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Merging Creation With Operations

How facilitated collaboration enables continuous delivery for successful DevOps

by John Balena

So much has been written lately about the challenge of improving IT agility in the enterprise. The best sources of insight on why this challenge is so difficult are the CIOs, application owners, ecommerce and release engineering executives, and VPs of I&O, grappling to change their organizations right now.

At a conference I attended recently, I met two Fortune 100 IT executives from the same company: one the head of development and the other operations. Their story is emblematic of just how hard this is in the real world. As interesting background, both the development and operations leaders were childhood best friends, participated in each others’ weddings, and spend time together socially on an almost weekly basis – but by their own admission, even they couldn’t get effective collaboration and communication to work between their two organizations.

The lesson learned from this example is that the DevOps collaboration and communication challenge cannot be solved by sheer will, desire or executive fiat. Instead, you must breakdown the barriers that inhibit collaborative behavior and facilitate new ways of communicating and working together. The old standbys of email, instant messaging, SharePoint sites, and conference calls don’t cut it.

The challenge of two opposing forces: Dev and Ops

Imagine yourself helping your children put together a new jigsaw puzzle. Each time you turn your attention to a specific piece, the kids reorganize what you have already completed and they add new pieces, but in the wrong places. For sure, three pairs of hands can be better than one, but they can also create chaos, confusion and significantly elongate the completion of the puzzle.

The collaboration challenge in the DevOps movement is grounded in this analogy. How do you get multiple people working together across teams, locations, and time zones to build and get things deployed faster without chaos, confusion, and delay? How do you get these teams to speak the same language and collaborate together with a singular purpose when their priorities and motivations are so different?

Faced with this challenge, it’s easy to see why many organizations have stayed in their comfort zone of ‘waterfall’ releases and keep the number of releases per year small. The issue is this method isn’t meeting the demands of the business, the market and competition. As a result, more and more business leaders are going around their IT organizations. Options like public cloud, SaaS, open source tools, skunk works IT and outsourcing are making it easier for them to control IT decisions and implementations within the business unit or department itself.

So let’s dive deeper to understand the two forces at the heart of the issue: development (focused on the creation or modification of applications to support a business need) and operations (delivering defined services with stability and quality). It appears these forces are working in opposition, but both groups are focused on doing what leadership asks of them.

Developers tend to think their job is done once the application is rapidly created, but it’s not because no actual value has been delivered to the business until the application is operational and in production. Operations is severely disciplined when services experience performance and availability issues and they have come to learn that uncontrolled change is the biggest cause of these issues.  As a result, operations teams often believe their number one job is to minimize change to better control impact on performance and availability. This causes operations to be a barrier to the rapid change required to give the business the speed and agility it needs.

Critical to enabling DevOps is an explicit recognition of this situation and the ability to link discrete phases of the application development and operations lifecycle to enabling ‘fast, continuous flow’ – from defining requirements, to architecting the design, to building the functionality, to testing the application, to deploying the application to both pre-production and production environments and to managing all the underlying infrastructure change required for the application to operate efficiently and effectively in all environments.

Why current approaches don’t work

There are several challenges in achieving this ideal.

