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Don't be a fool with your DevOps tools

Scott Willson Automation evangelist, Automic Software

These days, frequent software updates are part of life. Our phones and tablets ask us nearly every day to download an upgraded app with new features, security enhancements, or what have you.

It's the same with business apps. The providers are always working to improve their offerings and, as in the consumer world, like to deliver updates quickly and often.

One managed service provider (MSP) of HR software wanted to offer its customers more frequent upgrades to its online apps, and so instituted an every-Friday release schedule. But it soon became clear there was a big problem: The release team was spending Saturdays fixing issues with the upgraded apps.

The weekly frustrations occurred even though the company had adopted DevOps principles designed to increase collaboration between development and operations professionals and enable faster and more reliable software releases.

Too many tools, too little time

So why the bugs? Like many companies, the MSP was having trouble making sense of the huge raft of tools available for today's software development process. It couldn't figure out what was necessary for an effective continuous delivery (CD) pipeline, and flaws kept showing up in the weekly releases.

Many other companies face the same quandary. The array of tools geared toward multiple facets of the app ecosystem—from release planning to building and testing, to securely, safely, and predictably delivering applications—is so vast, complicated, and confusing that you need a map to keep it all straight.

All of those tools have led to another pitfall as well: Companies fall in love with the technology but forget that you can't tool your way into DevOps. It often takes a lot of work and executive persuasion to shift from the traditional waterfall style of project development to the far more agile DevOps mindset.

Tools are not the be-all and end-all, but a mechanism to support and advance the reshaped culture once it's established or well on its way.

Beware the islands of automation

The market for DevOps tools reached $2.3 billion in 2015, up 21% from the year before, according to Gartner, and it continues to grow dramatically as DevOps evolves "from a niche strategy employed by large cloud providers to a mainstream strategy" used by 25% of Global 2000 organizations.

The emergence of tools for each part of the application lifecycle is, of course, a good thing, since it supports increased automation of the various links in the software delivery chain. But many companies are struggling to understand the role each plays within a CD context and how they fit together in the big picture.

The result is an ironic situation. DevOps, which is all about shattering barriers between development and operations teams so software can be developed in shorter cycles and deployed into production at higher velocity, is falling prey to silo approaches in the tools that are supposed to help.

The condition is analogous to what Gartner describes as "disconnected islands of automation." This is where isolated or overlapping tools with specific functionality are great at handling individual tasks but can't combine forces to solve the end-to-end challenge of CD.

The answer: Orchestration

Companies are trying to reach CD nirvana, where development and operations teams are in sync with one another, delays are removed, and high-quality software is delivered in short cycles. But many are confounded by all the moving parts.

With enterprises using so many tools, and even multiple tools within the same category, what they need is a central automation hub that can orchestrate all the parts into a coherent whole. Think of a symphony, rather than a cacophony, of tools and legacy manual processes.

To truly drive CD and deliver services to customers rapidly and reliably, companies need to stop falling in love with point products. Instead, they should focus on a system of linked technologies throughout the development and delivery lifecycle.

And while they're doing that, companies must also be careful to avoid another mistake some organizations aspiring to DevOps make: Implementing the technology first without paying enough attention to the cultural changes essential for increased agility and collaboration.

By thinking about tools in the correct context—as pieces in a larger puzzle, not as a solution in and of themselves—businesses can meet the CD challenges of the new hyper-digital era and deliver new, problem-free features to customers faster and more often.

That’s what the MSP I talked about in the beginning is now doing. And its release team no longer has to work on Saturdays. It realized that the latest tools can be a huge help in today's high-pressure software development environment, but you have to know the right role for each and understand that tools take you only so far.

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