if Kernl hasn’t seen the user yet we can’t target them. Why? Because we don’t know how to identify a user that we haven’t seen. If you went to target an individual user without having identified them yet, you would need to register them manually.

Now that the flag is targeted at an individual, that selected person will be able to see the menu setting. This is a contrived example, but you can see how this can be easily expanded to running a beta program. The best part is that you don’t need to have multiple versions of your plugin/theme out there. You can simply release one version, and toggle on features for specific people. In the future Kernl will support making groups of users so managing beta programs will be even easier!

If you have questions feel free to drop them in the comments!

Further Reading on Feature Flags

There’s a lot of great reading out there on feature flags and their uses. If you’re looking for more information about them, I highly recommend these resources.

What’s New With Kernl – December 2017

Happy December everyone! It’s been a busy month at Kernl. We’ve got a few great new features completed, some infrastructure updates, and a few bug fixes. Let’s get started.

Features

  • Customer Management – With the release of our new License Management product we introduced the concept of “customers”. As one would expect, a customer is someone who you assign a license to. The reason we introduced this was so that you could have multiple licenses associated to a single person and easily manage those from a single place. This is a huge improvement over the previous iteration and I highly recommend that you check it out. Hop over to the “License Management’ page and then click “Manage Customers”.
  • Customer Management API – In addition to the new customer management area in the app you can now access the customer management API. There are a lot of different ways that people purchase your plugins and themes so exposing a rich API is the best way to allow integration with Kernl. If you’d like to learn more, check out the documentation.
  • Purchase Code Migration – If you are a user of the legacy “purchase code” system you can now migrate all of your existing purchase codes over to the new license management system. When you go to the license management page there is a big call-out at the top when you can migrate your purchase codes. If you do this, make sure to update your plugin_update_check or theme_update_check file and where you instantiate the Kernl update class. Documentation for using the new license management system can be found here.
  • License Domain Restrictions – You can now restrict updates that are secured by license management to specific domains.

Minor Features & Bug Fixes

  • The web app has been upgraded from Angular 1.3.x to Angular 1.6.6. This is one of the first steps in a migration path forward to the next generation of Angular and a web app UI refresh.
  • You are now able to refresh the Git repository list that Kernl has with the press of a button. Before you had to disconnect/re-connect the integration.
  • In the interest of moving quickly, the first pass of license management and customer management did not have any tests written for it. This month we added a suite of tests around both APIs so that they remain stable.
  • Our back end application servers have been upgraded to Node.js 8.9.1. This brings security updates as well as new language features.
  • The license management documentation was updated to include links to the WordPress Settings API documentation. Kernl doesn’t make any assumptions about how your plugin or theme is developed, but people often ask what the easiest way to get licenses into their app is. The WordPress Settings API is likely the easiest, so it’s now mentioned in the documentation.
  • Meta tags have been added to the marketing site so that shares to Twitter look richer.
  • There was a bug in feature flags where individually targeted flags did not toggle on/off correctly.
  • All packages on all servers have been updated with the latest security fixes.

That’s all for this month! Have a great holiday season everyone!

What’s New With Kernl – November 2017

Happy November! The last month was all heads down on one new feature: License Management.

Features

  • WordPress License Management – As many of you know Kernl has had “Purchase Codes” for awhile now. It was clunky to use but generally very effective at it’s goal. License Management is the next generation of Kernl’s purchase code system. It’s less clunky, easier to understand, and doesn’t need to be tied to a plugin or theme. You can access it via the “License Management” button in the main menu. Pricing and usage limits can be viewed in the billing area.

What’s next?

Part of the new License Management system is the concept of customers. Ideally you should be able to tie multiple licenses to a single customer and manage them effectively through Kernl’s web interface or API. The new license management system was launched with a very simplified version of customer management, so the next month will be dedicated to making the customer management experience on Kernl amazing!

Introducing WordPress License Management with Kernl

For the past several years Kernl has been trusted with securing access to many people’s hard work via our license management system. We recently re-imagined our entire WordPress license management system, so we want to introduce it to you.

