DevOps needs a layered approach – Not only process or automation

With any new, emerging area the tendency is for advocates of each new approach to attempt to invalidate or minimize all earlier approaches. Sometimes this is appropriate, but rarely is progress so clear cut. In this vein, I would like to comment on Phil Cherry’s post on First off, I appreciate Phil’s addition to the discussion. I think his delineation between automation approaches is very interesting. However, the devil is in the details. Here are the highlights of my views on this:

Package-based automation

As a former BladeLogic guy, I would be remiss if I didn’t correct a few points in Phil’s analysis. Phil may be confusing OS Vendor packages (RPMs, MSIs, etc.) with configuration management packages. Systems like BladeLogic build packages based on some sort of configuration object system. In other words, the server is represented as a set of configuration objects (a registry key, setting in a config file, etc.) in a particular state. The packages are usually represented as desired states for configurations based on that same object model. There is no reason that those packages have to be applied “all in one go”, since packages can be chained and included in larger jobs with decision conditions. That said, I agree that this type of automation is per-server based, for the most part.

Application Understanding

I do agree that Phil’s definition of automation models don’t understand multi-server dependencies or really know what an “application” is. Phil does ignore in this context that there are other automation approaches that do bridge this multi-system approach by building on the automation platforms. In particular, the trends within virtualization and cloud have pushed vendors to create multi-server, application-focused automation platforms. You can find solutions with established vendors like BMC or VMWare, with open-source platforms like Puppet with OpenStack, as well as with startups like ElasticBox. Bottom line, it is vast oversimplification to limit an overview of DevOps-capable automation to automation tools with a server-heritage only. This area of automation is clearly evolving and growing, and deserves a more holistic overview.

How does process fit in?

As John Willis, and others, have said many times before, culture and process are just as much a part of a devops approach as basic automation. So, it appropriate for Phil to end with a process-based approach. Clearly rolling out an application requires an understanding of the end-to-end process, how steps are related, and how services are dependent. I do feel that Phil left out a few key points

Process Management and Deployment Automation are not the same

I feel like Phil blurs the line between managing the process of release, which is a people-process issue, versus managing the deployment of an application. The latter involves pulling together disparate automation with a cross-server/application-focused view. Process management, on the other hand, deals with the more holistic problem of driving the release of an application from development all the way to production. They are both needed, but they aren’t the same thing.

What about coordination

One of the biggest drivers of DevOps is getting Dev and Ops to coordinate and collaborate on application releases. This means driving Dev visibility forward into Ops, and Ops visibility back into Dev. It isn’t just about creating well-aligned deployment processes, but also managing the entire release process from the code repository to production. This means we need encapsulate pre-prod and prod processes, as well as non-system activities (like opening change tickets, etc.).

What about planning

Releasing and managing applications is just about the here and now. It is also about planning for the future. Any process-oriented approach has to allow not only for the coordination of deployment processes, but also needs to allow for the establishment of clear and flexible release processes visible to all stakeholders. In particular, a process management system should provide visibility to the decision makers, as well as the executors. Applications clearly affect non-technical activities like marketing and executive planning, so it is important that business leaders be able to understand where releases are out, and when important features are likely to arrive.

What we need is a layered approach

Bottom line, we need to solve all of the application release issues – process, deployment, and automation. In the spirit of DevOps, those “layers” can be solved somewhat independently with loose coupling between them. We drive the people-process coordinate, encapsulate all of the complexities necessary to deploy an application, and then drive the low-level automation necessary to actually implement the application. All of these work together to create a full approach to Application Release Automation. Any solution that ignores a layer risks solving one problem, and then creating a whole new set of them.