Developing with feature flags

This document provides guidelines on how to use feature flags in the GitLab codebase to conditionally enable features and test them.

Features that are developed and merged behind a feature flag should not include a changelog entry. The entry should be added either in the merge request removing the feature flag or the merge request where the default value of the feature flag is set to enabled. If the feature contains any database migrations, it should include a changelog entry for the database changes.

Caution: All newly-introduced feature flags should be disabled by default.
Note: This document is the subject of continued work as part of an epic to improve internal usage of Feature Flags. Raise any suggestions as new issues and attach them to the epic.

Types of feature flags

Choose a feature flag type that matches the expected usage.

development type

development feature flags are short-lived feature flags, used so that unfinished code can be deployed in production.

A development feature flag should have a rollout issue, ideally created using the Feature Flag Roll Out template.

Note: This is the default type used when calling Feature.enabled?.

ops type

ops feature flags are long-lived feature flags that control operational aspects of GitLab’s behavior. For example, feature flags that disable features that might have a performance impact, like special Sidekiq worker behavior.

ops feature flags likely do not have rollout issues, as it is hard to predict when they will be enabled or disabled.

To use ops feature flags, you must append type: :ops to Feature.enabled? invocations:

# Check if feature flag is enabled
Feature.enabled?(:my_ops_flag, project, type: :ops)

# Check if feature flag is disabled
Feature.disabled?(:my_ops_flag, project, type: :ops)

# Push feature flag to Frontend
push_frontend_feature_flag(:my_ops_flag, project, type: :ops)

licensed type

licensed feature flags are used to temporarily disable licensed features. There should be a one-to-one mapping of licensed feature flags to licensed features.

licensed feature flags must be default_enabled: true, because that’s the only supported option in the current implementation. This is under development as per the related issue.

The licensed type has a dedicated set of functions to check if a licensed feature is available for a project or namespace. This check validates if the license is assigned to the namespace and feature flag itself. The licensed feature flag has the same name as a licensed feature name:

# Good: checks if feature flag is enabled
project.feature_available?(:my_licensed_feature)
namespace.feature_available?(:my_licensed_feature)

# Bad: licensed flag must be accessed via `feature_available?`
Feature.enabled?(:my_licensed_feature, type: :licensed)
push_frontend_feature_flag(:my_licensed_feature, type: :licensed)

Feature flag definition and validation

Introduced in GitLab 13.3.

During development (RAILS_ENV=development) or testing (RAILS_ENV=test) all feature flag usage is being strictly validated.

This process is meant to ensure consistent feature flag usage in the codebase. All feature flags must:

  • Be known. Only use feature flags that are explicitly defined.
  • Not be defined twice. They have to be defined either in FOSS or EE, but not both.
  • Use a valid and consistent type: across all invocations.
  • Use the same default_enabled: across all invocations.
  • Have an owner.

All feature flags known to GitLab are self-documented in YAML files stored in:

Each feature flag is defined in a separate YAML file consisting of a number of fields:

Field Required Description
name yes Name of the feature flag.
type yes Type of feature flag.
default_enabled yes The default state of the feature flag that is strictly validated, with default_enabled: passed as an argument.
introduced_by_url no The URL to the Merge Request that introduced the feature flag.
rollout_issue_url no The URL to the Issue covering the feature flag rollout.
group no The group that owns the feature flag.
Tip: All validations are skipped when running in RAILS_ENV=production.

Create a new feature flag

The GitLab codebase provides bin/feature-flag, a dedicated tool to create new feature flag definitions. The tool asks various questions about the new feature flag, then creates a YAML definition in config/feature_flags or ee/config/feature_flags.

Only feature flags that have a YAML definition file can be used when running the development or testing environments.

$ bin/feature-flag my-feature-flag
>> Specify the group introducing the feature flag, like `group::apm`:
?> group::memory

>> URL of the MR introducing the feature flag (enter to skip):
?> https://gitlab.com/gitlab-org/gitlab/-/merge_requests/38602

>> Open this URL and fill in the rest of the details:
https://gitlab.com/gitlab-org/gitlab/-/issues/new?issue%5Btitle%5D=%5BFeature+flag%5D+Rollout+of+%60test-flag%60&issuable_template=Feature+Flag+Roll+Out

>> URL of the rollout issue (enter to skip):
?> https://gitlab.com/gitlab-org/gitlab/-/issues/232533
create config/feature_flags/development/test-flag.yml
---
name: test-flag
introduced_by_url: https://gitlab.com/gitlab-org/gitlab/-/merge_requests/38602
rollout_issue_url: https://gitlab.com/gitlab-org/gitlab/-/issues/232533
group: group::memory
type: development
default_enabled: false
Tip: To create a feature flag that is only used in EE, add the --ee flag: bin/feature-flag --ee

Delete a feature flag

See cleaning up feature flags for more information about deleting feature flags.

