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Leading companies embrace DevOps to improve agility and flexibility

DevOps is an approach to improving the efficiency of software development roll-outs, but while the benefits are clear, companies face a number of challenges along the way

The promise of DevOps, with its focus on rapid IT service delivery, is that it allows developers to work innovatively and collaboratively with IT operations to produce software products and applications rapidly and efficiently.

Meanwhile, the move to cloud has significant implications for IT operations, architects and developers looking to deliver efficient infrastructure and improve innovation. Synergies between these trends offer a golden opportunity to innovate and boost productivity.

This might sound easy in theory, but is not so easy in practice. A standardised development methodology, clear communication to improve application development, and management cycles all look good on paper, but, unfortunately, many organisations are struggling with the reality.

Ian Head, research director at Gartner, says many organisations are interested in DevOps, making it the fourth most popular search term on the Gartner website.

“However, many are finding it a lot more difficult than they thought, especially if there is a significant number of legacy or heritage systems in their organisations. If you have a big investment already, you don’t want to risk endangering it by doing something different, and they are asking ‘will it work for us?’” he says.

Synergies between the DevOps and cloud trends offer a golden opportunity to innovate and boost productivity

Clive Longbottom, founder of analyst Quocirca, says many organisations are still using separate test, development and deployment teams. There are cultural roadblocks within organisations that hamper progress in terms of merging these separate disciplines to create an agile, collaborative, integrated DevOps environment.

“Both teams tend not to want to cooperate fully with the other, and trying to create a single team of people with a common responsibility for dev and ops often doesn’t seem to work,” he explains.

Plan ahead

Brian Timmeny, head of advanced engineering, DevOps and IT processes at multinational banking group BBVA, says there are challenges associated with deploying DevOps at scale. At a team level, DevOps can be prescriptive and direct, but at a transformation level, a strategy is required.

BBVA has 12,000 geographically dispersed developers, and to ensure momentum doesn’t falter, a mixture of top-down and bottom-up management styles are used. Timmeny says key discussions focus on the definition of products and have an emphasis on early wins as BBVA is traditionally very aligned by function.

“What are the products we are going to define? Where can you get those teams that are internalised and truly self-sufficient from end to end, and where can we begin to wrap a function around them? It gives us a place to start and we can do them in a minimum viable way and, over time, evolve,” says Timmeny.

We ensure people understand their role really early on when they come into that DevOps environment
Simon Ponsford, Yellowdog

He points out that “transformation is forever” and by starting with the end-to-end ownership and ability to deploy and own applications, everything else will evolve. “From the chairman all the way down the organisation, there is full buy-in and there is financial, organisational and execution support,” he says.

His advice to other large organisations that are facing a similar challenge is to ensure a simple message is sent out about the benefits of DevOps.

“You’re going to increase speed and quality. Ensure early in the journey that you tie in metrics around that. Transformation is hard, but if you give people a consumable and actionable message and the ability to measure it, it gives a good start,” he says.

All aboard

As a startup, YellowDog does not have a problem with legacy technologies. Embracing DevOps is focused on recruitment and ensuring a balance between experienced people – who may not have been in a DevOps environment before and are shocked by the operational part of the role – and graduates, for whom it is the norm.

“We ensure people understand their role really early on when they come into that DevOps environment,” says Simon Ponsford, chief technology officer (CTO) at Yellowdog.

The aim is to get everyone to buy into DevOps from day one. Yellowdog encourages a community approach by sharing roadmaps with customers with specific delivery dates, so developers are engaged and know what must work by when. “We trust developers and empower them to be able to make decisions and help them to manage their time schedules,” says Ponsford.

One of the key questions to ask when encouraging a DevOps strategy is how best to use the cloud. Cloud computing helps deliver on the promise of DevOps, providing the application programming interfaces (APIs) needed for speed and automation, as well as providing low-cost resources and scalability to focus on business requirements.

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Typically, operations teams might be more comfortable taking an infrastructure as a service (IaaS) route to cloud, while developers prefer platform as a service (PaaS) to stimulate the opportunity for innovation. “That is still pretty much the case,” says Longbottom.

However, he adds that many developers take a “pseudo-PaaS” approach. “They will have their pet set of golden images – virtual machines or containers – that they can rapidly spin up in an IaaS environment and then apply the extra bits to give them the overall platform that they want for a specific job.

“For operations, this can be a problem – if the golden image is out of date or contains some non-standard stuff, there will be a requirement for further testing of the real development content against the actual operational environment,” he says.

