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British Army draws on infrastructure refresh and automation to power DevOps drive

Army opens up about how a move to adopt a software-defined datacentre setup has helped DevOps to take hold in the organisation

The British Army has revealed how a refresh of its datacentre infrastructure has paved the way for the organisation to adopt a DevOps-style approach to managing its line-of-business applications.

Dorian Seabrook, head of operations at the army’s Information Application Services (IAS) arm, said the organisation is three years into its DevOps journey, which began in earnest following a refresh of its hosting infrastructure.

“We had a look at what’s out there [to replace our hosting environment] and said, we’re going to go onto a software-defined datacentre [setup]. In doing so, that has delivered the basis for our DevOps journey,” Seabrook told the Ansiblefest 2017 developers’ conference in London on 22 June.

“No longer do we have developers waiting several years for virtual machines to do their tasks, because we now have a catalogue where they can call off their services,” he said.

The IAS software-defined datacentre has Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) as its foundation, with its primary stack comprising five database servers accompanied by two application servers.

“In starting the agile journey, we realised we have got to change our ethos, our culture, the way we work and our practices,” said Seabrook.

“We also needed to bring in continuous integration, continuous deployment and continuous delivery – and that journey has taken us three years.”

To make it easier to manage its software-defined datacentre infrastructure, the army followed up the RHEL deployment last year with the roll-out of IT automation and management product Ansible Tower.

In the context of the British Army’s infrastructure, Ansible Tower enables the organisation to automate the roll-out of routine patches and configuration updates to RHEL, and carry out urgent system reconfiguration tasks, for example.

Easing deployment pain points

The introduction of Red Hat-owned Ansible’s technology has relieved a number of pain points Seabrook and his team encountered in the past when trying to update the army’s portfolio of bespoke line-of-business applications in an agile way.

These include its custom-built customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, for example, but the IAS team is also responsible for delivering hosting and web services to military families, veterans, new recruits and other serving military staff.

Its applications are hosted in two separate, private cloud-based environments, depending on the sensitive nature of the data handled by those applications.

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“Before Ansible, we were disrupting our users – and that was wholly unacceptable,” said Seabrook. “Having to patch and have downtime in the middle of the day was very disruptive and didn’t give us a very good name. Our configuration also wasn’t very good.”

Code deployments were time-consuming and labour-intensive, and the documentation that accompanied them was often complex and difficult to follow, he said.

Since moving to Ansible, the IAS team has seen a marked improvement in the overall effectiveness and efficiency of its software development and deployment processes, said Seabrook, with upgrades that previously took about a day to complete now being resolved in less than two hours.

According to the army’s own calculations, software changes are now rolled out four times faster than they were in the pre-Ansible days. 

“Previously, communicating the delivery timescales for large projects could be quite stressful,” said Seabrook. “Now, in most cases, we are delivering more quickly than the users can actually absorb the changes. Our users are just staggered by the agility and the turnaround time and what we can now offer them.”

DevOps demob

The fact that an organisation like the British Army can adapt its software development processes to incorporate DevOps may come as a surprise to some, said Seabrook.

“You may think we are a fairly regimented, structured, command-centric organisation, but there are other characteristics in our nature that allow DevOps to flourish,” he said.

“In the operations space, we delegate to the lowest rank, so we empower and we are very good at forming agile, multidiscipline teams to go and do a task.

“We are also officer-led, and we are very good at doing what the officer core should be doing, which is serve to lead. That very much plays into the agile space and scrum masters.”

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