IT is War : DevOps & ITIL through the lens of military history

Climbing into the DevOps vs. ITIL debate is like stepping into a minefield, as least from my vantage point. Both have serious-minded proponents, and engender the kind of passion that lesser methodologies only dream of.  But, after this very issue has come up multiple times recently, I really felt compelled to think more about it. Most of the attempts at reconciling the two haven’t resonated with me. So, I have tackled this issue the way that appeals the most to me – using military analogies.

Military history is probably my favorite part of the huge topic of history. I particularly enjoy understanding how advances in weapons, tactics, and organization have influenced the course of events. The evolution of IT over the years has been a lot about adjusting process and tactics to the available tools and competitors. The evolution of military strategy boils down to the same thing, so I think a quick look at the evolution of military tactics over time can shed some real light on the DevOps & ITIL debate.

Discipline and Organization beats Chaos

Success in war usually favors the bold – those who embrace new technology and changemacedonian pike phalanx their tactics to deal with new situations and threats. A few days ago I watched a documentary on the massive defeat of the invading Persian army by the Greek city states in 490 B.C.. What many people don’t know is that it was the technological advantage of iron lances and large shields, and the highly coordinated group maneuver called the Phalanx that gave the Greeks the edge. Moving as one unit, with shield interlocked, spears pointed front, the Greek hoplites were an unstoppable force cutting a swath through the Persians

Fast forward a thousand years. The Europeans, with their endless wars of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries made an art napoleon-army-salamanca-spainform of the highly trained foot soldier with a musket. Napoleon represents the pinnacle of that art. Coordinated volleys of musket fire from trained soldiers, supported by well-placed cannon, and fast moving light cavalry, could wipe out less well-equipped and trained troops. Napoleon also worked at a scale unheard before of his time, mastering logistics for hundreds of thousands of troops in the field. With his armies, Napoleon was able to dominate the Europe for 20 years, and his ideas lasted longer.

Tools can obsolete Tactics

The effectiveness of these large scale maneuvers was upset by the advances of the 19th century, particularly during the U.S. Civil War. The vastly increased accuracy of rifled muskets and cannon, and the high rate of fire afforded by caplock (percussion cap), meant that the magnificent infantry charges of the 18th century only made for easier targets and mind-blowing casualty rates. This reached a peak with the mindless violence of trench warfare in World War I.


And again, armies adapted. Along with the introduction of the tank, it was small group tactics that won the day and broke the stalemate in World War I France. Instead of ordering breathlessly stupid charges into the face of machine gun fire, small squads of soldiers could adapt to the circumstances and more rapidly advance.  World War II continued the refinement of those tactics. This didn’t mean that large scale coordination wasn’t still necessary. Artillery and air support still needed to be coordinated with the soldiers on the ground. Tanks and mobile infantry could move quickly and pack a powerful punch (which the Germans perfected with Blitzkrieg).

Very interesting, but what’s the point

Other than indulging my need to geek out with talk of weaponry, this rapid flyby of history does have a point. Successful armies over time have adapted their tactics and tools to meet the threats at hand. The ancient Greeks and Napoleon used organization and discipline to overwhelm their enemies. In the face of the devastating weapons of the 21st century, successful armies used more flexible and fast-moving tactics to dominate their slower moving enemies. All of these militaries adapted to their circumstances and made the most of what tools they had.

I don’t think IT is all that different. ITIL made a lot of sense when confronted with the chaos of IT operations, and the need to provide stable services for a business questioning the value being derived from their investment. With well-documented processes and coordination, IT departments could confront and conquer the chaos.

Conversely, DevOps has arisen in the wake of the pressures exerted by a hyper-competitive business environment and hard-to-please users with no end of choices. Just like the soldiers facing rifled carbines at Gettysburg and those facing machine guns nests in French trenches, IT operations teams trying to please the 21st century Internet user can’t march into battle with the highly coordinated, but rigid, maneuvers of ITIL. By the time they perform the service management equivalent of a pivot, the business has lost customers and revenue. In the word of U.S. General George S. Patton of World War II fame –

“A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week”.

