Automation and the Definition of Done

“Done” is one of the more powerful concepts in human endeavor. Knowing that something is “done“ enables us to move on to the next endeavor, allows us to claim compensation, and sends a signal to others that they can begin working with whatever we have produced. However, assessing done can be contentious – particularly where the criteria are undefined. This is why the ‘definition of done’ is a major topic in software delivery. Software development has a creative component that can lead to confusion and even conflict. It is not a trivial matter.

Automation in the software delivery process forces the team to create a clear set of completion criteria early in the effort, thus reducing uncertainty around when things are ‘done’ as well as what happens next. Though they at first appear to be opposites, with done defining a stopping point and automation being much more about motion, the link between ‘done’ and automation is synergistic. Being good at one makes the team better at the other and vice-versa. Being good at both accelerates and improves the team’s overall capability to deliver software.

A more obvious example of the power of “done” appears in the Agile community. For example, Agile teams often have a doctrine of ‘test driven development’ where developers should write the tests first. Further examples include the procedural concepts for completing the User Stories in each iteration, or sprint, so that the team can clearly assess completion in the retrospective. Independent of these examples, validation-centric scenarios are an obvious area where automation can help underpin “done”. In the ‘test-driven development’ example, test suites that run at various points provide unambiguous feedback over whether more work is required. Those test suites become part of the Continuous Integration (CI) job so that every time a developer commits new code. If those pass, then the build automatically deploys into the integration environment for further evaluation.

Looking a bit deeper at the simple process of automatically testing CI builds reveals how automation forces a more mature understanding of “done”. Framed another way, the fact that the team has decided to have that automated assessment means that they have implicitly agreed to a set of specific criteria for assessing their ‘done-ness’. That is a major step for any group and evidence of significant maturation of the overall team.

That step of maturation is crucial, as it enables better flows across the entire lifecycle. For example, understanding how to map ‘done-ness’ into automated assessment is what enables advanced delivery methodologies such as Continuous Delivery. Realistically, any self-service process, whether triggered deliberately by a button push or autonomously by an event, such as delivering code, cannot exist without a clear, easily communicated, understanding of when that process is complete and how successful it was. No one would trust the automation were it otherwise.

There is an intrinsic link between “Done” and automation. They are mutual enablers. Done is made clearer, easier and faster by automation. Automation, in turn, forces a clear definition of what it means to be complete, or ‘done’. The better the software delivery team is at one, the stronger that team is at the other.


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What Makes a Good DevOps Tool?

We had an interesting discussion the other day about what made a “good” DevOps tool.  The assertion is that a good citizen or good “link” in the toolchain has the same basic attributes regardless of the part of the system for which it is responsible. As it turns out, at least with current best practices, this is a reasonably true assertion.  We came up with three basic attributes that the tool had to fit or it would tend to fall out of the toolchain relatively quickly. We got academic and threw ‘popular’ out as a criteria – though supportability and skills availability has to be a factor at some point in the real world. Even so, most popular tools are at least reasonably good in our three categories.

Here is how we ended up breaking it down:

  1. The tool itself must be useful for the domain experts whose area it affects.  Whether it be sysadmins worried about configuring OS images automatically, DBAs, network guys, testers, developers or any of the other potential participants, if the tool does not work for them, they will not adopt it.  In practice, specialists will put up with a certain amount of friction if it helps other parts of the team, but once that line is crossed, they will do what they need to do.  Even among development teams, where automation is common for CI processes, I STILL see shops where they have a source control system that they use day-to-day and then promote from that into the source control system of record.  THe latter was only still in the toolchain due to a bureaucratic audit requirement.
  2. The artifacts the tool produces must be easily versioned.  Most often, this takes the form of some form of text-based file that can be easily managed using standard source control practices. That enables them to be quickly referenced and changes among versions tracked over time. Closed systems that have binary version tracking buried somewhere internally are flat-out harder to manage and too often have layers of difficulty associated with comparing versions and other common tasks. Not that it would have to be a text-based artifact per se, but we had a really hard time coming up with tools that produced easily versioned artifacts that did not just use good old text.
  3. The tool itself must be easy to automate externally.  Whether through a simple API or command line, the tool must be easily inserted into the toolchain or even moved around within the toolchain with a minimum of effort. This allows quickest time to value, of course, but it also means that the overall flow can be more easily optimized or applied in new environments with a minimum of fuss.

