DevOps for the enterprise

Two developers working on a project in front of a computer screen

DevOps is one of the most persistent business trends of the last few years, with CIOs and developers alike singing its praises as both a structure and a methodology.

However, it's often talked about in relation to small businesses and tech-savvy startups. To those in large legacy companies, with a substantial burden of pre-existing IT estate and deeply ingrained processes, adopting DevOps may seem unnecessary, unfeasible, or even downright unattractive.

DevOps isn't just applicable to the kind of business where the C-suite come to work in a hoodie, though. It can have huge advantages for medium-sized and even large enterprises as well.

"In some ways, the benefits are much more profound for enterprises when they actually implement it than they are for startups," says Redmonk industry analyst Fintan Ryan. "When you look at startups, DevOps is basically table stakes for them."

"Enterprises, in many ways, have more complicated needs," says Nigel Kersten, chief technical strategist at DevOps infrastructure firm Puppet. "They've been running for much longer, they started in a very different world, and revisiting those processes and tooling actually has scope for bigger improvement than some of the web-scale and startup companies."

Focus on the business value

Many of the benefits smaller companies experience from DevOps can translate directly to larger organisations. Most startups adopt DevOps because it allows them to do more with the limited resources at their disposal. While big companies aren't exactly suffering from a lack of resources, DevOps can help them use the staff, facilities and tools they already have to accomplish much more than they could otherwise.

Kersten, takes this a step further, saying that adding business value is now a core part of the DevOps culture. "One of the fundamental things about DevOps that's been really interesting has been how do we actually make our technical infrastructure add business value? It's become an actual tenet within the movement."

"We're not just here to produce infrastructure for its own sake, which I think is how a lot of technical operations people worked for an awfully long time. They'd go 'my job is to run a bunch of Apache installs, and to do that really well' -- but your job isn't to do that. Your job is to actually do something for the business."

"One of the really interesting things about DevOps has been saying 'let's focus on the business value we're actually creating'. And so ... actually talking about 'what's the art of business value' is kind of fascinating."

"The business benefit of a successful DevOps transformation is agility," notes Brett Aukberg, Citihub Consulting's North America CTO. "This is generally achieved through improved communications, a core principle of DevOps, and much greater use of automation which tends to result from having the people who build systems be responsible for supporting those systems."

Communications breakdown

Communication is one of the most important elements of a successful business and DevOps is seen by many as a formalised way of making sure teams are communicating as effectively as possible. The most common elements of DevOps -- regular scrums, collaborative workflows and blameless post-mortems -- are all centred on this principle.

"The DevOps movement came about as reaction against antagonistic environments,in which development teams, incentivised to deliver features quickly, would throw their code over the figurative wall into operations teams, who in turn were incentivised to maintain stability," explains The Scale Factory co-founder, Jon Topper.

"This sort of incentive mismatch causes conflict between teams. These conflicts are amplified inside larger organisations, so using a DevOps strategy can have a real impact there, increasing team cohesion as well as agility."

It's not just IT that benefits from DevOps, either. The core practises and principles of DevOps can be applied across the business as a whole. Shorter, more regular project cycles, an increase in bi-directional feedback and a willingness to roll with failures are all DevOps fundamentals, but can equally be deployed in many other areas of an organisation. "Ideally, those principles should be able to make you be better as a business, no matter what area of the business you apply them to," Kersten says.

"This system hasn't been turned on in 12 years"

Another key way in which DevOps can provide significant, measurable benefits is by vastly simplifying the way business IT actually runs. "In many ways, there's more waste and inefficiency in large enterprises," Kersten points out.

"There's what gets called 'legacy software', that works, and is actually delivering value to the business, but it's expensive to maintain and people haven't necessarily thought about it for a couple of decades. But there's actually huge gains to be made there because it hasn't been thought about for so long."

For this reason, one of the first things Ryan advises larger businesses that want to embrace DevOps do is to carry out an audit of all the systems and processes in their estate, which can have an immediate benefit.

