The evolution of DevOps: Gene Kim on getting to continuous delivery

DevOps continues to gain momentum. This isn’t exactly news. The term itself is about eight years old, and big names such as Google, Amazon, Netflix, The Gap, and General Motors have made validating investments in it. Many industry watchers believe it’s no longer a question of if your organization will adopt these practices, but when. And yet DevOps is still evolving, as are the tools and technologies that support it. So the question also involves what you’ll be adopting.
The original idea was simply to de-silo dev and ops to overcome the bottlenecks in the software development and deployment process, mostly on the ops side. Today, with the evolution of DevOps, the goal is supporting a continuous delivery pipeline. Operations has been adopting so many of the techniques used by developers to support more agile and responsive processes that we’re seeing a kind of “dev-ification of ops,” says author and researcher Gene Kim.
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Blurring the roles
“To be fair, I think there’s also an ops-ifcation of dev,” he says. “But the biggest changes are going to impact your operations people as they get more connected to agile development practices. I really think that, a decade from now, the vocations of development and operations are going to look very similar.”
Kim is a co-author of the best-selling book The Phoenix Project: A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win, the former CTO of Tripwire, and one of the organizers of the annual DevOps Enterprise Summit. He works with other researchers to track trends in this space, which includes the evolution of DevOps practices and its widening umbrella.
“At first blush, it seems as though the problems are just between dev and ops,” he says, “but test is in there, and you have information security objectives, and the need to protect systems and data. These are top-level concerns of management, and they have become part of the DevOps picture.”
In other words, when you hear “DevOps” today, you should probably be thinking DevOpsQATestInfoSec.
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Moving beyond pure agility
“It definitely starts with agile,” Kim says, “but as you get into it, you realize you have to go beyond that to the entire value stream and flow of work and visibility.”
Kim believes we are in the midst of a “massive transformation” as companies shift from optimizing for cost to optimizing for speed, and that shift is generating “a breathtaking tailwind that is accelerating DevOps adoption.”
“When you have long iterations, your ability to out-experiment your competition is tremendously compromised,” Kim says. “In an age when almost all the major initiatives are nearly 100 percent reliant on the technology value stream, we’re talking about the biggest business problems of any organization. There’s a whole set of justifications that disappear when, at the highest levels of management, they say, ‘Do whatever it takes to stay in (or get in) the game.'”
Working with other industry watchers—including Jez Humble, principal at Thoughtworks; Nigel Kersten, CIO at Puppet Labs; and Nicole Forsgren, director of organizational performance and analytics at Chef Software—Kim has studied the evolution of DevOps and identified what he considers to be the prerequisites today for DevOps success in an enterprise:
High-trust cultural norms
An architecture that lends itself to testability and deployability
A cluster of technical practices that includes continuous integration, continuous delivery, automated deployment, and proactive production monitoring
What about tools?
DevOps is not supposed to be about tools. The Agile Manifesto notes a preference for “individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” But a number of technologies that weren’t necessarily part of the original concept are becoming closely associated with what DevOps is today. In fact, industry analysts at research firm Gartner have recognized that this evolving discipline now “demands a linked tool chain of technologies to facilitate collaborative change.”
That tool chain of most popular products includes, among other things, the Jenkins continuous integration server; the Docker containerization platform; the Git version control system; the Apache Maven build management tool; the New Relic analytics platform; the Splunk operational intelligence platform; the Puppet, Ansible, and Chef configuration management systems; and, perhaps, Tripwire. And the list of supporting technologies is growing.
The high-trust environment
That DevOps efforts seem to succeed more often in organizations with high-trust cultural norms is not surprising. Kim points to the relatively well-known “blameless postmortem” concept that has proved itself in the healthcare industry. Companies like the Etsy online marketplace have also demonstrated that providing an environment in which it’s safe to talk about failure makes it much more likely that problems are discovered early and information gets shared more quickly and more widely.
“DevOps succeeds in this kind of environment,” Kim says. “It requires a culture that’s less about ‘Did you carry out your orders?’ and more about ‘What did you learn today?’ Messengers are trained, not shot; responsibilities are shared; and new ideas are welcomed.”
In other words, companies will be more successful in their DevOps efforts if they focus on creating safe systems of work that allow small teams to learn from mistakes, while working quickly and independently as they deliver value.
The evolution of DevOps practice
There has also been an evolution among the people who have been driving enterprise DevOps. Until recently, that group consisted almost exclusively of coders and engineers who possessed what Kim calls “the political skills” to embark on risky transformations without the full support of management. “That requires an admirable level of courage and conviction,” he says. And yet it’s almost impossible to change an organization’s culture and architecture from the bottom up, which is why Kim was encouraged by the number of people in management positions attending this year’s DevOps Enterprise Summit.
Perhaps the most important trend to watch in the evolving DevOps space is the emergence of an identifiable community and ecosystem, which Kim and his colleagues are actively fostering. “This is a community of professionals who are actively helping each other,” Kim says. “They are already influencing—and elevating—the state of the practice.”
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