Barriers to success

Longbottom adds that organisations should strive to avoid this pitfall. “There is a need for a full set of connected tools that manage inventories, recipes, whatever, and ensure there is a consistent base between what development use as their platform and the platform that is being used by operations,” he says.

However, the challenges are not purely technical – cultural barriers are also a huge issue. Longbottom advises organisations to use a DevOps approach that unites the previously disparate functions of development, testing and deployment.

“First, don’t just fall for DevOps as a simple approach. It must be ‘BusDevOps’ – the business is first and foremost in anything that happens; development and operations are there to make it happen,” adds Longbottom.

Andy Burgin, lead DevOps engineer at Sky Betting and Gaming, focused on overcoming pockets of resistance to adopting DevOps and agile methods. Having been part of the organisation since 2011, DevOps is relatively mature in Sky Betting and Gaming and has evolved over time.

For organisations at an early stage, Burgin advises scrutinising new technologies that enable faster DevOps, and focusing on cultural transformation: “Learn about the principles and techniques, about culture, about organisations and organisational structure.

“It is about technology, but that is secondary to the way people work and interact. Be a sponge and learn as much as you can. Understand from a holistic view rather than looking for an easy specific answer, or a tool to install,” he says.

Strength to strength

Jonathan Fletcher, CTO of insurance company Hiscox, is focused on being a cloud-first company and is championing DevOps. In previous years, the emphasis was on the application side of delivery, but now it is on the operations side as infrastructure teams move to agile development and the cloud.

With the same tooling, processes and cultural ideas between camps, Fletcher says there will be important synergies. “As we move to DevOps and cloud, the magic of DevOps will happen and there will be greater empathy and flow between our IT teams,” says Fletcher.

DevOps brings big cultural changes and most organisations are still learning how to make it effective
Ian Head, Gartner

He says the challenge is always a people and cultural issue, as some will embrace it and others will be resistant. His advice is not to emphasise the theoretical benefits but to get naysayers excited about DevOps with “less talking and more doing”.

He also advises getting help from someone who has done DevOps and learned lessons. “Get someone to help you not to make the same mistakes along the way. There is value from making mistakes as you learn from them, but try to get help to shortcut those mistakes.”

Longbottom says a holistic approach to DevOps extends to technology – he suggests that organisations ensure all aspects of the process, from business requirement to the end of life of any system, are managed via a fully inclusive set of tools. “This doesn’t necessarily mean having a framework tool from a single vendor, but having an umbrella approach where different or even multiple similar tools can be managed in a sensible way,” he says.

“As part of the feedback loops, make sure the business can apply impact costs against anything that is happening. This will help to focus the minds of development and operations onto what is hurting the business the most, rather than what appears to be the most interesting technical thing to work on,” he adds.

Clouded judgement

Advising a development team on how to take an optimum cloud journey is predicated first on the appetite for cloud, says Longbottom: “Assuming the business is happy for a cloud model to be used, then this is an ideal place for development and test to take place as it is relatively low cost with elastic resources that are difficult for an organisation to provide itself.”

However, Longbottom says developers must bear in mind what the operational environment is, avoiding the use of any cloud-specific APIs or functions unless the operational environment is on the same, or essentially similar platform to what they are working on.

“Overall, developers must understand that the roof over their head is paid for by the organisation they work for. Their sole job is to make that organisation more effective at its bottom line – this means forgetting about technology for technology’s sake and focusing on what is best for the business,” he says.

If the business is cloud averse, developers should aim to work with operations to present the right business-led arguments to the organisation as to why cloud makes sense. The case for cloud is that it allows the business to focus on core operations – a major advantage for YellowDog.

By giving things that do not add direct business value to a platform or a provider that can do it better, the value of cloud and PaaS is demonstrable. DevOps helps organisations get to market quickly and allows them not to be tied up with the implementation of commodity systems, explains Ponsford.

Clear focus

“Platforms are essential; the boring parts of your business. We didn’t set about building our own accounts system. We concentrate on what we need to concentrate on and anything else is a distraction. We want to stand out in the market. Everything we do is designed to be beautiful and deliver a great experience. Everything must look good and work together,” he says.

Despite the cultural challenges, Gartner’s Head says organisations are increasingly pursuing a DevOps strategy and working out how best to do it.

“DevOps brings big cultural changes and most organisations are still learning how to make it effective and how to deliver DevOps through public, private or hybrid cloud. It is important to know the functionality requirements up front, and to explore and learn,” he says.

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