Electric Cloud CEO: We automate agile development

An explosion of tools and platforms is making app dev much more complex

Before "devops" was a buzzword, Electric Cloud was offering a solution to help get developers and operations on the same page. The company's flagship product, Electric Commander, automates app dev workflows regardless of language or tools. As with many programming products and strategies these days, it endeavors to make the "agile" in agile development real.

Recently I interviewed Mike Maciag, who has been Electric Cloud's CEO since 2005. Previously, he co-founded an enterprise software company called MS2, which was sold to Agile Software -- which in turn was bought by Oracle in 2007.

[ Also see Eric Knorr's post "Devops and the great IT convergence" plus "Devops gets developers and admins on the same page" by InfoWorld's Paul Krill. | For a skeptical view, read "Devops: IT's latest paper tiger" by InfoWorld's Neil McAllister. | Subscribe to InfoWorld's Developer World newsletter and make sure you don't miss an app dev article. ]

Maciag was refreshingly direct and concise in his responses to questions about his competition and the current state of app dev. I began our conversation by asking him how Electric Cloud fits into the complex matrix of solutions intended to make developers more productive.

Eric Knorr: You're right in the middle of one of the most active spaces now anywhere in enterprise software. And it's a big, confusing space with lots of overlaps between categories. What's your take on the landscape, and exactly where does Electric Cloud fit in?

Mike Maciag: We sit at the crossroads of three very large trends. The first trend is software developers adopting far more agile processes than they ever have. That's driving a need for batch sizes to get smaller, it's driving a need for retooling, and most importantly it's driving a need for automation.

The next thing that's going on is the move toward cloud computing resources. You used to develop software on XYZ machine; now that can be done on a virtual machine that comes and goes, or even on a public cloud environment that you rent by the hour.

The third trend that we've really seen come up in the last year or so is the convergence of the development organization and the operations organization. It used to be that software got tossed over the wall to operations, and operations was told to go deploy it. Now software is coming out much faster and people want to get deployments out faster.

So that's what's going on: the need for faster software development, the move toward cloud computing environments, and the closer working relationship between dev and ops. Electric Cloud sits in the middle of all that because all three of those trends call for a good automation platform that is robust and scalable, as well as flexible in terms of what it can do. Our flagship product, Electric Commander, does exactly that.

Knorr: Let's talk in terms of the end-to-end development process and exactly where Electric Cloud -- or rather your primary product, Electric Commander -- fits into that process.

Maciag: There's a front end and a back end to software development. The front end is the creative portion of software developers working in their IDEs, writing code, dealing with requirements, and doing those types of things. At some point they press Enter or do a check-in and that kicks off what we'll term a "software production process." The steps are: I want to do a build; if my build is successful I need to test it; and if my tests are successful I want to go package it and stage it with the other software to have a whole product. Then, ultimately, I want to deploy that software. That's where Electric Cloud fits in, which is that back end of the process, the build/test/package/deploy phase of it.

Knorr: In this current landscape, as CEO of the company, it has to be fairly challenging for you because there are a lot of open source solutions -- such as GitHub and Hudson and Jenkins. What's the value proposition? What are you delivering that some of the open source solutions out there are not?

Maciag: I actually think the open source trend is helping our company. There are a couple hundred tools, commercial and open source. A typical environment will use a dozen of them. What they don't have in any of those solutions is ... think of it as a manufacturing floor. What's my assembly line? The machine tools sit off the ends of the assembly line, and the assembly line is responsible for moving things from machine tool to machine tool, and for gathering good data to make decisions on how the whole process is running.

That's where Electric Commander fits in. We are 100 percent compatible and work very well with things like Git and GitHub on the source code repository side. For their build, for their continuous integration engine, [developers] are using stuff like Hudson or Jenkins. That makes an immense amount of sense to us. You know, all the way down to their attached frameworks -- if I'm using the HP ALM suite or Quality Center it would be a great thing to be doing, all the way through that process. This proliferation of tools is really creating a need for bringing them together in one environment where I can run my processes and report on what's going on and be able to manage this entire thing from end to end.

Knorr: In terms of the basic technology, would you characterize what you do as workflow and workflow management?

Maciag: Yeah, you would characterize it as automation, workflow management, and resource management. And when you put those things together, what it allows you to do is run any development process on any platform. We divorce what gets done from where it gets done.

Knorr: Where do you stand on platform as a service? A year ago, I would talk to people and there was no way that enterprise developers were going near any of these PaaS platforms. That's changing now. There seems to be quite a bit of interest on the enterprise development side. And they are pretty much totally integrated platforms, so how do you compete against those types of plays?

Maciag: I think platform as a service is analogous to the tool explosion that's happening. The PaaS players do a really good job of dealing with a particular stack from front to back and not a heterogeneous set of tools or a heterogeneous set of stacks. Even in the enterprise, where PaaS is getting adopted, they may be using Engine Yard for Ruby or they'll be using VMware for something else, but they still need a way to integrate these all into one environment. They'll end up using Electric Commander in conjunction with a lot of those environments as well.

Knorr: Are you talking about a sort of a meta level to manage and coordinate multiple environments?

