A question you’ll occasionally see: when do you run your migrations in production? There’s a standard answer, so let’s talk about it.

The Answer

You’ll run your migrations before you deploy new code. In general, that means “every time you push code to production, you run all the migrations since the last time you pushed code to production. Do it before you replace the old code.”

Easy enough. Why?

First, because that’s the order you think about things. If you’re adding a new column to a table, you’ll want to make your code use it. If you run the migration first, that all works out nicely.

It doesn’t work for dropped columns, but that’s why dropping a column can be a little tricky.

Running the migration afterwards is possible, but usually annoying. If it takes two (or more) migrations to drop a column, well, you weren’t using that column anyway. If it takes two migrations to add a column, you’re very sad that you’ll have to wait a deploy (a day? a week? a month?) before you can add that new feature.

Second, it makes it clear when to do it. If you’re deploying to a cluster of four or five app servers, you don’t want to have to turn them all on a dime from the old code to the new code. Realistically, there’s going to be a bit of “gray area” between the old and new code when not everything has switched over. So you should assume you’re going to have both the old and new code running at once. So the only safe times to run the deploy are before all of that, or after all of it.

And “after”, again, has some problems.

Why Not Both?

Technically you could have some kind of “pre-deploy migrations” and “post-deploy migrations” be separate. But the more steps you add, the more complex you’re likely to find your deployment… and rollback. What do you do if the pre-deploy migration succeeds and the post-deploy migration fails? Do you have separate rollbacks for each? Or do a rollback even though things “basically worked?” It’s possible, but… well, better you than me. In general, try to simplify. Having multiple separately-reversible stages of migrations isn’t likely to be the simplest solution.

So…?

Most tools will just choose this for you. If you’re running Capistrano, say, it will quietly do the right thing without fussing over it. So if you expect the right thing, everything will “just work.”

Now you can expect the right thing, because you know what it is. And in one more situation, everything will quietly just work because you knew how to write your migrations.

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