The best tool in the DevOps continuum is the sticky wrapper that holds it all together. It is the workflow that binds it and makes sense out of the term “continuous.” CIOs often are enamored with a build or deploy tool, but it is the workflow tool in every DevOps strategy encapsulating more than one function that is the real hero. Imagine having the perfect test automation scripts but no way to execute them outside of constructing a new build. Or imagine having the perfect CMDB integration scripts but no way to call them outside of the build process. Or even worse, imagine having the need for human approval before a deployment takes place (or is promoted), and no way to integrate it outside of a custom deployment process.
Lean DevOps Construction
Attempting to make very few tools perform these functions without a workflow engine ultimately forces automation engineers to create functionality within a tool it was never designed to perform. Conversely, when a workflow wrapper is available, build and deployment processes can remain small, elegant and consistent, allowing the workflow engine to integrate extended functionality into the continuous delivery cycle. Size of the automation constructs you create does matter: the smaller the better.
Using Lean methodologies in your DevOps services, it is better to break down automation constructs into the logical functions they are intended to provide. Build automation, for example, should not have to include extensions to turn monitoring functions on or off. Build automation also should not have to worry about the deployment process; its primary singular purpose is to construct a new build. Where that new build is then deployed becomes the single purpose of the deployment process. Attempting to automate the entire cycle of an application into one automation construct from end to end (instead of smaller blocks that work together) increases both size and risk (as well as length of time to execute) of that one event.
Dealing with Humans in the Automation
Human integration is the bane of DevOps processes. Every time you have to pause automation to obtain a human approval, you introduce time delays that cannot be predicted or occur with consistency. Imagine a deployment process that requires a human to press “yes” before continuing. The introduction of a human approval can sit idle on a tooling screen for hours during lunch, or unexpected days off, or vacations (when others are afraid to take responsibility for passing a substandard build, even for further testing). Deployment tools can integrate human responses, but this is not their forte. They are generally ill-equipped to use multiple contact methods, go up the management chain when needed or ping a mobile device when preferred by the user listed as responsible. Workflow tools are ideal for all of these human-contact logistics.
The challenge during DevOps service construction in utilizing a workflow wrapper is keeping human interaction to the absolute minimum required by outside regulating agencies and still achieve compliance. The alternative is to automate processes with such quality and consistency so that human interaction would merely become redundant and unnecessary. The workflow wrapper is not an excuse to simply automate what human interaction you have today. Instead, it is a highly functioning tool to allow you to redesign more-effective automation processes, limiting human interaction where possible. The goal is to build small, independent automation constructs that work together in a highly efficient manner.
Hold the Presses
Communication or notifications also can be handled in a workflow wrapper much better than in individual DevOps toolings. Imagine for a moment that I am a release manager, wanting to know the progress (or rather obstructions to progress) for my new application. To accomplish this notification process, it would have to be embedded within my build process (to know if it passed or failed). The alternative is that my workflow wrapper checks the build logs and can send me notification in the method I prefer (email, text message, an Instagram pic of Thelma and Louise over the cliff, etc.) In addition, I may not actually want to check the status of every build submitted, as that becomes noise after a while. I may want to know only when a build candidate has passed and is ready for promotion to a further testing environment. Since my workflow wrapper would be aware of this, it could automate the notification to me quite easily.
Now add the consideration of management chain to this notification process. If I am out on vacation (which I expect to be able to do, since DevOps enables my personal life), my manager or my sponsoring executive may want to be notified if my application is not going to production for some reason during my absence. This is a level of automation that most build or deploy tools are simply not designed for. They have no idea who I report to and who that person reports to. But that departmental notification escalation chains can be incorporated easily into a workflow wrapper, and execute as expected while I am away (including pinging my cell phone just in case I need to jump in and fix something).
Release Management Solutions
Most release management (RM) or release orchestration (RO) tools have at least minimal workflow capabilities built into their offerings. Whether this capability is enough for your organization or whether you need a more capable workflow engine to wrap around it is a decision only you can make. Most release management tooling is designed to put an elegant wrapper around build automation and deployment automation. It usually contains the ability to segment by line of business or product, as well as role-based access controls (RBAC) for permissions and auditory compliance. And it usually contains at least elementary notification capabilities. What RM excels at are human interaction and tracking progress, and so it does meet the needs of many companies.
When RM is not enough is usually when the DevOps services you provide begins to extend into ancillary services and secondary automation integration capabilities. Examples include monitoring systems integration, multiple testing tooling integration/evaluation, configuration management database (CMDB) integration and capacity-on-demand environment provisioning. Highly evolved notification systems tend to require an external workflow wrapper beyond the normal capabilities an RM tool offers. A solid workflow wrapper acts as the glue that can hold disparate DevOps tooling (either from different vendors or performing different functions) together with further super-automation processes above them like an overarching umbrella.
Impacts to the Bottom Line
Choosing to offer DevOps services without any form of a workflow wrapper is like going hunting with an excellent rifle and no bullets: a lot of capability that can never reach the potential it was intended for. On the other hand, obsessing about replicating current processes within a workflow tool is like hunting a bunny rabbit with a bazooka: way too much damage caused when trying to keep things small and elegant. The key is to balance the use of a powerful tool (workflow), with Lean thinking in automation processes and constructs. Keep the building blocks small and functionally oriented; limit human interaction; and use workflow for the functions it is best-suited for—connection and communication.
The technical capabilities a workflow wrapper will add to your DevOps solutions are substantial. Your services will be far more efficient and far more powerful. However, to truly assess the financial impact of a highly functioning workflow system, one must determine the value of time and decision-making. An elegant notification system can keep you informed without sending you countless emails you learn to ignore or flooding your text inbox with data that exceeds your cellular plan. In this way, notifications are meaningful, and you can begin to make meaningful business decisions based on the information you receive, only at the times you need to see it. What is that worth to you and your organization? Only you could really assess that.
To continue the conversation, feel free to contact me.