Devops: IT's latest paper tiger

Bridging the divide between dev and ops will take more than a buzz word

These days, everybody seems to want to discuss devops. I wish I could. To do that, though, I'd have to know what we're talking about.

The basics are plain enough. Devops purports to align software development ("dev") with IT operations ("ops"). But we've heard about these kinds of alignment initiatives before. Remember back when everything was about "aligning business and IT"? And how, at the end of the day, that phrase meant almost nothing? Until someone shows me something concrete, I'm going to assume the same is true for devops.

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Mind you, there's no shortage of theories about devops, nor a dearth of opinions. Maybe that's why there's so much talk about it: Everybody else is trying to figure out what it's supposed to mean, too.

Defining devops: A moving target

If you ask some folks, devops is nothing but a blatant land grab by overambitious developers looking to horn in on traditional IT functions. Particularly in light of modern agile development processes, these discontented programmers see operations procedures as unwelcome impediments to efficient software delivery, and they want out.

Other folks say devops originated with a group of "sysadmin coders" and the ops side is using it to gain the upper hand. They hope to claim a bigger stake in the application development process and hold developers accountable for how easy their code is to deploy and maintain in production environments.

Some say devops is about cross-training developers and IT staff so that each can take on some of the responsibilities of the other. Others say it's a brand-new, distinct discipline. Still more say that some cross-training is fine, but even if you have a few devops generalists on staff, you should hang onto your development and operations specialists for when the tough problems crop up.

It's not even clear what has brought us to this turning point. One theory is that the proliferation of SaaS (software as a service) and PaaS (platform as a service) has made devops possible by increasing the level of automation of IT tasks. Another theory is that SaaS and PaaS are in the process of eliminating the traditional IT operations role altogether, meaning devops is essentially dead on arrival, too.

Who are we supposed to believe?

Companies capitalize on the devops trend

Given that there is no clear definition of what it actually means to buy into devops, it's difficult to say how widespread it has actually become. Metrics, certainly, are out of the question.

That hasn't stopped the media from trumpeting "devops successes" where it can find them. According to VentureBeat, companies such as Dropbox, Facebook, and SmugMug all owe at least some of their successes to the "devops approach" -- despite the fact that all three companies predate the term "devops" by several years.

It seems far more likely that the devops aficionados borrowed some of their ideas and methods from successful companies like Facebook. There's nothing wrong with that -- isn't that how best practices usually proliferate? But we don't usually give them funny names.

The thing about funny names, though, is that once they become buzzwords, dropping those buzzwords becomes a great way to drum up free press for your company. Witness Etsy at the recent O'Reilly Web 2.0 Expo in New York, crowing about its use of "devops-like principles." Wait, devops is a set of principles now? I thought it was a movement. Or a methodology? Or a model? I've lost track.

Once a buzzword gains enough mental capital, in rush the vendors, eager to convince confused and worried purchasing managers that the answer to the latest IT paper tiger is something that can be bought in a box. A number of vendors already claim to be shipping devops solutions, including FluidOps, Puppet Labs, and Urbancode, among others. EMC VMware claims to have developed an entire suite for the task.

A dose of reality

Don't get me wrong. The fundamental issues lurking behind all this talk about devops are important, and seeking ways to address them is laudable. The trouble is, for something that aims to bring disparate groups closer together, there doesn't seem to be anything particularly unifying about devops. We can't even seem to agree on how you "do" it. And once you start talking about who's on the right side or the wrong side of the devops debate within your organization, all you're doing is taking sides -- you're not solving any problems.

The truth is that no amount of sloganeering, hand waving, manifestos, seminars, or user groups will bridge the divide between application development and operations. Magic software pixie dust won't do it, either. Slapping a glib label on a broad set of complex, fundamental process and organizational challenges -- which are surely different for every organization facing them -- does no good for anyone.

While devops remains the flavor of the month and I'm sure we can expect a lot more talk about it, this conversation lost interest for me a long time ago. It's just watercooler chat now.

In the short term, I expect devops will make a lot of hay for pundits, speakers, conference organizers, and vendors looking to cash in on the trend. In the long term, those who are inspired by the devops ideas would be better served to put down the flags, get off the soapboxes, and work within their organizations to effect meaningful change. Unfortunately, this kind of change happens only one step at a time.

This article, "Devops: IT's latest paper tiger," originally appeared at Read more of Neil McAllister's Fatal Exception blog and follow the latest news in programming at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

This story, "Devops: IT's latest paper tiger" was originally published by InfoWorld.