Don't fear the DevOps

By Peter Gothard
21 Aug 2014 View Comments
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Like "cloud", "big data" and many other buzz-phrases that predate it, DevOps is the new flavour of the month. You've probably heard of it by now - according to figures released recently by Rackspace, 84 per cent of IT decision-makers now say they are familiar with the phrase, while 71 per cent say they even know exactly what it is.

But many IT managers still seem reluctant to let developers run their own operations, and take ownership of their own projects during and, especially, after launch. Computing talked to some DevOps experts about how development, operations and management can work in harmony.

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Chris Jackson, CTO of DevOps for EMEA at Rackspace, believes the ultimate aim for everybody should be "to increase the flow of business value, getting to a point where you can release business value to your customers whether internally or externally, more frequently and with higher velocity".

Achieving this goal, Jackson says, hinges on how people work, collaborate and share. Unfortunately, he adds, too many IT leaders base their approach on ITIL – the Information Technology Information Library – a set of best practice frameworks first laid out in 1988. ITIL, Jackson says, is "easy to shoehorn into a business, but it's not always as simple to understand, or to extract value from".

Stephen Thair, co-founder of managed support firm DevOpsGuys, also believes ITIL's legacy can hinder DevOps practice.

"The problem with ITIL is it that it was interpreted as a series of job descriptions," he says.

"You do have to do all the things in there, but they don't have to be job roles. In a meeting, a techie will come in, probably tap away on a laptop until their [development] change gets discussed, then four or five management people will talk among themselves with absolutely no understanding of IT, technology, and marketing. So there's no value added. You've spent tens of thousands pounds to have all these people in a room, for nothing."

Thair sees DevOps as "an alternative model" to this, while making it clear that it does not necessarily negate all aspects of a typical ITIL culture.

He feels many people mistakenly believe that "DevOps means we don't need operations anymore, and that developers are going to take over the running of production environments.

"I think from an operations perspective that's a significant misunderstanding of what operations really is, and the role of operations. Operations is a discipline in the same way that software development is.

"I think the difference is that operations needs to stop trying to resist change and going 'Oh, this production environment is a thing we must protect at all costs' and to start asking 'how can we embrace change and make it so you can push as much change into the environment as you can?' And that's the challenge."

Matthew Skelton of Skelton Thatcher Consulting goes so far as to say many general industry methodologies based on ITIL are "fundamentally broken".

"It's presumed we design, we specify and we put software into operation, and that's it," he says.

"But that means once the software is in production, it starts to decay - becomes less loved - and it's very difficult to learn how to improve it. If you look at ITIL, and certainly in DevOps, there's scope in both those things for learning."

Rackspace's Jackson believes DevOps has to have "strong leadership" in order to succeed, while Thair says a key to this is to stop talking in terms of "the business" and "IT".

"When did it suddenly become that 'the business' is over here, and separate to the IT department? We talk like we're the high priests of IT, guarding this scarce resource. IT is not a scarce resource anymore - it's for everyone," he says.

And with the rise of the cloud meaning that "large companies will be challenged by startups", Thair urges the largest companies to give developers more control over their workflow. To back up his point, he cites retailer John Lewis, which recently spoke of a Windows XP migration to Windows 7.

"John Lewis didn't know what software it was running. It found 700 programs that didn't run on Windows 7 - and they only worked that out as they went. Rewrite, rewrite.

"It's the typical 'I'm not touching it and it's scary and the guy who wrote it left' [issue]. Why wasn't XP phased out years ago? And they're patting themselves on the back when they spent millions of pounds, but they should have been spending tens or thousands over time."

While DevOps knows what DevOps is, there's still enough passion among its followers to suggest that - just perhaps - the message still isn't getting through to the top. Perhaps it's time to pull up a chair.

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