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Forrester analyst Kurt Bittner on the inevitability of DevOps

Businesses today want to deliver software improvements at weekly and even daily intervals, especially in SaaS environments, for mobile apps, and for cloud-based workloads. Yet those kinds of delivery speeds are inconceivable with any kind of manual software development processes.

As competitive organizations move away from quarterly software releases to faster releases, they are being forced to face the inevitable adoption of DevOps processes and efficiencies.

The next BriefingsDirect thought leadership discussion therefore explores the building interest in DevOps -- of making the development, test, and ongoing improvement in software creation a coordinated, lean, and proficient process for enterprises.

BriefingsDirect sat down with a prominent IT industry analyst, Kurt Bittner, Principal Analyst, Application Development and Delivery at Forrester Research, to explore why DevOps is such a hot topic, and to identify steps that successful organizations are taking to make advanced applications development a major force for business success. The discussion is moderated by me, Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions.

Here are some excerpts:

Gardner: Let’s start by looking at the building interest in DevOps. What’s driving that?

Bittner: It’s essentially the end-user or client organizations as they face increasing pressure from competition and increasing expectations from customers to delivering functionality faster.

I was at a dinner the other night, and there were half a dozen or so large banks there. They were all saying, to my surprise, that they didn’t feel like they were competing with one another, but that they felt like they were competing with companies like Apple, Google, PayPal, and increasingly startup companies. Square is a good example, too.

They're getting into the payment mechanism, and that’s siphoning our business from the banks. The banks are beginning to see drops in their own bottom lines because of the competition from ... software companies. You see companies like Uber having a big impact on traditional taxi companies and transportation.

Increasing competition

So it’s essentially increasing competition, driven by increasing customer expectations. We're all part of that as consumers where we've gravitating toward our mobile smartphones. We're increasingly interacting with companies through mobile devices.

Bittner

Delivering new functionality through mobile experiences, through cloud experiences, through the web, through various kinds of payment mechanisms -- all of these things contribute to the need to deliver services much faster.

Startup companies get this and they're already adopting these techniques in large numbers. What we're finding is that traditional companies are increasingly saying, "We have to do this. This a competitive threat to us." Like Blockbuster Video, they may cease to exist if they don’t.

Gardner: Companies like Apple or Uber probably define themselves as being technology companies. That’s what they do. Software is a huge part of what makes them a successful company. It defines them. What is it that DevOps brings to the table for them and others?

Bittner: DevOps optimizes the software delivery pipeline, all the steps that you have to go through between when you have an idea and when a customer starts benefiting from that idea. In the traditional delivery processes, you have lots of hand-offs, lots of stops and starts. You have relatively inefficient processes, and it can take months -- and sometimes years -- to go from idea to having somebody get a benefit.

With DevOps, we're reducing the size of the things you're delivering, so you can deliver more frequently. Then, you can eliminate hand-offs and inefficiencies in the delivery process, so that you can deliver it as fast as possible with higher quality.

Gardner: And what was broken? What needs to be fixed? Wasn’t Agile suppose to fix this?

Bittner: Agile is part of the solution, but many Agile teams find that they'd like to be more agile. They're held back by lack of testing environments. They're held back by lack of testing automation. They're held back by lack of deployment automation. They, themselves, have lots of barriers.

So, Agile is part of the solution in the sense of involving the business more on a day-to-day basis in the project decision-making. It also provides the ability to break a problem down into smaller increments, and at least demonstrate in smaller increments, but it doesn’t actually deliver into production in smaller increments.

Other capabilities

You need to have other capabilities to do that. One illustration of how DevOps helps to accelerate Agile came in talking to a large manufacturing organization that was making the transition to Agile.

They had a problem in that they weren't able to get to development or test environments for months. IT operations processes had been set up in a very siloed way. Development and testing environments got low priority when other things were going on.

