Tuesday, April 26, 2016

DevOpsDays London 2016

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April London was cool. But DevOpsDays London was hot and happening, selling out its venue in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral. In many respects, it was a fairly typical DevOpsDays event with a focus on organization, process, and culture over individual products and toolchains. 

In other respects, it reflected the evolution of DevOps from something most associated with Silicon Valley “unicorns” to a core set of principles, processes, and practices that are broadly applicable. Also reflecting a location not far from the City of London, Barclays was a major sponsor and both financial services firms and major system integrators were well-represented in the audience and in the booths. 

With that as preamble, here are some of the discussions and other topics that caught my eye in one way or another during the course of the two-day event.

Metrics matter

As Splunk’s Andi Mann  observed in an open spaces discussion, it’s nice to measure the things that you do—but it’s even better to measure what you actually accomplish. And better still is to measure accomplishments that closely map to business outcomes rather than IT outputs. 

One participant noted that “We had all these metrics. 1100 of them. We ran a report every month. But why do these metrics matter? Will it help someone make a decision on a daily basis?” Another wryfully observed that "shipping crap quicker isn't a metric anyone should want to measure."

This led to further discussion about the distinction between metrics, alerts, and logs—something that was also touched on in some of the presentations. Google’s Jeromy Carriere pointed out that, in contrast to logs that enable root cause investigation, "alerts need to be exciting. If they're boring, automate them."

Enterprise DevOps

As I wrote above, there was a significant enterprise, even conservative enterprise, angle to the event. For example, Claire Agutter talked about how to “Agile your ITIL.” (I suspect there are Silicon Valley companies lacking a developer who even knows how to spell ITIL.) 

Claire observed that “the reason companies look away from ITIL is it looks bureaucratic” even though "it's how IT gets done in many organizations.” She pointed out that the issue is that ITIL has been implemented as a slow-moving waterfall process in many organizations. However, it doesn’t need to be and, in fact, the best way to think about ITIL process is simply that it’s a consistent way of doing things. And what’s a great match for a consistent way of doing things? That would be automation (using a tool such as Ansible.)

Bimodal IT?

Arguments about definitions and appropriate models often seem a bit “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin”-ish to me. I mostly felt that way when I was an analyst (and analysts generally love creating definitions and models) and I certainly feel that way now. That said, it seems to have become sufficiently trendy to bash Gartner’s bimodal IT model (see e.g. Kris Saxton’s "Bimodal IT:  and other snakeoil” from this event) that I feel compelled to respond. 

Most of what I think is worth saying I have already and won’t repeat here. But, really, Kris largely made my general point in his talk when he said: "A lot of people take away the headlines. The details are largely sane but [bimodal is] most problematic as a vision statement communicated from the C level.” I guess I have trouble seeing the problem with a largely descriptive model for enterprise IT that will inevitably be upgraded and replaced in pieces and at different rates. And CIOs who don’t bother to read beyond the headlines and latch onto this (or any other model) to justify simply maintaining the status quo? Well, that organization has bigger problems than a Gartner model that’s possibly insufficiently nuanced or visionary.

DevOpsSec

I led an open spaces discussion on best practices for security in a DevOps world especially when there are compliance and regulatory issues to consider. We actually ended up having two back-to-back security discussions; the one prior to mine focused on what “tolerate failure” means in a security/risk context. In practice, the discussions flowed into each other. In any case, the only issue was that so many people wanted to participate that it was a bit hard for everyone to pack themselves in!

The shared experiences around security were generally consistent with what I’ve heard in other discussions of this type. For example, there was a lot of interest in automated vulnerability scanning using tools such as OpenSCAP. Also mentioned was using human and machine-readable formats such as Ansible Playbooks to document processes and ensure that they’re followed consistently. (Alas, also consistent with other discussions was the familiar refrain that a lot of auditors are still not prepared to move beyond whatever paper-based checklists they’re already familiar with.)

My “the times they are a changin’” moment came though when someone piped up that he was one of those security guys that are often described as roadblocks to rapidly releasing software. He went on to add that this was the first conference he had ever attended that was not an explicit security conference and he was going to go back to his company and recommend that the security team attend more events of this type. This really highlighted just how siloed security processes can be while providing a hopeful illustration that DevOps really is starting to create new opportunities for collaboration and communication.

This last point is crucial. I know folks who get a bit grumpy about the degree to which DevOpsDays majors on culture rather than the cool tool du jour. Tech is important both as a platform and a toolchain for DevOps certainly. However, so many of us operate in an environment where it’s so natural to fixate on the latest shininess that it’s useful to be regularly reminded about the degree to which culture and more open organizations are even more fundamental components of digital transformation.

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