Develop with a feature flag

There are two main ways of using Feature Flags in the GitLab codebase:

Backend

The feature flag interface is defined in lib/feature.rb. This interface provides a set of methods to check if the feature flag is enabled or disabled:

if Feature.enabled?(:my_feature_flag, project)
  # execute code if feature flag is enabled
else
  # execute code if feature flag is disabled
end

if Feature.disabled?(:my_feature_flag, project)
  # execute code if feature flag is disabled
end

In rare cases you may want to make a feature enabled by default. If so, explain the reasoning in the merge request. Use default_enabled: true when checking the feature flag state:

if Feature.enabled?(:feature_flag, project, default_enabled: true)
  # execute code if feature flag is enabled
else
  # execute code if feature flag is disabled
end

if Feature.disabled?(:my_feature_flag, project, default_enabled: true)
  # execute code if feature flag is disabled
end

If not specified, the default feature flag type for Feature.enabled? and Feature.disabled? is type: development. For all other feature flag types, you must specify the type::

if Feature.enabled?(:feature_flag, project, type: :ops)
  # execute code if ops feature flag is enabled
else
  # execute code if ops feature flag is disabled
end

if Feature.disabled?(:my_feature_flag, project, type: :ops)
  # execute code if feature flag is disabled
end

Frontend

Use the push_frontend_feature_flag method for frontend code, which is available to all controllers that inherit from ApplicationController. You can use this method to expose the state of a feature flag, for example:

before_action do
  # Prefer to scope it per project or user e.g.
  push_frontend_feature_flag(:vim_bindings, project)
end

def index
  # ...
end

def edit
  # ...
end

You can then check the state of the feature flag in JavaScript as follows:

if ( gon.features.vimBindings ) {
  // ...
}

The name of the feature flag in JavaScript is always camelCase, so checking for gon.features.vim_bindings would not work.

See the Vue guide for details about how to access feature flags in a Vue component.

In rare cases you may want to make a feature enabled by default. If so, explain the reasoning in the merge request. Use default_enabled: true when checking the feature flag state:

before_action do
  # Prefer to scope it per project or user e.g.
  push_frontend_feature_flag(:vim_bindings, project, default_enabled: true)
end

If not specified, the default feature flag type for push_frontend_feature_flag is type: development. For all other feature flag types, you must specify the type::

before_action do
  push_frontend_feature_flag(:vim_bindings, project, type: :ops)
end

Feature actors

It is strongly advised to use actors with feature flags. Actors provide a simple way to enable a feature flag only for a given project, group or user. This makes debugging easier, as you can filter logs and errors for example, based on actors. This also makes it possible to enable the feature on the gitlab-org or gitlab-com groups first, while the rest of the users aren’t impacted.

Actors also provide an easy way to do a percentage rollout of a feature in a sticky way. If a 1% rollout enabled a feature for a specific actor, that actor will continue to have the feature enabled at 10%, 50%, and 100%.

GitLab currently supports the following models as feature flag actors:

  • User
  • Project
  • Group

The actor is a second parameter of the Feature.enabled? call. The same actor type must be used consistently for all invocations of Feature.enabled?.

Feature.enabled?(:feature_flag, project)
Feature.enabled?(:feature_flag, group)
Feature.enabled?(:feature_flag, user)

Enable additional objects as actors

To use feature gates based on actors, the model needs to respond to flipper_id. For example, to enable for the Foo model:

class Foo < ActiveRecord::Base
  include FeatureGate
end

Only models that include FeatureGate or expose flipper_id method can be used as an actor for Feature.enabled?.

Feature flags for licensed features

The Project#feature_available?, Namespace#feature_available? (EE), and License.feature_available? (EE) methods all implicitly check for a by default enabled feature flag with the same name as the provided argument.

An important side-effect of the implicit feature flags mentioned above is that unless the feature is explicitly disabled or limited to a percentage of users, the feature flag check defaults to true.

Note: Due to limitations with feature_available?, the YAML definition for licensed feature flags accepts only default_enabled: true. This is under development as per the related issue.

If you want a licensed feature to be disabled by default or enabled only for a given gate, you can use a feature flag with a different name. The feature checks would then look like:

Feature.enabled?(:licensed_feature_feature_flag, project) && project.feature_available?(:licensed_feature)

Feature groups

Feature groups must be defined statically in lib/feature.rb (in the .register_feature_groups method), but their implementation can obviously be dynamic (querying the DB, for example).

Once defined in lib/feature.rb, you can to activate a feature for a given feature group via the feature_group parameter of the features API

Enabling a feature flag locally (in development)

In the rails console (rails c), enter the following command to enable a feature flag:

Feature.enable(:feature_flag_name)

Similarly, the following command disables a feature flag:

Feature.disable(:feature_flag_name)

You can also enable a feature flag for a given gate:

Feature.enable(:feature_flag_name, Project.find_by_full_path("root/my-project"))

Feature flags in tests

Introducing a feature flag into the codebase creates an additional code path that should be tested. It is strongly advised to test all code affected by a feature flag, both when enabled and disabled to ensure the feature works properly.