WordPress License Management

If you’ve ever sold a plugin or theme out on the open market, worrying about your plugin getting pirated is often at the top of your mind. One way to mitigate some of that risk is to use a license management solution. Kernl’s new license management system allows you to restrict access to your plugin or theme by forcing customers to activate before functionality is enabled. We can also check license codes before updates to your plugin or theme are downloaded, allowing you to restrict how many free upgrades a customer receives.

To summarize:

  • Kernl allows you to manage license keys for your product.
  • Kernl will restrict the number of updates a license is allowed to download for your product.
  • Kernl has a REST API that can allow you to restrict usage of your plugin until a license has been activated.

License Management Example

So how might you use Kernl’s WordPress license management? An example will illustrate this best.

The example above has a function to validate if a user’s license is valid. This can be used anywhere in your code to expose functionality only if the Kernl license is valid.

Restricting Update Downloads with WordPress License Management

If you would like to simply prevent your customers from downloading updates to your plugin or theme for free, just add the license parameter when you instantiate the Kernl update check class. This works the same for both plugins and themes.

The only difference between the sample above and a normal Kernl update instantiation is the inclusion of the ‘license’ property, which tells which license to try and validate with.

Going Forward

Want to give Kernl WordPress license management a try? Check out https://kernl.us and sign up. It’s free for 30 days and doesn’t require a credit card! In addition to license management and updates, we also have some great features like WordPress continuous deployment and feature flags.

What’s New With Kernl – October 2017

This month wasn’t a big feature month for Kernl, but there were some smaller bug fixes and infrastructure updates that are helping us serve our customers better. In addition to that, we also put out a short survey. Thanks to everyone who responded!

Changes & Bug Fixes

  • We are now able to automatically manage your BitBucket deploy keys. No more manually adding them!
  • Fixed & removed some flaky integration tests for feature flags.
  • Updated the documentation to reflect the BitBucket deploy key change.
  • Added some instrumentation around managing repository deploy keys and webhooks.
  • Upgraded application servers to Node.js 8.6.
  • A new cookie signature was deployed this month to fix a bug with authentication. You likely needed to re-authenticate because of it.
  • Upgraded all packages on our servers

Thats it for this month!

Private Premium Plugin Updates with Kernl.us

If you’ve ever created a plugin for WordPress and wanted to sell it you’ve likely run in to the problem of delivering updates to your customers. Agencies and internal developers run in to this problem as well.  You can’t upload your plugin to the WordPress.org repository because then it will be free for everyone, but you still really want integrated update functionality.

Kernl.us is a SaaS product that helps solve this problem (and so many others!). Kernl allows you to distribute updates to your premium plugin automatically using the built-in WordPress update functionality. So how does it work?

  1. Sign up for Kernl
  2. Create an entry for your plugin in Kernl
  3. Add 2 lines of code to your plugin.
  4. Upload your plugin to Kernl and then distribute it to your customers

Lets dive in an see how this works!

Creating a Plugin in Kernl

After you’ve signed up for Kernl, the first step to configure seamless automatic updates is to create a plugin entry in Kernl. To do so, click  the “Plugins” button in the left-hand menu.

Next, click the “Add Plugin” button.

The next step is easy. Just enter the name, slug, and description of your plugin then press “Save”.

Adding Kernl Update Code

Now that you have a plugin entry in Kernl, you can add the Kernl update code to your plugin. Download the Kernl plugin update code from https://kernl.us/static/php/plugin_update_check.php. and place it in the root directory of your plugin. Next, take note of the UUID of the plugin that you just created.

In your plugin’s main file, add the following code:

require 'plugin_update_check.php';
$MyUpdateChecker = new PluginUpdateChecker_2_0 (
    'https://kernl.us/api/v1/updates/MyUuidFromKernl/',
    __FILE__,
    'kernl-example-plugin',
    1
);

Replace “MyUuidFromKernl” with the UUID of the plugin you just created.

Uploading Your Plugin to Kernl

Now that you have Kernl inside of your plugin you need to zip it up. At the folder level, go ahead and zip the plugin using the zip tool of your choice.

If you were to extract your plugin, it should look like:

/my-plugin-slug
   plugin_update_check.php
   functions.php
   someOtherFile.php

If it looked like this (notice there is no nesting), Kernl will not work:

plugin_update_check.php
functions.php
someOtherFile.php

Take your plugin and click “Add Version” inside Kernl.

