What is a single code base?

Toby MacLachlan, 19 July 2021

A single code base: what is it, and why is it important?

No matter how tech-savvy you are (or not) you’ll have come across single code lines.  Perhaps you don’t realise when you have, but you have.  If you use accountancy software for example (e.g. Sage or Xero), you know that there are lots of other companies using it and that there are periodical updates to the software.  It gets better every now and then.  But you don’t notice when it happens, you just log in and there it is: better. 

The same is true for Ignite’s insurance software.  We have one version of our software and we update it every two weeks to make it better.  The updates are often small but they keep all our clients at the forefront of the system’s capabilities.

We do this even though it makes development slower.  It’d be much quicker to simply clone the latest version of your system and give that to a new client, rather than to merge all the functionality and fixes you’ve done for all the previous clients into a single code line.  

Why is this important?  Because lots of other policy administration software companies don’t use a single code base.  Instead, they have a major version upgrade they release every 6 or 12 or even 24 months. When there is a new version the clients are asked to pay for the upgrade. That’s fair enough, everyone has to earn money, but what if you don’t buy the upgrade?  Answer: your version of the software gets left behind and you’re stuck on a time-bomb of a system.  And if you try to upgrade in the future it might not work, because the people who used to work on your old version one, or two, or five years ago have forgotten how it works, moved to another company or retired.  Then hey presto: you’ve got a legacy system.  Suddenly upgrading is a business risk, and you’re going to have the same problem again in one, or two, or five years. 

As a software house, if you don’t have a single code line you end up with a tangle of systems a bit like human evolution’s ancestry as in the diagram shown: lots of defunct versions that get left behind along the way and go extinct. 

One of our esteemed competitors recently announced that they’re moving to a single code line.  Great news, good idea.  Two questions: what happens to all the poor buggers who’re on the old versions?  And secondly, do you really expect us to believe that you’re going to stick with a single code line in the future?  I’ll believe it when I see it.  

So if you’re on a system that has the words Version 6 (or similar) after it, then you might want to buy a platform that runs a single code base in the future…

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