We got pretty meta, but these three aspects showed up for a wide variety of tools that we knew and loved. The best build tools, the best sysadmin tools, even stuff for databases had these aspects. Sure, this is proof positive that the idea of ‘infrastructure as code’ is still very valid. The above apply nicely to the most basic of modern IDEs producing source code. But the exercise became interesting when we looked at older versus newer tools – particularly the frameworks – and how they approached the problem. Interestingly we felt that some older, but popular, tools did not necessarily pass the test.  For example, Hudson/Jenkins are weak on #2 and #3 above.  Given their position in the toolchain, it was not clear if it mattered as much or if there was a better alternative, but it was an interesting perspective on what we all regarded as among the best in their space.

This is still an early thought, but I thought I would share the thought to see what discussion it would stimulate. How we look at tools and toolchains is evolving and maturing. A tool that is well loved by a particular discipline but is a poor toolchain citizen may not be the right answer for the overall organization. A close second that is a better overall fit might be a better answer. But, that goes against the common practice of letting the practitioners use what they feel best for their task. What do you do? Who owns that organizational strategic call? We are all going to have to figure that one out as we progress.

DevOps is about Building Fords, not Ferraris

There is an interesting obsession with having the ‘ultimate’ of whatever you’re talking about. This applies to most things in our society: jobs, houses, televisions, cars. You name it, there is an ‘ultimate’ version that everyone aspires to have. There is a lot of good to this behavior, to be sure. I believe strongly that everyone should be trying to get better all the time. Though I would point out that it is healthier to regard the ultimate [whatever] as a consequence or benefit of getting better rather than an end unto itself.

But it’s usually bad to want the ‘ultimate’ in your software delivery process. Goldplating has always been an enemy in software projects and there is evidence of it in how a lot of organizations have traditionally delivered software. It usually shows up in the culture, where high-intervention processes lead to hero cults and aspirations to be the ultimate ‘hero’ who gets releases out the door. Old-school, old-world hand craftsmanship is the order of the day. DevOps is the exact opposite of this approach. It focuses on a highly repeatable, scalable, and mass-produced approach to releasing software. And frequently.

Which brings me back to the contrast between a Ferrari and a Ford. A Ferrari is pretty much the ultimate sports car and ultimate sports car brand. There really is very little not to like. But the cars are exotics still built with expensive materials using manual, old world techniques. To be fair, Ferrari has a super-modern robotic process for a lot of their precision work, but they add a lot of customization and hand-finishing. And they ship a very few thousand releases (cars) each year. Sustaining such a car in the real world involves specially trained mechanics named Giuseppe, long waits for parts from Italy, and even shipping the car across the state if you don’t live close to a qualified shop. No biggie – if you can afford the car, you can afford the maintenance. But, let’s face it, they are a ‘money is no object’ accessory.

Ford has shipped a variety of performance models over the years based on the Mustang platform. In fact, there have been years where Ford has shipped more performance Mustangs in a week than Ferrari would ship cars in that YEAR. And there is a magic there for a DevOps geek. Plain ol’ Ford Motor Company has started selling a 200mph Mustang this year for about $60K. There’s nothing too exotic about it. You can go to your local Ford dealer and buy it. It can be purchased at one dealer and serviced at any other dealer anywhere in the country. Parts? No problem – most of them are in local warehouses stationed strategically so that no dealer would have to keep a customer waiting too long for common items. A lot of stuff can be had from your local AutoZone because, well, it’s “just” a Mustang.