Next enter the version number (of the format MAJOR.MINOR.PATCH, ex 1.4.14), select the zip file you just created, and press “Save”.

Distribute Your Plugin

Now that Kernl has this version of your plugin, feel free to distribute this ZIP file to your customers. If you ever need to release an update, just make your code changes, zip them up, and upload the new version to Kernl. Within 30 seconds the update will be visible to your customers at which point they can download it!

What’s New With Kernl – July 2016

With summer in full-swing here in the United States, development on Kernl has been slowing down to accommodate much busier schedules than during the rest of the year.  This doesn’t mean we haven’t been busy though.

Features

Infrastructure, Bugs, and Miscellaneous

  • When the server throws a 500 error, it renders the correct template.  Prior to this fix Kernl would render a 404 page, which made it very hard to tell when you encountered an actual problem.
  • We now have a robots.txt file!
  • Kernl’s Mongo infrastructure has been moved to Compose.io.  Having a professional DBA manage Kernl’s database helps me sleep easier at night and provides customers with a more performant and stable backend.
  • The landing page for Kernl was taking over 1 second to load for many people.  Caching was added, and we now have the number down to under 100ms on average.

What’s next?

July is a busy month outside of Kernl, so I don’t expect much to get done.  The current plan is to take it easy in July and then come back with renewed vigor in August.

What’s New With Kernl – June 2016

The past month of work on Kernl has seen a lot of great infrastructure improvements as well as a few customer facing features that I’m pretty excited about.

Customer Facing Features

  • Direct Uploads to AWS S3 – When Kernl was originally created all file uploads were stored directly on Kernl’s servers.  As we grew, this became an unsustainable solution, so the process changed to just use Kernl’s servers as temporary holding space before putting the file on S3.  This month we made this process even better by having files upload directly to S3. For you, this means faster uploads and less time waiting to get updates out to your customers.
  • Expiring Purchase Codes – You can now create purchase codes that expire on a specific date.  This allows you to sell your updates over time, instead of having to give them away for free for the life of the plugin or theme.
  • Max Download Purchase Code Flag – You can configure a purchase code to only allow a certain number of update downloads.  This will help resolve any issues with customers sharing purchase codes amongst themselves or across multiple installations.
  • JS Cache Busting – As customer facing features get rolled out Kernl automatically busts the client-side javascript cache for https://kernl.us.  This should help prevent confusion and remove the need for any sort of “hard refresh” when new features are released.
  • plugin_update_check.php Bug Fixes – There was an edge-case bug where some code in this file would collide with an old version of WP-Updates plugin update check file.  This happens when a customer has your plugin and also has a really old version of somebody else’s plugin installed.  This update takes care of that collision permanently.
  • Client-side JS Errors – A few minor miscellaneous bug fixes were performed on the front-end of Kernl.

Infrastructure

  • MongoDB – The month started off with Kernl’s database moving to it’s own server.  This was a temporary step that aimed to make the move to a highly available setup easier.
  • Mongo Replica Sets – After the first MongoDB move, the next step was to make the setup highly available.  Kernl now has 3 Mongo databases (1 master + 2 replicas).  In the event that the master database goes down, Kernl automatically fails over to one of the replicas with no downtime.
  • Memcache – Memcache was moved to it’s own server to make it easier to increase the number of items that Kernl caches over time.  This piece of the setup doesn’t need to be highly available.  If for some reason it goes down, Kernl will continue to operate fine.
  • Nginx – Nginx is used by Kernl both as a front-door to the application as well as load balancer between the app servers.  This was moved to it’s own server which allows it scale up when we need additional capacity.  In the future (hopefully soon), we’ll use a floating IP address to give this portion of the infrastructure the ability to fail over to a backup Nginx server.
  • Multiple App Servers – Kernl’s app servers can now scale horizontally.  We’re currently running 3 app servers which Nginx load balances traffic to.  This setup allows us to add app servers easily as our traffic grows.
  • Automated Deployment – Kernl can now be deployed with a single command.
    What’s Next?
  • Caching the repository list that you see when you set up CI builds.
  • Get a rich text editor set up on the installation and description fields.
  • Theme change logs.
  • Wrap up infrastructure work.
  • Sign in / Sign up with BitBucket & GitHub.
  • Slack Integration.
  • HipChat Integration.