Maciag: Yes. Our customers are typically enterprises that have heterogeneous development environments, numerous different platforms, and numerous different targets that they need to be building their software for. These are companies like Cisco or General Motors or Chrysler or Morgan Stanley or Huawei or Barclay Capital -- those types of companies.

Knorr: What are those types of companies telling you are their concerns these days? There's just an explosion of diversity now, everything from JavaScript variations to completely new kinds of development environments. Quite often, these large enterprises have a very set way of doing things, but they don't want to filter out innovation or new stuff that's really going to make them more productive. What are some of the concerns that they're coming to you with?

Maciag: We're hearing a couple of things. And one of the big things that we've heard in the last year is: How do I get my operations team and my development team more aligned in terms of quick software releases? Because they fundamentally get paid to do different things.

The development guys are getting paid to innovate and turn things around as fast as they can, and we've all seen agile software development take off over the last five to eight years. The ops guys get paid to keep the lights on -- and keeping the lights on means being very careful about the change I'm going to put in my production environment. So how those two things get reconciled is a big concern that people are bringing up more and more? And what they want is more visibility into what's going on in the development environment -- knowing that stuff that gets tested in dev is going to run in the ops environment -- and being able to easily manage the workflow and promotion of those things.

Knorr: The ops side is under a lot of pressure these days, isn't it?

Maciag: Yep, absolutely.

Knorr: What's your value proposition to ops specifically?

Maciag: Our value prop for ops is twofold. Number one, our product allows them to automate the deployment of software. With automated deployment of software, they know it can get done, not in an ad hoc kind of script-driven way, but the same way every time. If it goes wrong, they can push a button and roll it back. The other value prop for them is they get a good visibility into where the software is coming down the pipe and specifically what the dev team has done. They know what version has been built, what version has been tested and passed the test, and which version is ready for deployment.

Knorr: Let's turn that around and ask: What's the value prop to the dev side? And what do you do to bridge the gap? That's what dev/ops is all about. What's the role that you play in that?

Maciag: The value prop on the dev side really is giving people the automation workflow, that acceleration to be able to run their process very fast and to be able to reuse those processes from one piece of software to the next -- and to be able to run it on any platform that they want, whether physical, virtual, or cloud. As the gap gets bridged, what it really is is one set of tooling, one set of procedures, and one set of workflow that can go from end to end.

I think for devops to meet its promise, we can't have different toolsets going on, at least on a platform level, on the dev side and the ops side. This is really the communication platform that they use to get things out.

Knorr: There's communication and there's automation, in terms of being able to reconfigure development environments easily and that sort of thing. To what degree do you overlap with such open source products as Puppet or Chef? Or do you get down to sort of that configuration type stuff at all?

Maciag: That's another great example of other products we work with. Puppet and Chef do a great job of creating the environment on which to run the software and automating that side of it. We are the deployment of the software itself. So -- how do I get that Jar packaged up and deployed on one of those machines and then roll back if need be?

Knorr: Got it. Who do you consider to be you main direct competition right now?

Maciag: Our biggest competition is momentum and people rolling things themselves -- although most of the time people recognize the need for a packaged app and a new way to do things. On the commercial side, we'll occasionally run into IBM. IBM's got a good suite of tools out of the Rational product line.

Knorr: This also seems to be a sort of fertile area for startups as well.

Maciag: Yeah, correct.

Knorr: The breakaway type of activity that I'm seeing now around OpenStack and some of the other private cloud stuff going on right now is just incredible. Ultimately, I think a lot of this cloud stuff puts ops under even more and more pressure. It seems like developers are the big winners in all of this, in being able to do things with faster cycles, giving them more time to deal with the business stakeholders. What's your observation on what's happening in the market as a whole from that perspective?

Maciag: I think you're right. I think truthfully, if this is done right, everyone should win. What's happening, you know, is that the ops side is being asked to be more responsive to the needs of development -- and development is very resource hungry. The thing that has changed is, as you mentioned with some of the PaaS vendors and with cloud computing, is that development is sometimes end-running the ops or the IT side of the world, which is forcing them to keep up.

Knorr: In the diversity of new development languages, from Node.js to whatever, there's so much new stuff going on. I mean, how do you keep up with that and accommodate that in your processes -- or is that just part of being an open platform?

Maciag: We architected the product from the very beginning to be language agnostic, and on top of that we built a robust API "plug in" language. It's very fast for us to be able to work with partners to build integrations to any of the new things that pop up. We have over 100 of them that are available today for the platform.

Knorr: What are the plans for the development of Electric Commander or any ancillary products around it?

Maciag: What you'll see from Electric Cloud as time goes on are more and more integrations proven in that direction. You'll see, I think, more from us and from partners building specific applications on top of the platforms -- whether for doing specific deployments or working in specific development environments -- and being more prescriptive in terms of best practices around that.

Knorr: Thanks. I think we've covered quite a bit of ground here. In general, I don't think I've ever seen so much change in such a short period of time. That must make your job fun.

Maciag: How could it not be a great job?

This article, "Electric Cloud CEO: We automate agile development," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Eric Knorr's Modernizing IT blog, and for the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

This story, "Electric Cloud CEO: We automate agile development" was originally published by InfoWorld.