Why Did DevOps Become So Popular? 3 Theories
A Brief History of DevOps
The very basic history of DevOps goes like this: First, there was agile, an idea exemplified in the Agile Manifesto that gained prominence among software developers in the early 2000s.
Then, in 2008, Patrick Debois, a developer from Belgium, conceived of DevOps as a way to improve upon the agile concept by encouraging developers to work more closely with ITOps teams. His ideas began spreading in 2009. By the early 2010s, they had gained a sizable following and the rest is history.
That, again, is a really basic history of DevOps. For more detail, I recommend this DevOps history post by Steve Mezak.
Why DevOps? Why Now?
The narrative of how DevOps originated is one thing. Explaining why DevOps became so popular in a relatively short span of time is another.
As I see it, there are three possible theories to explain the rise of DevOps over the past decade. The first is to argue that Debois simply happened to have some very good ideas, and he promoted them well. You could think of this as the great man theory of DevOps’ origins. This seems to me, however, to be an unlikely explanation. It’s very rare for highly influential ideas to be born from just a single mind, or to spread through the singular efforts of one person.
The second possible explanation for why DevOps became popular is it is simply an evolved form of agile. This is like arguing that World War II was simply a continuation of sorts of World War I, and therefore the origins of World War II are ultimately the same as those of World War I. From this viewpoint, the history of DevOps is really the history of agile, and so DevOps itself doesn’t have a unique history at all. I’d find this argument compelling if I believed DevOps is really just agile by another name, but I don’t. DevOps is broader, and has a much stronger implementational and practical element.
The third theory—and the one I find most persuasive—is DevOps was born out of a particular moment in the history of computing and IT. That moment, which started in the mid-2000s, was marked by several key features that helped give rise to DevOps, including:
- The widespread adoption, starting circa 2007, of cloud computing.
- The success of the open source software movement around 2010 in making open source the go-to licensing strategy for many popular software projects and in making collaboration around code easier.
- The rise beginning around 2010 of microservices and containers, which made applications much more complex to design, deploy and manage.
- The explosive popularity of mobile computing starting with the launch of the iPhone in 2007. The mobile revolution meant organizations increasingly had to deliver software for multiple target environments (PCs, Android phones and iOS, for example) at the same time, necessitating branched delivery pipelines.
- The demand for ever-increasing speed in software delivery as a way to gain an edge in software markets which, by the late 2000s, had grown more competitive than ever.
When you put these changes together, you end up with a need to manage much more complex, fast-moving software delivery pipelines. Powered by cloud infrastructure and microservices architectures, the software market starting around 2010 required more responsive, better coordinated management by IT teams. DevOps provided an answer by increasing efficiency, decreasing response times and making software delivery faster.
I don’t think DevOps would have taken off if the idea had emerged in the 1990s, when there was much less demand for fast software delivery, most applications ran locally and codebases were relatively simple.
Nor am I sure DevOps would prove as popular if it were first introduced today. At present, we have a litany of management tools (such as Ansible and Kubernetes, to name a couple of examples) that didn’t exist 10 years ago. Those tools make it easier to handle all of the complexity of modern software environments even if you don’t have a management strategy rooted in DevOps culture.
To put it simply, DevOps resulted from the combination of several specific developments in the world of IT between the mid- and late-2000s. Debois may certainly deserve credit for helping to spread the idea, but it would not have spread so quickly if it had not emerged at that particular time.