On the other hand, DevOps teams need a backdrop of coordinated services (e.g. cloud services or automation) to enable their agile methods, just like the U.S. Marines in World War II needed artillery and aerial support.

So, what’s the takeaway? We should never compare methodologies in a vacuum. Any methodology needs to solve today’s problems, not yesterday’s. The whole point of methodology is to provide a way to repeat the successes of the past. So, you need to find the Von Clausewitz that has succeeded where you want to succeed, and follow their lead. The methodology that best helps you meet your goals today is the right one every time.


8 thoughts on “IT is War : DevOps & ITIL through the lens of military history

  1. I’ve heard that more gently expressed as the (Marine Corps?) officer’s motto: “A good plan today, is better than the perfect plan tomorrow.” It encourages a bias towards [informed] action, from which we can all benefit.

    • I agree! Thanks for the comment. I loved that Patton quote, and by extension your quote, because I think it represents that bias towards action that is so core to DevOps. I agree on the “informed” add-in. I think you get that by hiring and placing the right people. Despite some of Patton’s character flaws, Eisenhower kept him around because Patton could read the situation, decide on a course of action, and then “violently” execute that plan (all while lesser Generals were still scratching there heads). An ill-informed, non-A player could have also acted quickly, but would probably have failed. In essence, DevOps (and Lean) are all about trusting the instincts of the A-players that you hire to make the right decisions on the ground, and then holding them responsible for those decisions.

      Now the counter point is that Patton was not the right guy for peace after the war. He wasn’t able to read the diplomatic and political situations very well, and so made some colossal gaffes. This goes back to my argument that you need the right tactic – and the right people – for the right battle.

      • I like the analogy; a different way of looking at it. And I also agree with it. Tools make any large-scale, repetitive, and complex operation easier, efficient, and more predictable. The only part I don’t quite agree with is that DevOps would rely on a trusted A-player’s instincts. Perhaps, you have not elaborated it, but my take on it is it cannot be left to instinct. There has to be a well-defined process to ensure that decisions are not person-dependent.

      • Good point, Kedar. It has to be a balance. I left out Training. Without training there is no baseline to be innovative off of. Marines were trained before hitting the beaches in the Pacific. My point is that in dynamic, fast changing situations, it is important to act and not belabor action by over thinking or layering on lots of process.

  2. A nice abridged look at history and I could give you counter-examples to each of your examples. The better trained and better equipped mil can easily lose from poor strategy or politics, for example, as has happened in the past.
    Also thought you might want to know the US .mil often says “always prepared, never ready”. To be fair this is an ancient phrase. Even the Boy Scouts have said “Be prepared” or “Allzeit bereit” etc. ( since founding at the start of the 20th Century.

    • Thanks for the comment, Davi. This post started off MUCH longer, because I wanted to include the Mongols, English Longbow archers at Agincourt, etc. When I really started thinking about it, the balance between disciplined organization and flexibility has been going back and forth for a long time. And in each era there were examples of people using different tactics. The Mongol light cavalry were amazing flexible and could make devastatingly fast advances when in their favored terrain. In the American revolutionary war, Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion used guerrilla tactics to great effect against the British (The movie “The Patriot” was based on him). You clearly saw large scale, highly coordinated maneuvers in World War II.

      But to your point, I agree – training and tools do not guarantee success. The Russians and Austrians spent plenty of money on their militaries, but Napoleon whooped them at Austerlitz. Bottom line, blindingly following a methodology without evaluating its applicability to your “battlefield” is a recipe for failure. And executing any tactic requires leadership. Poor leadership leads to defeat almost every time.

  3. Pingback: IT is War : DevOps & ITIL through the lens of military history | I can explain it to you, but I can't understand it for you. |

  4. Pingback: Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger - Log Analytics and DevOps | Sumo Logic

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