So, as much as the team wanted to work in an Agile way, they couldn’t get a rapid test environment. In effect, they were completely stopped from any forward progress. There's only so much you can do on a developer workstation.

These DevOps practices benefit Agile as well, by enabling Agile to really fully realize the promise that it’s had.

These DevOps practices benefit Agile as well, enabling Agile to really fully realize the promise that it’s had.

Gardner: Is there a change in philosophy, too, Kurt, where software is released before it's really cooked and let the environment, the real world, be their test bed, their simulation if you will? And then they do rapid iterations? Are we going to begin seeing that now, as DevOps gains ground in established traditional enterprises?

Bittner: You're right. There is a tendency toward getting functionality out there, seeing what the market says about it, and then improving. That works in certain areas. For example, Google has an internal motto that says if you're not somewhat embarrassed by your first release, you didn’t move fast enough.

But we also have to realize that we have software in our automobiles and in our aircraft, and you don’t want to put something out there into those environments that’s basically not functional.

I separate the measures of quality from measures of aesthetic qualities. The software that gets delivered early has to be high-quality. It can’t be buggy. It has to work and satisfy a certain set of needs. But there's a wide variety of variability on whether people will like it or not or whether people will use it or not.

So when organizations are delivering quickly and getting feedback from the market, they're really getting feedback on things like usability and aesthetics and not necessarily on some critical business-processing capability. Or let’s say the software in your anti-lock braking system (ABS) system in your car. You don’t want that to fail, but you might be very interested in how the climate-control system works.

That may be subject to wide variations. To get better fuel efficiency, you may be willing to sacrifice something in the air conditioner to provide better efficiency. So, it’s largely driving feedback on non-safety-critical features. That's where most organizations are focused.

More feedback

Gardner: You mentioned feedback. That seems to be a core aspect of DevOps, more feedback between operations, the real world, the use of software, and the development  and test process. How do we compress that feedback loop -- not only for user experience, but also data coming out of an embedded system, for example -- so that we can improve? Let’s address feedback and compressing the feedback-loop.

Bittner: If you think about what traditional application releases do, they tend to bundle a lot of different features into a single release. If you think about this from a statistical perspective, that means you have a lot of independent variables. You can’t tell when something improves. You can’t tell why it improved, because you have so many variables in there.

In the feedback loop with DevOps, you want to make the increment of releases as small as possible, basically one thing at a time, and then measure the result from that, so you know that your results improve because of that one single feature.

The other thing is that we start to shift toward a more outcome-oriented software release. You're not releasing features, but you're doing things that will change a customer’s outcome. If it doesn’t change a customer’s outcome, the customer doesn’t really care.

You optimize the delivery cycle, removing waste and hand-offs to make that as fast as possible with a high degrees of automation.

So by having the increment of a release be one outcome at a time, and then measuring the result from that, you get the capabilities out there as quickly as possible. Then you can tell whether you actually improved because of what you just did. If you didn’t improve, then you stop doing that and do something else.

Gardner: Is that what you mean by continuous delivery, these iterative small parts, rather than the whole big dump every six to 12 months?

Bittner: That’s a big part of it. Continuous delivery is also, more precisely, a process by which you make small changes. You optimize the delivery cycle, removing waste and hand-offs to make that as fast as possible with a high degrees of automation, so that you can get out there and get the feedback as quickly as possible.

So, it’s a combination. It needs not just fast delivery, but a number of techniques that are used to improve that delivery.

Gardner: Folks listening and reading this might very well like the idea of DevOps: "I'd like to do DevOps; where do I buy it?" DevOps, though, isn't really a product, a box, or a download. It’s a way of thinking in a methodological approach. How people go about implementing DevOps? Where do you start?

Bittner: You’re right. It's more of a philosophy than a product. It’s not even really a product category, but a bunch of different products, and processes, and to some degree, a philosophy behind that. When we talk to organizations that implemented this successfully, there are a couple of patterns.