"You're essentially looking at the plumbing of the business, and you're identifying what's critical and what's not," he explains. He relates an anecdote from a businesses that had conducted an audit of all of the systems it was currently maintaining, which turned up some shocking results.

"They found systems that quite literally hadn't been turned on," he says. "This system hasn't been turned on in 12 years, but it's being maintained in an outsourced IT contract for god knows how long, and they've been paying for it."

Culture shock

Of course, moving to DevOps isn't an easy proposition for a large business. As Citihub's Aukberg points out, it can be a huge gear-shift for big companies. "Firms have existing organisational structures and, of course, larger firms tend to have more complex and more well-established organisations," he says. "The effort associated with changing from a traditional organisational structure to one built around the philosophy of DevOps is at least proportional to the size of the organisation."

The main issue with rolling DevOps out within a large business is the gargantuan cultural change required. Commonly cited as the biggest barrier to DevOps projects, this cultural change involves charging the way teams and departments are structured, flattening out the hierarchy somewhat and putting people on a more level footing.

It also requires companies to let go of what Ryan calls 'blame culture' - the idea that if something doesn't work out, then someone must have been at fault. This can be a hard mindset for larger businesses to shake, but it's crucial they do, he says.

"The concept of blameless post mortems is key to making DevOps a success. Analyse what went wrong (and things will go wrong), learn from it and move on. In most companies people spend a lot of time trying to apportion blame rather than solving problems."

No more heroes

As well as letting go of the concept of blame, doing away with 'IT heroes' is equally important to successfully completing a DevOps transformation. "One of the most common blockers in companies is the 'hero' IT person," Ryan explains; "The person everyone goes to get their problems fixed, knows the ins and outs of every system."

"There's something seductive about being that person that everyone relies upon," agrees Kersten, "that you've got this secret knowledge, that no-one else could possibly do this job - 'sure I get woken up at three in the morning twice a week, but I'm fixing it every time, and I'm indispensable'."

"But once you take a systems thinking approach to the whole business, you start realising if you're in that role, you're actually a bottleneck. You're a bottleneck for scaling things out, because you can't be there all of the time."

Through centralising and redistributing knowledge, expertise and responsibility, DevOps can do a lot to reduce and eliminate the bottlenecks caused by these so-called 'IT heroes'.

Making DevOps work for you

So what can big companies do to ensure that their DevOps projects are a success? According to the experts, the first step is an audit of your estate to find out exactly where you stand. "A successful DevOps transformation necessitates the questioning and dismantling of overly bureaucratic and complex processes where they are no longer adding value," Topper explains.

Alongside this, Aukberg says, executives need to modify their approach to IT. "Management's thinking is among the most important things to change. DevOps is not something which can be purchased through tools and processes, although those can be helpful."

Ryan agrees, but points out that DevOps is a continuous journey, rather than a project with a definitive endpoint. "It's not about sending people on a five day training course and saying 'we now have DevOps' - it's a wider shift in how work is approached and managed. In what the rewards culture is and so forth. You can't 'sprinkle some DevOps' on your IT team and say the work is done."

Making the shift to a DevOps structure isn't simple, but as more and more organisations move to agile, software-based business models, it's a trend that every company needs to get on board with sooner rather than later. It may take some time and investment up front, but do it right, and the potential payoff is enormous.

Adam Shepherd

Adam Shepherd has been a technology journalist since 2015, covering everything from cloud storage and security, to smartphones and servers. Over the course of his career, he’s seen the spread of 5G, the growing ubiquity of wireless devices, and the start of the connected revolution. He’s also been to more trade shows and technology conferences than he cares to count.

Adam is an avid follower of the latest hardware innovations, and he is never happier than when tinkering with complex network configurations, or exploring a new Linux distro. He was also previously a co-host on the ITPro Podcast, where he was often found ranting about his love of strange gadgets, his disdain for Windows Mobile, and everything in between.

You can find Adam tweeting about enterprise technology (or more often bad jokes) @AdamShepherUK.