Note: When using the testing environment, all feature flags are enabled by default.

To disable a feature flag in a test, use the stub_feature_flags helper. For example, to globally disable the ci_live_trace feature flag in a test:

stub_feature_flags(ci_live_trace: false)

Feature.enabled?(:ci_live_trace) # => false

If you wish to set up a test where a feature flag is enabled only for some actors and not others, you can specify this in options passed to the helper. For example, to enable the ci_live_trace feature flag for a specific project:

project1, project2 = build_list(:project, 2)

# Feature will only be enabled for project1
stub_feature_flags(ci_live_trace: project1)

Feature.enabled?(:ci_live_trace) # => false
Feature.enabled?(:ci_live_trace, project1) # => true
Feature.enabled?(:ci_live_trace, project2) # => false

The behavior of FlipperGate is as follows:

  1. You can enable an override for a specified actor to be enabled.
  2. You can disable (remove) an override for a specified actor, falling back to the default state.
  3. There’s no way to model that you explicitly disabled a specified actor.
Feature.enable(:my_feature)
Feature.disable(:my_feature, project1)
Feature.enabled?(:my_feature) # => true
Feature.enabled?(:my_feature, project1) # => true

Feature.disable(:my_feature2)
Feature.enable(:my_feature2, project1)
Feature.enabled?(:my_feature2) # => false
Feature.enabled?(:my_feature2, project1) # => true

have_pushed_frontend_feature_flags

Use have_pushed_frontend_feature_flags to test if push_frontend_feature_flag has added the feature flag to the HTML.

For example,

stub_feature_flags(value_stream_analytics_path_navigation: false)

visit group_analytics_cycle_analytics_path(group)

expect(page).to have_pushed_frontend_feature_flags(valueStreamAnalyticsPathNavigation: false)

stub_feature_flags vs Feature.enable*

It is preferred to use stub_feature_flags to enable feature flags in the testing environment. This method provides a simple and well described interface for simple use cases.

However, in some cases more complex behavior needs to be tested, like percentage rollouts of feature flags. This can be done using .enable_percentage_of_time or .enable_percentage_of_actors:

# Good: feature needs to be explicitly disabled, as it is enabled by default if not defined
stub_feature_flags(my_feature: false)
stub_feature_flags(my_feature: true)
stub_feature_flags(my_feature: project)
stub_feature_flags(my_feature: [project, project2])

# Bad
Feature.enable(:my_feature_2)

# Good: enable my_feature for 50% of time
Feature.enable_percentage_of_time(:my_feature_3, 50)

# Good: enable my_feature for 50% of actors/gates/things
Feature.enable_percentage_of_actors(:my_feature_4, 50)

Each feature flag that has a defined state is persisted during test execution time:

Feature.persisted_names.include?('my_feature') => true
Feature.persisted_names.include?('my_feature_2') => true
Feature.persisted_names.include?('my_feature_3') => true
Feature.persisted_names.include?('my_feature_4') => true

Stubbing actor

When you want to enable a feature flag for a specific actor only, you can stub its representation. A gate that is passed as an argument to Feature.enabled? and Feature.disabled? must be an object that includes FeatureGate.

In specs you can use the stub_feature_flag_gate method that allows you to quickly create a custom actor:

gate = stub_feature_flag_gate('CustomActor')

stub_feature_flags(ci_live_trace: gate)

Feature.enabled?(:ci_live_trace) # => false
Feature.enabled?(:ci_live_trace, gate) # => true

You can also disable a feature flag for a specific actor:

gate = stub_feature_flag_gate('CustomActor')

stub_feature_flags(ci_live_trace: false, thing: gate)

Controlling feature flags engine in tests

Our Flipper engine in the test environment works in a memory mode Flipper::Adapters::Memory. production and development modes use Flipper::Adapters::ActiveRecord.

You can control whether the Flipper::Adapters::Memory or ActiveRecord mode is being used.

stub_feature_flags: true (default and preferred)

In this mode Flipper is configured to use Flipper::Adapters::Memory and mark all feature flags to be on-by-default and persisted on a first use. This overwrites the default_enabled: of Feature.enabled? and Feature.disabled? returning always true unless feature flag is persisted.

Make sure behavior under feature flag doesn’t go untested in some non-specific contexts.

See the testing guide for information and examples on how to stub feature flags in tests.

stub_feature_flags: false

This disables a memory-stubbed flipper, and uses Flipper::Adapters::ActiveRecord a mode that is used by production and development.

You should use this mode only when you really want to tests aspects of Flipper with how it interacts with ActiveRecord.