We’ve been getting “DevOps vs ITIL” wrong

At DevOps conferences, I’ve observed some very negative sentiment about ITIL and ITSM. In particular, the Change Advisory Board is frequently cited as a symbol of ITSM’s anachronistic bureaucracy. They have a point. Enterprise IT support organisations are seen as slow, siloed, structures built around an outdated three-tier application model.

None of this should be a surprise. The Agile Manifesto, effectively the DevOps movement’s Declaration of Independence, explicitly values individualism over process, and reactiveness over structure. The manifesto is the specific antithesis of the traits seen in that negative perception of ITSM.

ITSM commentary on DevOps, meanwhile, is inconsistent, ranging from outright confusion to sheer overconfidence. The complaints of the DevOps community are frequently acknowledged, but they are often waved away on the basis that ITSM is “just a framework”, and hence it should be perfectly possible to fit Devops within that framework. If that doesn’t work, the framework must have been implemented badly. Again, this is a reasonable point.

But there’s a recurring problem with the debate: it tends to focus primarily on processes: two ITIL processes in particular. ITSM commentators frequently argue that Change Management already supports the notion of automated, pre-approved changes. DevOps “is just mature ITIL Release Management”, stated an opinion piece in the Australian edition of Computerworld (a remarkable assertion, but we’ll come to that later). Some of the more robust sceptics in the DevOps community focus on ITSM’s process silos and their incompatibility with the new agility in software development.

Certainly, the ITSM community has to realise that there is a revolution happening in software production. Here are some statements which are easy to back up with real-world evidence:

  • DevOps methodology fundamentally improves some of the inefficiencies of old, waterfall-driven processes.
  • Slow, unnecessarily cumbersome processes are expensive in themselves, and they create opportunity costs by stifling innovation.
  • Agile, autonomous teams of developers are unleashing creativity and innovation at a new pace.
  • By enabling small, point releases, systems are growing in a more resilient way than monolithic releases tended to achieve.

Unarguably, the new methodology is highlighting the shortcomings of the old. Can anyone argue today that a Change Advisory Board made of humans, collating verbal assurances from other humans, is preferable to an effective, fully-automated assurance process, seamlessly integrated with the release pipeline?

We know, then, that DevOps methods dramatically improve the speed and reliability with which technology change can increase business value. But that’s where the arguments on both sides start to wear thin. What is that business value? How do we identify it, measure it, and assure its delivery?

In my experience, there is little mention of the customer at DevOps events. DevOps is seen, correctly, as a new and improved way to drive business value from software development, but the thinking feels very “bottom up”. ITSM commentators seem to have taken the same starting point: drilling into minutiae of process without really considering the value that ITSM should be looking to bring to the new world.

To highlight why a lack of service context is a problem, let’s take the simple example of frontline support. When developers push out an incremental release to a product, customers start to use it. No matter how robust the testing of that release was, some of those customers will encounter issues that need support (not every issue is caused by a bug that was missed in testing, after all).

The Service Desk will of course try to absorb many of those issues at the first step. That is one of its fundamental aims. To do this effectively, it needs to have reasonable situational awareness of what has been changing. It is not optimal for the Service Desk only to become aware of a change when the calls start coming in. Ideally, they should be armed with knowledge of how to deal with those issues.

No matter how effective the first line of support is, some issues will get to the application team. Those issues will vary, as will the level of pain that each is causing. Triage is required, and that is only possible if there a clear understanding of the business and customer perspective.

Facing a queue of two tickets, or ten tickets, or one hundred tickets, the application team has to decide what to do first. This is where things start to unravel for an idealistic, full-stack, “you break it, you fix it” devops team. Which issues are causing business damage? Which are the most time critical? Which can be deferred? How much time should we spend on this stuff at the cost of moving the product forward? This is the stuff that ITSM ought to be able to provide.

Effective Service Management in any industry starts with a fundamental understanding of the customer. Who are they? What makes them successful? What makes them tell other potential customers how great you are? What annoys them? What hurts them? What will trigger them to ask for a refund? What makes them go elsewhere altogether? And, importantly: what is it that we are obligated to provide them with?

An understanding of our service provision is fundamental to creating and delivering innovative solutions, and supporting them once they are there. This is where ITSM can lead, assist, and benefit the people pushing development forward.

The “S” in ITSM stands for “service”, not process. The heavy focus on process in this discussion (particularly two specific process, close to the point of deployment) has been a big mistake by both communities. It is wholly incorrect to state that DevOps is predominantly contained within Release and Change Management. Code does not appear appear spontaneously in a vacuum. A whole set of interconnected events lead to its creation.

I have been in IT for two decades, and the DevOps movement is by the biggest transformation in software development methodology in that time (I still have the textbooks from my 1990s university Computing course. These twenty-year-old tomes admonish the experimenting “hacker” and urge the systems analyst to complete comprehensive designs before a line of code is written, as if building software was perhaps equivalent to constructing a suspension bridge).