  1. Developers hate to document (can you blame them?), and, when they do, their communication is in a context they understand, not necessarily empathetic with the language that operations speaks. The view from operations is that the documentation they receive is incomplete, confusing, and/or misleading. With the rapid pace of development, this challenge is getting worse with documentation becoming more and more transient as developers “reconfigure the puzzle” on the fly.
  2.  Today’s operations teams typically take responsibility for production environments and their stability. That means there is usually a group wedged in between the two – the quality assurance (QA) team. QA’s job is to validate the application works as expected and often they require multiple environments for each release. This group is typically juggling multiple releases and is, in essence, working on and reconfiguring multiple puzzles at the same time. The challenge of keeping QA environments in sync with both in-process releases and production can be maddening (just talk to any QA leader and they’ll tell you first-hand). The documentation coming from development is inadequate, and the documentation coming from production is often no better, since most operations teams store much of their most current information about configurations in personal files or simply in their brains.
  3. The ad hoc handoffs from development to operations and QA take time away from development’s primary mission: creating applications that advance the business. Some suggest developers should operate and support what they code in order to reduce handoffs and the risk of information distortion or loss. A fundamental risk with this approach is opportunity cost. Does a developer really understand the latest and greatest technology available for infrastructure and how to flex and scale those technologies to fit the organization need? Do you even want them to or would you rather they be coding instead?
  4. Others have suggested that Operations move upstream and own all environments from dev to QA to production, and treat configuration and deployment scripts as code just like a developer would. This may sound like a good option, but it can create a constraint on your operations team and cause valuable intelligence to become hidden in scripts. A particular application deployment could have one or more software packages required and potentially hundreds of different configuration settings. If all that information is embedded in a script, how will other team members know this if they go to make a change to the underlying infrastructure to apply a security patch, upgrade an OS version, or any of the other changes made in IT every day?

Real DevOps transformation doesn’t mean that you give everyone new jobs, instead, it’s about creating an environment where teams can collaborate together with a common language and where information is immediately available at the point of execution and in a context unique to each team.

A better way forward?

In The Phoenix Project, written by DevOps thought leaders Kevin Behr, Gene Kim and George Spafford, the authors promote the need for optimizing the entire end-to-end flow of the discrete processes required for application delivery – applying principles as they achieved agility in the discrete manufacturing process.

Manufacturing in the 1980s resembled IT operations today, employing rigid silos of people and automation for efficiency and low cost, but this became a huge barrier to the agility, stability and quality the market demanded. They learned if you optimize each workstation in a plant, you don’t optimize for the end-to-end process. They also learned that if quality and compliance processes were ancillary to the manufacturing process, it slowed things down, drove up costs and actually decreased quality and compliance.

Successful manufacturers brought a broader view and optimized end-to-end flow rather than operate in a particular silo. They also brought quality and compliance processes inline with the manufacturing process. By addressing quality and compliance early in the cycle and at the moment that an issue occurred, cycle times decreased significantly, costs plummeted and quality and compliance increased dramatically.

These same principles can be applied to IT resulting in:

  • faster time to market;
  • greater ability to react to competitive pressures;
  • deployments with fewer errors
  • continuous compliance with policies; and
  • improved productivity.

DevOps can best be realized when IT operates in a social, collaborative environment that ensures all groups are working with a visual model in their context with the necessary information from downstream and upstream teams, as well as in collaborating with relevant experts at the moment when clarifications are needed or issues arise.

To merge creation with operation, the core idea behind DevOps, requires a cultural change and new methods in which cross-functional teams are in a state of continuous collaboration as they deliver their piece of the puzzle at the right time, in the right way, in-context with the other teams in other silos. Operating something that never existed before requires documentation so that operations teams have the information they need to manage change with stability and quality.

With more modern collaboration methods, self-documenting capabilities are now possible as development, release and operations do their respective jobs, including visualization of documentation with analytics and with the perspective and context each team needs to effectively do their job downstream. These types of capabilities will transform organizational culture and break down barriers to collaboration that impede agility, stability and quality.

Is this simply nirvana, and unachievable in the real world?  No. Manufacturing achieved the same results by applying these principles; the fundamental point being made in The Phoenix Project.

The goal is not to write code or to keep infrastructure up and running, or to release new applications or to maintain quality and compliance. Instead, the goal is for IT to take the discrete silos of people, tools, information and automation, and create a continuous delivery environment through facilitated collaboration and communication. This will drive the cultural and operational transformation necessary to enable IT to respond to business needs with agility while ensuring operational stability and quality.

John Balena is senior vice president of worldwide sales and services at Houston-based ITinvolve. He formerly served as the line of business leader for the DevOps Line of Business at one of the “Big 4” IT management software vendors.



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