Julia Evans

What's devops?

I started reading “Effective DevOps” by Jennifer Davis and Katherine Daniels yesterday.

I’m still only part of the way through, but I realized while reading it that I had no idea what “devops” even meant. I had some vague idea that it meant “running programs, administrating servers, using chef and puppet, I don’t know”.

I think the term “devops” is kind of contentious and I don’t really care to get into discussions about what words do or do not mean. BUT. What is described as “devops” and “the devops movement” in Effective DevOps is an extremely positive thing that I am excited about! So let’s talk about what this very positive thing is, and while we talk about it we will call it devops.

what isn’t devops?

One of the first things they clear up is what they don’t mean by devops.

Not a job title, not an organization

Of course devops is a job title that people use – someone emailed me just today asking if I was interested as a job as a “devops engineer”. And that does mean something, but it’s not what we’re talking about right now.

I enjoyed reading this article about devops at Etsy. One of the really key things about this article is – there is no devops organization at Etsy. It’s about how developers and operations people work productively together! Also, it was a slow incremental migration towards different practices. They did not wake up one day and become devops. I think this is the first talk that used the term ‘devops’?

It’s also not about “everyone is a software developer” – one of the authors of this book, Katherine Daniels, is a senior operations engineer at Etsy at Etsy. I don’t know any of the details of her job, but my impression is that she has a lot of expertise in operations. It’s not like “make operations so easy that nobody has to an expert at it”. Of course you need people who know a ton about operations! Probably those people write software as part of their job?

not just automation

There have a been a bunch of super positive changes around reducing automation when administering systems. puppet/chef! soon, terraform! AWS autoscaling groups! But that is not devops. devops is about how people work together.

a definition, sort of

I looked up devops on wikipedia and got this:

In traditional functionally separated organizations there is rarely cross-departmental integration of these functions with IT operations. devops promotes a set of processes and methods for thinking about communication and collaboration between development, QA, and IT operations.

Okay, this is interesting! devops is about “communication and collaboration”. That is really different from “chef and puppet and continuous integration and stuff” – Puppet is software, communication is about how humans work together.

Near the beginning of the book, Davis and Daniels describe some of their respective experiences being the only person on-call and in charge of keeping some software running. They then, over the course of the book, talk through a bunch of case studies of organizations moving towards more sustainable practice.

This really helped me understand where the book was coming from! I have never worked at an organization with an “operations team” where development and operations were separated into different organizations.

So devops is about people who with different strengths effectively collaborating to build awesome software that runs reliably. That is a thing I like!

ideas & practices that are part of devops

  • you should integrate development and operations together (or: you should stop breaking dev and ops apart (thanks tef))
  • operations experts should have a hand in leading systems design and architecture, not just be handed finished systems to run
  • when things go wrong, run blameless postmortems
  • continuous integration. I also learned from this book what continuous integration was! It is when you merge your changes into a mainline branch very frequently instead of going off and building a feature for weeks!
  • configuration management and automation tools like chef/puppet (“no snowflake servers”)

There are a lot more things, those are just 5.

Most of these things are about processes and people, not about technology.

Another pretty important thing here seems to be the devopsdays conferences – it’s really cool that there’s a series of local conferences that talk about how to operate reliable software and bring people with different kinds of expertise to talk. I haven’t been to any of them yet, but bringing people from different companies together to talk seems to be an important part of the “devops movement”.

assumptions are important

One of my favorite things about this book is that it makes a lot of my assumptions explicit! Etsy influenced a lot of devops ideas, and where I work now is influenced by Etsy, so a lot of this stuff is implicitly familiar to me. But I hadn’t thought of them as choices!

When I learned what “continuous integration” was (merging your changes into master after working on them for 1-2 days instead of waiting weeks) I was like “uh, wait, what else would you do?”. A lot of the stuff in this book was like that – I hadn’t realized that this was a choice my organization was making, I thought that was just how things were!

But of course any organizational choice (like continuous integration, blameless postmortems, having a separate operations team) is a choice, and it’s useful to understand why you’re making it. Because maybe there are even more improvements you can make over time!

what’s the difference between devops and SRE?

This transcript of a panel discussion on devops vs SRE is good.

why devops is exciting (& evolution)

I think I didn’t realize it was exciting because I hadn’t really internalized that you could totally separate development and operations. Right now the team I work on has maybe more operational responsibilities than some other teams, but they’ve never been separate.

But thinking of this as a choice where you recognize how important operational expertise is, train developers to be better at operations, make sure that operational concerns get seen at early stages of the development process – that is super exciting to me! And this book “effective devops” has a lot of ideas that I use already all the time, but it also has ideas that I haven’t thought of before!

And it makes me want to make my organization even better at it than it already is, because even if we ostensibly practice “devops” and do continuous integration and use jenkins and deploy 100 times a day or whatever, that doesn’t actually mean that we’re the best and awesome and that we can stop. That is never true! There is always more work to do to make a more awesome organization.

And devops seems to be less about a “manifesto” (like the extreme programming manifesto) and more of a large and fuzzy set of practices that we’re all learning together as an industry over time. That we can constantly improve! And that is okay.