First of all, you don't implement DevOps across an entire organization all at once. It tends to happen product by product, team by team. It happens first in the applications that are very customer-facing, because that's where the most pressure is right now. That’s where the biggest benefit is. So on the team-by-team basis, first of all you have to have some executive mandate to make a change. Somebody has to feel like this is important enough to the company.

While developers, engineers, and IT Ops people can be passionate about this, it typically requires executive leadership to get this to happen, because these changes cut across traditional organizational silos. Without some executive sponsorship, these initiatives tend not to go very far.

There's too much wait time when people are assigned to multiple projects or multiple applications.

The first step – and this is sort of very mundane area -- tends to be changing the way that environments are provisioned. That includes getting environments provisioned on-demand, using techniques like infrastructure-as-code to automatically generate environments based on configuration settings so that you can have an environment anytime you need it. That removes a lot of friction and a lot of delays.

The second thing that tends to be implemented are techniques like continuous integration and then, after that, test automation, based on APIs. There's a shift to APIs on an integrated architecture for the applications, and then usually deployment automation comes after that. Once you have environments provisioned in code that you can put into those environments, you need a way to move that code between environments.

As you make those changes, you start to run into organizational barriers, silos in the organization, that prevent effectively working together. There's too much wait-time when people are assigned to multiple projects or multiple applications.

There's a shift in team structure to become more product-oriented with dedicated resources to a product, so that you can release, and do release after release most effectively. That tends to break the organization silos down and start shifting to a more product-centric organization and away from a functionally oriented organization.

All of those changes together typically take years, but it usually starts with some sort of executive mandate, then environment provisioning, and so on.

Management capability

Gardner: It sounds, too, that it's important to have better management capabilities across these silos -- with metrics, dashboards, validating efforts, of being able to measure discretely what's going on, and then reinforce the good and discard the bad.

Are there any particular existing ways of doing that? I'm thinking about the long-term application lifecycle management (ALM) marketplace. Does that lend itself to DevOps? Should we start from scratch and create a new management layer, if you will, across the whole continuum of software design, test, and delivery?

Bittner: It’s a little bit of both. DevOps is really an outgrowth of ALM, and all of the aspects of ALM are there. You need to be able to manage the work, track the work, and to determine what work got done. In addition to that, you’re adding automation in the areas that I was just describing; environment provisioning, continuous integration, test automation, and deployment automation.

There's another component that becomes really important, because out of those applications, you want to start gathering customer experience data. So things like operational and application analytics are important to start measuring the customer experience.

You don’t find one DevOps suite from one company that provides everything.

Combining all of those into a single view, single dashboard is evolving now. The ALM tools are evolving in that direction, and there are ways of visualizing that. But right now it tends to be a multi-vendor ecosystem. You don’t find one DevOps suite from one company that provides everything.

But the good news is that the same thing that’s been happening in the rest of the industry around services and interoperability has happened in applications. We have a high degree of interoperability between tools from different vendors today that allows you to customize this delivery pipeline to give you the DevOps capability.

Gardner: It seems that, in some ways, the prominence of hybrid cloud models, mobile, and mobile-first thinking, when it comes to development, are accelerants to DevOps. If you have that multiple cloud goal, you're going to want to standardize on your production environment. Hence, also the interest in containers these days. And, of course, mobile-first forces you to think about user experience, small iterations apps, rather than applications. Do you see an acceleration from these other trends reinforcing DevOps?

Bittner: It’s both reinforcing it and, to some degree, causing it, because it's mobile that’s triggered this explosion and the need for DevOps -- the need for faster delivery. To a large degree, the mobile application is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Very few mobile applications stand alone. They all have very rich services running behind them. They have systems of record providing the data. Virtually every mobile application is really a composite application with some parts in the cloud and some parts in traditional data centers.

The development across all of those different code lines and the coordination of releases across all those different code lines really requires the DevOps approach to be able to do that successfully.

