The “Other” Value Levers of Automation – Part 3 – Everybody is Empowered

Implicit in DevOps automation is the idea that the decision to make technical changes should be delegated to non-experts in the first place. Sure, automation can make an expert more productive, but as I discussed in my last post, the more people who can leverage the automation, the more valuable the automation is. So, the next question is how to effectively delegate the automation so that the largest number of people can leverage it – without breaking things and making others non-productive as a result.

This is a non-trivial undertaking that becomes progressively more complex with the size of the organization and the number of application systems involved. For bonus points, some industries are externally mandated to maintain a separation of duties among the people working on a system. There needs to be a mechanism through which a user can execute an automated process with higher authority than they normally have. Those elevated rights need to last only for time when that execution is running and limit the ability to affect the environment to a scope that is appropriate. Look at it this way – continuous delivery to production does not imply giving root to every developer on the team so they can push code. There are limits imposed by what I call a ‘credentials proxy’.

A credentials proxy is simply a mechanism that allows a user to execute a process with privileges that are different, and typically greater than, those they normally have. The classic model for this is the 1986 wonder tool _sudo_. It provides a way for a sysadmin to grant permissions to a user or group of users that enable them to run specific commands as some other user (note – please remember that user does NOT have to be root!!). While sudo’s single system focus makes it a poor direct solution for modern, highly distributed environments, the rules that sudo can model are wonderfully instructive. It’s even pretty smart about handling password changes on the ‘higher-level’ account.

Nearly every delivery automation framework has some notion of this concept. Certainly it is nothing new in the IT automation space – distributed orchestrators have had some notion of ‘execute these commands on those target systems as this account’ for just about as long as those tools have existed. There are even some that simply rely on the remote systems to have sudo… As with most things DevOps, the actual implementation is less important than the broader concept.

The key thing is to have an easily managed way to control things. Custom sudo rules on 500 remote systems is probably not an approach that is going to scale. The solution needs to have 3 things. First, a way to securely store the higher permission accounts. Do not skimp here – this is a potential security problem. Next, it needs to be able to authenticate the user making the request. Finally, it needs to have a rules system for mapping the requestors to the automations that they are allowed to execute – whatever form they may take.

Once the mechanics of the approach are handled and understood, the management doctrine can be established and fine tuned. The matrix of requesters and automations will grow over time, so all of the typical system issues of user groups and permissions will come into play. The simpler this is, the better off the whole team will be. That said, it needs to be sophisticated enough to enable managers, some of whom may be very invested in expertise silos, to understand that the system is sufficiently controlled to allow the non-experts to do what they need to do. Which is the whole idea of empowering the team members in the first place – give the team what they need and let them do their work.

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