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IT operations pros contend with DevOps culture

Plenty of tools exist to ease the technical challenges of DevOps, but you can't abstract away or automate cultural requirements like teamwork and trust.

It's said that DevOps is 90% culture and 10% tooling -- that is, if you can agree on what DevOps means in the first...


One of the biggest challenges to establishing a DevOps culture is the fact that the industry at large can't agree on even a basic definition of the term, and every organization does things a little differently.

DevOps is the application of software development principles to IT operations.

"It's really about the operational model," said Joshua Bernstein, VP of technical strategy for the emerging technologies division at EMC, who previously worked on Apple's Siri team. Things like change control, rollback and infrastructure as code have been around in software development for 20 to 30 years, but "now we're starting to apply them to infrastructures -- that's what's new."

But ask another DevOps evangelist, and you get another definition of DevOps entirely.

"We basically think of DevOps people now and DevOps teams," said Caedman Oakley, DevOps evangelist at Ooyala Inc., a video processing service headquartered in Mountain View, Calif. To him, DevOps means collaboration among IT operations, development, engineering and business stakeholders to achieve an optimal outcome. It doesn't help to re-categorize site reliability engineers and infrastructure engineers as "DevOps people."

DevOps culture marked by flashpoints and friction

What DevOps boils down to, regardless of organizational structure, is collaboration and teamwork between previously siloed teams within an organization, and that almost always comes with cultural upheaval, explained Thomas McGonagle, a senior DevOps consultant who works with large enterprises on DevOps adoption.

Consider the metaphor of a football team: "a team of specialists all working together towards a common goal," McGonagle said. "But a lot of people in IT don't have those types of experiences, and so focusing on the teamwork and knowing intrinsically how to be a good team member is difficult."

One major juncture in establishing a DevOps culture is addressing the clash between developer productivity and IT governance.

"There tends to be a big discrepancy between the amount of freedom that a developer wants and the amount they can be afforded by the organization they work with," said Sinclair Schuller, CEO of Apprenda, an on-premises platform as a service software maker. "How do you give developers some significant level of freedom, while still protecting the organization that's running the private cloud?"

Hurdle cultural barriers between Dev and IT ops

As IT culture transforms, learn how to bridge the gap between IT ops and developers. Discover the challenges that IT organizations face when fusing with app dev, and find common ground between application developers and IT ops.

Technologies such as configuration management tools can help with this, according to Oakley, by ensuring that every resource that gets provisioned meets compliance requirements.

Another DevOps cultural flashpoint is the need to share information freely within an organization.

IT operations pros often struggle with sharing granular monitoring information with developers that had previously been their sole domain, according to Nirmal Mehta, senior lead technologist for the strategic innovation group at Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. in McLean, Va., who works with government organizations to establish DevOps culture.

DevOps mindset requires atmosphere of trust

To distill DevOps culture even further, the key ingredient in enabling closer collaboration among previously disparate organizations is trust, according to McGonagle. One way to accomplish this is through the blameless postmortem, which can serve to objectively evaluate and optimize an organization's performance.

"I've heard before that [one company] hands out a life preserver to whoever made the most cataclysmic mistake," he said. If you win the life preserver, "everyone claps for you."

This would represent a cultural sea change in many enterprise organizations, where an atmosphere of trust among team members doesn't tend to naturally occur, McGonagle said.

"Unfortunately in most enterprise organizations, people don't trust their colleagues fully," he said. "They don't trust that the company won't fire them if they screw up -- you must have an organization that tolerates failure, as long as you fail fast."

Some horses can only be led to water, McGonagle said, but ultimately, it's best for IT operations practitioners to make some effort to adapt to DevOps culture.

"Sitting on your hands is not a good career strategy," McGonagle said.

Beth Pariseau is senior news writer for TechTarget's Data Center and Virtualization Media Group. Write to her at [email protected] or follow @PariseauTT on Twitter. 

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