The lesson, though, is that Ford has an economy of scale by virtue of the volume of Mustangs it produces. No, a Mustang is not as nice or as custom as a Ferrari. It is as common and mass-produced as anything. But a 200mph car that anyone can buy for noticeably less than a house, get parts easily, and have serviced at thousands of locations is an amazing and magical thing. It teaches a solid lesson about scalability and sustainability that should be inspirational for DevOps teams.

And maybe, just maybe, if your company does a good enough job at sustainably delivering your software, you might be able to afford that Ferrari someday…

PS – for Chevy zealots. I realize the Corvette cleared 200 on a “volume” platform first. But the 200mph Plastic Fantastic looks more exotic relative to the Mustang – which has a plain “sporty commuter” or even rental fleet version with a V6. And the common example of the economies of scale mean that the 200mph Shelby Mustang is still a bargain relative to the 200mph capable ‘vette, which is the point of this post.

A System for Changing Systems – Part 4 – Groundwork for Understanding the Capabilities of a System Changing System

In the last couple of posts, we have talked about how application systems need a change application system around them to manage the changes to the application system itself. A “system to manage the system” as it were. We also talked about the multi-part nature of application systems and the fact that the application systems typically run in more than one environment at any given time and will “move” from environment to environment as part of their QA process. These first three posts seek to set a working definition of the thing being changed so that we can proceed to a working definition of a system for managing those changes. This post starts that second part of the series – defining the capabilities of a change application system. This definition will then serve as the base for the third part – pragmatically adopting and applying the capabilities to begin achieving a DevOps mode of operation.

DevOps is a large problem domain with many moving parts. Just within the first set of these posts, we have seen how four rather broad area definitions can multiply substantially in a typical environment. Further, there are aspects of the problem domain that will be prioritized by different stakeholders based on their discipline’s perspective on the problem. The whole point of DevOps, of course, is to eliminate that perspective bias. So, it becomes very important to have some method for unifying the understanding and discussion of the organizations’ capabilities. In the final analysis, it is not as important what that unified picture looks like as it is that the picture be clearly understood by all.

To that end, I have put together a framework that I use with my customers to help in the process of understanding their current state and prioritizing their improvement efforts. I initially presented this framework at the Innovate 2012 conference and subsequently published an introductory whitepaper on the IBM developerWorks website. My intent with these posts is to expand the discussion and, hopefully, help folks get better faster. The interesting thing to me is to see folks adopt this either as is or as the seed of something of their own. Either way, it has been gratifying to see folks respond to it in its nascent form and I think the only way for it to get better is to get more eyeballs on it.

So, here is my picture of the top-level of the capability areas (tools and processes) an organization needs to have to deliver changes to an application system.


Overview of capability areas required to sustain environments

The quality and maturity of these within the organization will vary based on their business needs – particularly around formality – and the frequency with which they need to apply changes.

I applied three principles when I put this together:

  • The capabilities had to be things that exist in all environments that application system runs (ie dev, test, prod, or whatever layers exist). THe idea here is that such a perspective will help unify tooling and approaches to a theoretical ideal of one solution for all environments.
  • The capabilities had to be broad enough to allow for different levels of priority / formality depending on the environment. The idea is to not burden a more volatile test environment with production-grade formality or vice-versa. But to allow a structured discussion of how the team will deliver that capability in a unified way to the various environments. DevOps is an Agile concept, so the notion of minimally necessary applies.
  • The capabilities had to be generic enough to apply to any technology stack that an organization might have. Larger organizations may need multiple solutions based on the fact that they have many application systems that were created at different points in time, in different languages, and in different architectures. It may not be possible to use exactly the same tool / process in all of those environments, but it most certainly is possible to maintain a common understanding and vocabulary about it.

In the next couple of posts, I will drill a bit deeper into the capability areas to apply some scope, focus, and meaning.