WTF are feature flags? (Angular example included)

Feature flags are a fairly rudimentary (but I think powerful) alternative to long lived feature branches, and the associated merge hell that goes with them.

You basically merge unfinished or experimental features to your master branch, and even deploy them, but hide the functionality behind ‘flags’, only allowing them to be viewed if certain switches are activated. The exact mechanism behind the switches doesn’t really matter, and I will detail some potential ways of implementing these switches in the context of an Angular application below.

Feature flags do not mean merging broken code or sloppy code.

The code should still be tested and peer reviewed, and your automated suite of unit, integration and e2e tests, linting and other build scripts that you have written to protect your master branch should still run (you do have those things… right?).

The feature is merely unfinished.

Perhaps it is missing some UI polish, or requires further QA before being released into the wild proper, or perhaps you want to test it out on a smaller subset of your user base to gather analytics feedback on the effectiveness of the feature.

There are many reasons why feature flags can make sense, but fundamentally they are a very simple concept.

They just give you the ability to ‘switch’ on or off different parts of your application, either at run-time or build time.

For me, the main benefit is that your feature is regularly integrated back into master, without having to wait for all of the functionality to be complete. This ensures that at all times you can be sure that your feature plays nicely with the rest of the code base, and with any other features that other people are working on (also hidden behind feature flags).

Also they are a great tool if you want to demo experimental features to stakeholders early on in the development process, in order to gather feedback.

I’ve managed to use them successfully before on a site serving thousands of daily visitors, without causing any disruption to the deployed product, and I was able to demo the feature in the live site.

Where to store feature state?

To use feature flags, you need some state somewhere that your app is aware of, that tells it whether certain features are enabled or not.

For example, say we have an experimental kitten generator feature that we only want to show sometimes, we might have a piece of data somewhere called kittenGeneratorEnabled, which our app checks to see if it should allow a user access to the feature.

There are many places this data could live, and your particular use case will dictate the most sensible course of action:

  • Build configuration files (in Angular’s case we would probably use environment files for this). We can set the switch to on/off at build time and our deployed app will reflect this. The downside to this approach is that it not super flexible, as you can’t switch the feature on/off at run-time. If you have a slick and speedy build pipeline, you can still turn off features in subsequent builds quickly and easily if there are any problems with them. It is also a pretty light weight solution, it just costs you a tiny bit of configuration. You can also have builds for different contexts, for example you could disable all experimental features in production, and turn them on for QA or something similar (not saying this is a good idea, just an example of the level of control this can give you).

  • A server. We can delegate the responsibility for setting feature flags to a backend service. If you have more complex requirements, for example only showing features to a specific subset of users via traffic splitting etc. this might be worth looking into as the complex logic/management portal for this sort of granular control can be moved out of the frontend. In our kitten generator case we would query an endpoint like GET /kittenGeneratorEnabled to figure out whether to show the user the feature. If the features are potentially insecure and you want to make sure they are only viewed by people you trust, rather than nasty malicious types, then you could make users authenticate and control access to the features via the backend too. The main downside of this is that it is pretty heavy weight, and requires more communication between any frontend and backend developers.

  • Browser storage. Cookies, local storage, session storage etc. can be used to keep the state and can then very easily be queried in your frontend code to see whether to allow access to features or not. In the case of the server example above, you could have the endpoint set and unset cookies, then have your app read these cookies. These browser storage items can also be set and unset via the browser address bar with query parameters. This has the advantage that you can send people links with certain flags enabled/disabled for demos/testing, rather than having them manually mess around with browser storage. These links will also work equally well on mobile devices, where setting custom cookies etc. is much harder.

Obviously you can, and probably should use a combination of the above approaches to meet your needs.

How to control access to features

Most features in a modern web application will be routed. In our case there would probably be a /kitten-generator route in the frontend.

If this is the case then the simplest way to control access to the feature in Angular is to use a conditional route guard.

Other features/functionality can be controlled with simple if/else statements (as in if(featureEnabled){ do a thing }).

Basically this stuff shouldn’t be complex in a well architected application. If your application consists of one app.component.ts with thousands of lines of code in it, then you will have a more difficult time. In that case feature flags are probably the least of your problems!

Generally though, you will be able to switch a feature off by simply blocking the route with a route guard.

What would a route guard for something like that look like?


Let’s say we have decided to use the browser’s local storage to set individual feature flag state (in our case the kitten-generator-enabled flag).

We have also decided to add an additional safety value in our Angular environment file called featureFlags which when set to true will allow access to any experimental features if the correct local storage value is set, and when set to false, will not allow access to any experimental features, even if the user has the correct local storage value set. This means that if we are being super paranoid we can have builds for production which do not expose any experimental or half finished features.

import { Injectable } from '@angular/core';
import {
} from '@angular/router';
import { environment } from '../../environments/environment';

  providedIn: 'root',
export class FeatureRouteGuardService implements CanActivate {
  constructor(public router: Router) {}
    route: ActivatedRouteSnapshot,
    state: RouterStateSnapshot,
  ): boolean {
    if (!environment.featureFlags) {
      this.router.navigateByUrl( || '/');
      return false;
    if (localStorage.getItem( {
      return true;
    this.router.navigateByUrl( || '/');
    return false;

And we would use it like this:

        path: 'kitten-generator',
        component: KittenGeneratorComponent,
        canActivate: [FeatureRouteGuardService],
        data: { featureFlag: 'kitten-generator-enabled', featureFlagDisabledRoute: '/' },

Now, if a user has a kitten-generator-enabled:true value in their browser’s local storage, and they are accessing a build with the featureFlags value set to true in the environment file, then they will be able to access this route, otherwise, they will be redirected to /.

Going one step further, if we wanted to implement the logic to set or unset features via the browser url, we might use something like this inside the app’s app.component.ts

   * parse the navigation bar query parameters, and use them to set
   * local storage values to drive feature flag activation
   * @param queryParams
  private processFeatureFlagQueryParams(queryParams: Params) {
    const featuresToTurnOn =
      (queryParams['features-on'] && queryParams['features-on'].split(',')) ||
    const featuresToTurnOff =
      (queryParams['features-off'] && queryParams['features-off'].split(',')) ||
    featuresToTurnOn.forEach(item => {
      localStorage.setItem(item, 'true');
    featuresToTurnOff.forEach(item => {
      if (localStorage.getItem(item)) {

  ngOnInit() {
    if (this.environment.featureFlags) { => {
        if (event instanceof ActivationStart) {

This then would mean that you could give someone a link to your site like this /kitten-generator?features-on=kitten-generator,another-experimental-feature&features-off=yet-another-experimental-feature.

This would set local storage values to true for kitten-generator and another-experimental-feature, and would delete any existing local storage value for yet-another-experimental-feature


Feature flags in web apps and Angular can be as simple, or as complex as you’d like them to be.

I generally have had a better time with the slightly simpler ones shown above, than all singing all dancing server config options. What are your thoughts?

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