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August 22, 2014

How DevOps can benefit your business

"Agile" business models are more than just marketing guff.

By Jimmy Nicholls

Development operations, or DevOps, sounds very Web 2.0. It has more than a whiff of army jargon around it, for a start. Advocates for the concept talk of how "agile" it can make businesses. Some even intimate in hushed tones what a panacea it will prove for this industry or that.

But what is it? At managed cloud firm Rackspace’s panel this week the question was put to a panel of five experts in the field, and elicited laughter. "How long have you got?" was the response, followed by various lofty answers. Nobody wanted to deliver the dull if accurate answer. In short, it’s faster development processes.

That’s not a bad pitch by any means. Which software company would not want to improve the speed at which they bring their product to market? But the panel was aiming at a grander narrative than turning round programs at a quicker rate. DevOps, they say, will shake the ground beneath your face, changing your business for good. But is it true?

Better tech, faster dev

DevOps has emerged almost as an inevitable part of better technology. As Stephen Thair, co-founder of DevOps Guys said: "Computing is not a scarce resource anymore." He’s right about that: even small firms can gain access to serious tech these days, especially with the efficiencies of cloud computing and virtualisation.

Increasing computer literacy has also likely fed into a key DevOps tenet: that the IT team be brought in from the cold and allowed to join the rest of humanity. "It’s not support to the business, it’s part of the business," as Thair put it. His philosophy could be viewed another way: businesses are now dependent on computers, so that is where the "bottleneck" lies.

In real terms this means that software issues must be solved more or less immediately, rather than as part of a longer development cycle. Retailers who might be nervous about fiddling with their websites during peak sales periods are increasingly unable not to take the risk, as customers demand a more responsive business.

As Steven Acreman, founder of cloud analytics firm Dataloop.IO puts it: "If you remove the constraints you can improve the agility." Constraints can be anything from communication between separate teams to standardising development environments, but the result has to be a faster, smoother development process.

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Not all about the machines

But the panellists insisted this was not merely a tech issue. Managers need to accept that moving to a new business model may hurt in the short run. Matthew Skelton, co-founder of software consultants Skelton Thatcher, warned that firms should not punish their teams for failure, lest they discourage long term progress.

Much of this is common sense. Companies that react more quickly to the market are clearly going to have an advantage over rivals, and that has to entail some changes to segmented business structures. "If the inefficiencies centre on the organisation’s use of technology and IT then [DevOps] could have a meaningful impact," Chris Jackson, practice area CTO of DevOps at Rackspace, told CBR. "But if it’s more to do with the product or service strategy then a wider leadership change may be needed."

Psychologically companies need to adopt a start-up attitude that places greater value of experimentation. It also necessitates an attitude of continuous improvement. "For example, changing the governance that dictates the minimum requirements for a new project to be spun-up is not decided by DevOps on its own, it’s about how the company views investment and returns from new initiatives," Jackson added.

No need to move to California

But isn’t there a limit to just how closely big companies can mimic start-ups? "I think that’s a valid criticism," Thair told CBR. "If you’re a large enterprise you have got a lot more value at risk. A start-up has got nothing to lose."

DevOps advocates are not recommending that companies become "west coast, Californian, hippy start-ups", but shake off some of the convoluted structures that are interfering with their ability to bring product to the market while making the most of what computing can give you.

To put it another way, DevOps exists to put the tech into management consultancy. Perhaps this isn’t as flashy or as brazen as some of the peddlers would like it to be. But for businesses it should be a lot more interesting.

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