The cultural change brought by DevOps involves the whole technology department… the whole enterprise, in fact. Roles change, expectations change. There are questions about how to align processes, governance and support. We need to think about the structure of our teams in a post three-tier world. We need to consider new support methodologies like swarming. We need to thread knowledge management and collaboration through our organizations in innovative new ways.

But the one thing we really must do is to start with the customer.

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Thoughts on #cfgmgmgtcamp, and why ITSM needs to take note

Configuration Management Camp logo

Mention the role of “Configuration Manager” at an ITSM conference, and then use the same description at an Infrastructure Management conference, and your respective audiences will visualise completely different jobs*.

So, it was with some curiosity that I arrived this morning for the first day of the Configuration Management Camp in Ghent.

This particular event falls squarely into the infrastructure camp. It’s the realm of very clever people, doing very clever things with software-defined infrastructure. A glance at the conference sponsors makes this very clear: it includes Puppet Labs, Chef, Pivotal, and a number of the other big (or new) names in orchestrated cleverness.

While this is not the ITSM flavour of Configuration Management, however, today’s conference really made it clear that this new technology will become more and more relevant to the ITSM community. In short, ITSM should make itself aware of it.

The tools here have underpinned the growth of many recent household-name startups: including those internet “unicorns” like Facebook and Uber which have risen from zero to billions. They’ve enabled rapid, cloud-driven growth in a brand-new way. This new breed of companies have firmly entrenched DevOps methodologies, with ultra-rapid build, test, and release cycles, increasingly driven by packaged, repeatable scripts. It primarily takes place on cloud-based open-source software stacks. As a result, there’s not quite as much focus on resource and commercial constraints as we find in big enterprises.

But here’s the crux: methods like this will surely not remain solely the preserve of the startups.  As business get deeper into digital, there’s increasing pressure on the CIO from the CEO and CMO, to deliver more stuff, more quickly. As the frontline business pushes its demands onto IT, long development and deployment cycles simply won’t be acceptable. And, with equal pressure on IT’s costs and margins, these technologies and methods will become increasingly attractive.

Rapid innovation and deployment is becoming essential to business success:  PuppetLabs 2014 State of Devops study recently claimed that strongly performing organizations are deploying code 30 times more often, with 50 times fewer failures. Okay, those numbers come from squarely within the Devops camp, but they are credibly reinforcing past analysis such as MIT Sloan’s 2007 classic study on “the alignment trap”. IT can’t just be a ponderous back-end function if a company wants success.

That’s not to say that this conference is providing the answers. I’d argue that Configuration Management Camp is the “bottom up” conference to an ITSM conference’s “top down”.

Some of the toolsets on display here are very granular indeed. Many of the presentations were slides, or live demos, full of slightly arcane command-line-interface text input. We watched individual clusters get provisioned, quickly, impressively, but devoid of context.

However, there was also a sense of an increasing imperative to start connecting those dots: to define the applications and their inter-dependencies, and ultimately, the services. We’ve seen talks today with titles like “Configuring Services, not Systems”. Dianne Mueller of Red Hat OpenShift described new tools which focus on the deployment of applications, rather than points of infrastructure.

I spoke with more than one person today who described DevOps starting to meet “reality” – that is, the day-to-day expectations of an enterprise environment.  There is a feeling of “cutting edge” here, probably justified, but the counterpoint to that might be that this community tends to see “traditional” IT is seen as slow and clunky.  PuppetLabs founder and CEO, Luke Kaines dismissed this: “The enterprise space doesn’t move slowly because they’re stupid or they hate technology. It’s because they have… what’s the word… users”.

One thing that was clear today was that these technologies are only in their infancy. Gartner recently identified Software Defined Infrastructure as one of its key trends for 2015. Forrester have declared that Docker, the rapidly-emerging containerisation technology, will “live up to the hype and rule the cloud”.

And that’s why IT Service Management needs to take note.

We can’t understand the services we provide our customers, if we don’t have a grasp on the underlying infrastructure. We can’t formalise change control without getting the buy-in of the technical experts for whom rapid infrastructure shifts are a command-line prompt away. We can’t help prevent uncontrolled software spend, or inadvertent license breach, if we don’t proactively map our contracts onto the new infrastructure. With change cycles moving from weeks to seconds (it was claimed today, in one session, that Amazon deploys code to production on a sub-one-second interval), established ITSM practices will need to adapt significantly.

So, if it feels like ITSM’s “top-down” and infrastructure configuration management’s “bottom-up” are striving to find a connection point, it also feels like that join has not yet been made. It’s up to IT as a whole to make that connection, because if we don’t do it, we’ll end up repeating the lessons of the past. But faster.

It’s going to be a fun challenge to face. This is exciting stuff.

*ITSM: defender of the CMDB. Infrastructure: server deploying and tweaking wizard. Right?