How devops and cloud can remake your IT department

They're buzzwords, but devops and cloud computing can reshape IT departments willing to make the jump

Devops and the cloud: They're two of the biggest buzzwords in high-tech today. But organizations embracing these trends are finding out just how closely the two are linked, and the advantages that automating IT processes can bring.

Chris Williams

Chris Williams, co-founder of Rafter, is not afraid of devops or the cloud

Take Rafter, a San Mateo-based company that was founded on the idea that college textbooks are really expensive. Chris Williams created a sort of Netflix for textbooks rental business that started by running off a couple servers sitting in a closet. Seven years later the company has 150 employees and is helping students and bookstores manage inventory and host online book stores for colleges, in addition to the book rentals.

Rafter is continually rolling out feature enhancements to its web site, so the company has a bustling development and testing lab where new services are created. Instead of the code-writers waiting for the IT shop to spin up a virtual machine with a replica of the production website, instead the developers can provision their own compute resources themselves. Welcome to a devops shop.

“There’s a blurring here between what were traditionally distinct roles (between developers and engineers), but they’ve now gotten merged together,” says Kyle MacDonald, vice president of cloud at Ubuntu.

It’s an environment that’s becoming more common across organizations willing to be on the leading edge of IT movements. Rafter uses a combination of tools to power its devops shop: Open source private cloud platform Eucalyptus for automating the creation and termination of virtual machines and Chef recipes from Opscode for configuring the VMs with whatever template resources the developers need.

Most of the Eucalyptus’s customers are either starting or are well down the path of devops where developers can provision their own resources using these automation techniques, says Andy Knosp, vice president of product at the company. “We’ll only see more of it,” he says.

Rafter’s setup reinforces one of the growing realizations about the devops movement about how closely linked devops is to cloud computing, says Lori MacVitte, a senior product manager and blogger at F5. “If you have (IaaS) cloud you have to have devops,” she says.

IaaS cloud computing, either in private environment behind a company’s firewall, or in the public cloud, is all about having fast access to virtualized resources that can be spun up, scaled and deprovisioned rapidly. It’s a natural fit to have devops workers in a cloud environment provisioning their own resources and that’s exactly what Rafter has in its lab.

One of the fears about devops and the cloud is what it means for traditional roles of IT folks. In this new world of combined roles, where do traditional operations folks fit in? In a recent chat on Twitter about devops strategies, Andi Mann, vice president at CA Technologies summed it up with this tweet:

A4. 5 things are key challenges to #DevOps. In order: People. People. People. People. Oh, and people. ;-) #Techviews

— Andi Mann (@AndiMann) June 25, 2013

But Rafter has proven that automation, agile development, cloud and devops can all co-exist with data center managers. The company has two collocation facilities on either coast of the country, and a data center operations team that still runs the live web site and manages issues around automating processes, making sure there is enough hardware to meets the demand requirements and making sure the system is highly available. “Enterprises still value high quality database, storage and network engineers,” says MacDonald from Ubuntu, who adds that those jobs are getting harder than ever as compute, networking and storage are all being converged into virtualized environments. “You still need operators to manage the infrastructure.” Williams says creating a devops shop wasn’t an edict from him and management to implement; it really grew organically by the automation of processes.

It’s not all completely smooth sailing though; Williams will be the first to admit that running a devop shop comes with its challenges. The biggest, he says, is finding the talent to work there. At a recent Chef meetup group he attended the moderator asked the crowd how many people were looking for a job and no one raised their hand. When asking how many people worked for a company looking for devops workers Williams says practically everyone in the room raised their hand. People with developer background seem to enjoy working on front-end UIs stuff, he says. Many are not comfortable working on the operations and management side. “That’s fine, but you still need to know how the system works so that you can fix something,” says Ben Carpenter, a consultant who works with Rafter on its devops strategy. To work in an automated environment, it’s helpful to know the manual steps.

Williams agrees: “Systems operations experience is built upon experience of dealing with issues and putting out fires, building up a catalog of random skills,” he says. “It’s not necessarily something you can just learn from a book.”

Network World senior writer Brandon Butler covers cloud computing and social collaboration. He can be reached at BButler@nww.com and found on Twitter at @BButlerNWW.

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