Grow a (Delivery) Backbone

Feature delivery in a DevOps/Continuous Delivery world is about moving small batches of changes from business idea through to production as quickly and frequently as possible. In a lot of enterprises, however, this proves rather problematic. Most enterprises organize their teams more around functional teams rather than value delivery channels. That leaves the business owners or project managers with the quandary of how to shepherd their changes through a mixture of different functional teams in order to get releases done. That shepherding effort means negotiating for things like schedules, resources, and capacity for each release– all of which take time that simply does not exist when using a DevOps approach. That means that the first step in transforming the release process is abandoning the amoebic flexibility of continuous negotiations in favor of something with more consistency and structure –a backbone for continuously delivering changes.

The problem, of course, is where and how to start building the backbone. Companies are highly integrated entities: disrupting one functional area tends to have a follow-on effect to other functions. For example, dedicating resources from shared teams to a specific effort implies backfilling those resources to the other efforts those resources previously supported. That takes time and money that are better spent. This is why automation very quickly comes to the forefront of any DevOps discussion as the driver of the flow. Automation is relatively easy to stand up in parallel to existing processes, it lends itself to incremental enhancement, and it has the intrinsic ability of multiplying the efforts of a relatively small number of people. It is relatively easy to prove the ROI of automating business processes; which, really, is why most companies got computers in the first place.

So, if automation is the backbone of a software delivery flow, how do you get to an automated flow? Most organizations follow three basic stages as they add automation to their software delivery flow.

  1. Continuous Integration to standardized artifacts (bonus points for a Repository)
  2. Automated Configuration Management (bonus for Provisioning)
  3. Orchestration

Once a business has decided that it needs more features, sooner from a software development organization, the development teams will look at Agile practices. Among these practices is Continuous Integration (supporting the principle from the Agile manifesto that “working software is the primary measure of progress”). This will usually take the form of a relatively frequent build process that produces a consumable form of the code. The frequency of delivery creates a need for consistency in the artifacts produced by the build and a need to track the version progression of those artifacts. This can take the form of naming conventions, directory structures, etc., but eventually will lead to a binary artifact repository.

The availability of frequent updates stimulates a demand for more deployments to more consistent test environments and even to production. The difficulties driven by traditional test lab Configuration Management practices, the drift between test labs and production, and the friction pushing back on iterations causes Development to suddenly become a lot more interested in how their code actually gets into the hands of consumers. The sudden attention and spike in workload causes Operations to suddenly become very interested in what Development is doing. This is the classic case for why DevOps became such a topic in IT. The now classic solution for solving this immediate friction point is to use an automated configuration management solution to provide consistent, high-speed enforcement of a known configuration into all environments where the code will run. These systems are highly flexible, model and script-based and enable environment changes to be versioned in a way that is very consistent with how developed code is versioned. The configuration management effort will usually evolve to include integration to provisioning systems that enable rapid creation, deletion, or refresh of entire environments. Automating Configuration Management, then, becomes the second piece of the delivery backbone; however, environmental sprawl and lack of feedback loops quickly show the need for another level.

The third stage of growing a delivery backbone is Orchestration. It deals with the fact that there are so many pieces to modern application systems that it is inefficient and impractical for humans to track and manage them all in every environment to which those pieces might be deployed. Orchestration systems deal with deliberate sequencing of activities, integration with human workflow, and management of the pipeline of changes in large, complex environments. Tools that deal with this level of activity address the fundamental fact that, even in the face of high-speed automated capabilities, some things have to happen in a particular order. This can be due to technical requirements, but it is often due to fundamental business requirements: coordinating feature improvements with consuming user communities, coordinating with a marketing campaign, or the dreaded regulatory factors. Independent of the reason or need, Orchestration tools allow teams to answer questions of ‘what is in which environment’, ‘are the dependent pieces set’, and ‘what is the actual state of things over there’. In other words, as the delivery backbone grows, Orchestration delivers the precise control over the backbone and enables the organization to capture the full value of the automation.

These three stages of backbone growth, perhaps better termed ‘evolution’ may take slightly different forms in different organizations. However, they consistently appear as a natural progression as DevOps thinking becomes pervasive in organizations and those organizations seek to mature and optimize their delivery flows. Organizations seeking to accelerate their DevOps adoption can use variations on this pattern to deliberately evolve or accelerate the growth of their own delivery backbone.


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