This is Part Three in a four-part series. In Part One, I focused on the critical first step of defining DevOps with a purpose by thinking about DevOps in the context of your organization’s applications. In Part Two, I provided four tips to fostering a DevOps culture in your organization.
By now you’ve hopefully noticed the emphasis on “your” in this series, because, at the end of the day adopting DevOps is about your business, your applications, and your culture. In this third part of the series, I’m going to discuss your tools.
In IT, we’re indundated with tools. Developers have their favorite tools and sys admins do too, so do the project office, the service support group, and the QA team. There are IT tools purchased by our organization years ago that we are using and others we aren’t, tools we’ve recently started using, and others we are considering at any given point in time. There are also general-purpose tools the company wants us to use for things like document sharing, instant messaging, and so on. It’s got to the point where a lot of IT organizations say, “we have two of everything like Noah’s ark”, yet they still want more tools.
Part of the reason is that, as IT practitioners, we like gadgets and tools. We like the fact that they can help us do things and can amplify our own abilities, but we also know they can fragment information and can blindside us when someone uses a tool to do something that others weren’t aware of.
Do we really need more tools to do DevOps?
DevOps has a close association with the Agile Software Development movement, and one of the core tenets of the Agile Manifesto is to value “Individuals and Interactions over processes and tools”. Nevertheless, it’s hard to find a DevOps talk or article that doesn’t discuss the need for tools like git, docker, jenkins, puppet, chef, and so on. The reason for this is actually pretty straight-forward: continuous integration and continuous delivery are best done through automation so we can follow a repeatable method and roll things back quickly if there are issues.
At a more basic level, however, we need to acknowledge that there are really two types of tools:
- Tools that help us amplify our abilities as individuals (e.g. I can drive a nail into a board with a hammer much more effectively than with my hand or a rock because of the strength of the hammer’s material and the principle of leverage)
- Tools that help us coordinate work across many humans, thereby, amplifying our individual abilities (e.g. I can build a house much faster and with better quality by leveraging different experts’ skills and using a shared set of blueprints for building construction, plumbing, electrical, heating/cooling, and so on)
The same distinction holds true for software development, deployment, and operations. One individual can theoretically gather requirements, build the software, test the software, deploy the software, and support the software while simultaneously project manage their personal time. Most computer science students have done this in fact at one time or another, but when we are talking about enterprise applications that support core business functions it clearly doesn’t make sense because of the amount of effort required at each step and the specialized skills necessary for a high level of competency in each area.
What this means is that we absolutely need tools that amplify our abilities, or that of our individual teams, i.e. the hammers; but we also need to invest in tools that help us coordinate work across teams, i.e the shared sets of blueprints.
Tools That Amplify Individual / Team Abilities
A lot of the tools attention in the DevOps community has been focused on: source code management systems like git or bitbucket; requirements planning tools like jira or rally; build tools like Jenkins; automation tools like puppet, chef, and ansible; and project management tools like MS project or AtTask. These tools help us amplify work in each of these respective areas just like hammers, saws, drills, and screwdrivers perform specific functions when building a house and often follow a natural sequence (first you hammer boards in place to create a wall, then hammer on the sheet rock, then saw or drill holes in the sheetrock, screw in electrical outlets and fixtures, and so on.)
Just like building a house has a natural sequence, so does the sequence of tools from code to deployment and it’s often referred to as the DevOps “tool chain”. This brief article isn’t intended to cover each area of the typical DevOps tool chain (I could have also added bug tracking, automated testing, and other categories too), the point is you need to take time to define what the DevOps tool chain should be for your organization and to do so intentionally with a purpose, taking into account the tool investments your organization already has, the needs and skillsets of your organization, and your own practical budget realities.
Do you have experience in using and self-supporting open source tools or do you have a preference for commercially provided tools?, Are you comfortable having multiple requirements tools in different teams or business units, or do you want a single standard? Only you can answer these questions for your organization. There is no prescriptive formula for these types of DevOps tools, although I’ve mentioned a number of commonly used ones.
Tools that Amplify Work Across Teams
The second area you should focus on are tools to help coordinate work and amplify our abilities across teams, i.e. bridging the inherent gaps in the DevOps tool chain, a subject that has received less attention in the DevOps community to-date. This makes sense because it’s human nature to think first about our own function and team. However, this silo thinking is one of the core problems DevOps was developed to address; the long-time focus on tools for specific IT “work stations” has actually entrenched the cultural silos of development, QA, operations, and project office in IT. For example, most IT organizations have two totally separate systems for tracking issues – in operations, it’s the service desk application and for code issues in development it’s the bug tracking application – and there is little or no relationship between them. In fact, you are lucky if an incident in the service desk can be tied to a bug tracking number.
If we are adopting DevOps in order to optimize the flow of new software releases to support business agility, then we need to look at how we will coordinate work and avoid information distortion and loss when different teams are using different, disconnected tools. In addition to your tool strategy for optimizing individual DevOps workstations, therefore, you also need to have a strategy for the tools that are going to help you effectively manage flow across those workstations.
Most DevOps transformation efforts start small with a core team of perhaps a dozen or so members, and their often located in one physical location. In this scenario, you might be able to make do with regular face-to-face meetings and general-purpose communication tools like email, instant messaging, and a SharePoint site or Wiki with MS Office documents. The scope of your cross-team collaboration tools aligns with the scope of your DevOps effort and you might be able to rely on people interactions to unify the tool chain.
But as you scale your DevOps efforts to larger, distributed teams across time zones and multiple business units and applications, your cross-team tools approach should scale as well. The point-to-point nature of instant messaging, ignored reply-all emails, and SharePoint ‘document dumps’ aren’t effective in coordinating the efforts of dozens or hundreds of developers, testers, admins, and project managers. Information gets lost, information gets overlooked, and the gaps in your tool chain expand. A feature misses a commit and doesn’t get into the build and isn’t deployed. An operational requirement is missed so the test environment isn’t configured properly and the release gets pushed. Three weeks are spent solving a performance issue through code when it could have been addressed faster via hardware. A legacy application dependency in production is overlooked and the new mobile app doesn’t work in production as it did in test.
There is an emerging class of purpose-built IT collaboration tools, such as ITinvolve, that enable the creation of cross-team workspaces where information is proactively shared as IT teams and tools get work done. This helps large, distributed cross-functional teams collaborate more effectively with each other in-context to raise questions, provide answers, and incorporate what’s happening up and down the DevOps tool chain in their individual work.
For example, the developer will have better visibility into when the next build is going to occur and can ensure the feature is committed in time or can reach out to the build engineer in the workspace to request a delay in order to ensure the feature makes it in. The operations engineer can have earlier and better visibility into operational requirements so he can ensure the test environment is configured properly and avoid unnecessary delays. The legacy application dependency in production can be reproduced in test to ensure the application works properly once moved to production. And so on. By eliminating the handoff gaps and information loss across the DevOps tool chain, you can reduce risk of communication issues, solve problems more holistically rather than individually, and better achieve the goal of improving business agility.
In the final part of this series, I will bring together the themes of the first three articles to demonstrate how you can chart a DevOps plan based on your Applications, your Culture, and your Tools to A.C.T. with greater agility.
About the Author
Matthew Selheimer is Chief Technical Evangelist and SVP of Marketing at Houston-based ITinvolve. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org