Demand and complexity

So it's both demand created by higher customer expectations from mobile customers, but also the complexity of delivering these applications in a really rapid way across all those different platforms. You made an interesting point about cloud and containers being both drivers for demand and also enablers, but they're also changing the nature of the work.

As containers and microservices become more prevalent -- we’re seeing growth in those areas -- it's increasing the complexity of application delivery. It simplifies the deployment, but it increases the complexity. Now, instead of having to coordinate dozens of moving parts, you have to coordinate hundreds and, we think, in the future, thousands of moving parts. That's well beyond what somebody can do with spreadsheets and manual management techniques.

The other thing is that cloud simplifies environment provisioning tremendously and it provides this great elastic infrastructure for deploying applications. But it also simplifies it by standardizing environments, making it all software configurable. It's a tremendous benefit to delivering applications faster and it gives you much more flexibility than traditional data-center applications. There's definitely movement toward those kind of applications, especially for DevOps.

Cloud simplifies environment provisioning tremendously and it provides this great elastic infrastructure for deploying applications.

Gardner: When I heard you mention the complexity, it certainly sounds like automating and moving away from manual processes, standardizing processes across your development test-to-deploy continuum, would be really important steps to take.

Bittner: Absolutely. I would say more than important. It’s absolutely essential that, without automation and that data-driven visibility into what's happening in the applications, there's almost no way to deliver these applications at speed. We find that many organizations are releasing quarterly now, not necessarily the same app every quarter, but they have a quarterly release cycle. At quarterly rates of speed, through seat of the pants and sort of brute force, you can manage to get that release out. It’s pretty painful, but you can survive.

If you turn up the clock rate faster than that and try to get down to monthly, those manual processes completely fall apart. We have organizations today that want to be delivering at weekly and daily intervals, especially in SaaS-based environments or cloud-based environments. Those kinds of delivery speeds are inconceivable with any kind of manual processes. As organizations move away from quarterly releases to faster releases, they have to adopt these techniques.

Gardner: Listening to you Kurt, it sounds like DevOps isn't another buzzword or another flashy marketing term. It really sounds inevitable, if you're going to succeed in software.

Bittner: It is inevitable, and over the next five years, what we’ll see is that the word itself will probably fade, because it will simply become the way that organizations work.

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More Stories By Dana Gardner

At Interarbor Solutions, we create the analysis and in-depth podcasts on enterprise software and cloud trends that help fuel the social media revolution. As a veteran IT analyst, Dana Gardner moderates discussions and interviews get to the meat of the hottest technology topics. We define and forecast the business productivity effects of enterprise infrastructure, SOA and cloud advances. Our social media vehicles become conversational platforms, powerfully distributed via the BriefingsDirect Network of online media partners like ZDNet and IT-Director.com. As founder and principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions, Dana Gardner created BriefingsDirect to give online readers and listeners in-depth and direct access to the brightest thought leaders on IT. Our twice-monthly BriefingsDirect Analyst Insights Edition podcasts examine the latest IT news with a panel of analysts and guests. Our sponsored discussions provide a unique, deep-dive focus on specific industry problems and the latest solutions. This podcast equivalent of an analyst briefing session -- made available as a podcast/transcript/blog to any interested viewer and search engine seeker -- breaks the mold on closed knowledge. These informational podcasts jump-start conversational evangelism, drive traffic to lead generation campaigns, and produce strong SEO returns. Interarbor Solutions provides fresh and creative thinking on IT, SOA, cloud and social media strategies based on the power of thoughtful content, made freely and easily available to proactive seekers of insights and information. As a result, marketers and branding professionals can communicate inexpensively with self-qualifiying readers/listeners in discreet market segments. BriefingsDirect podcasts hosted by Dana Gardner: Full turnkey planning, moderatiing, producing, hosting, and distribution via blogs and IT media partners of essential IT knowledge and understanding.

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