Starting and Scaling DevOps in the Enterprise – review

As many of you know, I’m a huge fan of the work Gary Gruver has done – in particular his book “Leading the Transformation” on his experiences at HP trying to transform a very traditional enterprise. (See my earlier mention of his book on this blog, here.) His newest work is out – Starting and Scaling DevOps in the Enterprise. I am recommending it very highly to all my customers that are following DevOps! I think its unique – by far the best I’ve read so far when it comes to putting together specific metrics and the questions you’ll need to know in setting your priorities.

Gary notes that there are three types of work in an enterprise:

  1. New work – Creating new features or integrating/building new applications
    1. new work can’t be optimized (too much in flux)
    2. Best you can hope for here is to improve the feedback loop so you’re not wasting time polishing features that are not needed (50%+ in most orgs!)
  2. Triage – finding the source of defects and resolving
    1. Here DevOps can help by improving level of automation. Smaller batch sizes means fewer changes to sort through when bugs crop up.
  3. Repetitive – provisioning environments, building, testing, configuring the database or firewall, etc.
    1. More frequent runs, smaller batches, feedback loop improved. All the DevOps magic really happens in #2 and #3 above as these are the most repetitive tasks.

Notice of the three types above – the issues could be in one of five places:

  1. Development
    1. Common pain point here is Waterfall planning – i.e. requirements inventory and a bloated, aging inventory)
  2. Building Test Environments
    1. Procurement hassles across server, storage, networking, firewall. Lengthy handoffs between each of these teams and differing priorities.
    2. Horror story – 250 days for one company to attempt to host a “Hello World” app. It took them just 2 hours on AWS!
  3. Testing and Fixing Defects – typically QA led
    1. Issues here with repeatability of results (i.e. false positives caused by the test harness, environment, or deployment process)
    2. Often the greatest pain point, due to reliance on manual tests causing lengthy multi-week test cycles, and the time it takes to fix the defects discovered.
  4. Production Deployment – large, cross org effort led by Ops
  5. Monitoring and Operations

The points above are why you can’t just copy the rituals from one org to another. For any given company, your pain points could be different.


So, how do we identify the exact issue with YOUR specific company?

  1. Development (i.e. Requirements)
    1. Metrics:
      1. What % of time is spent in planning and documenting requirements?
      2. How many man-hours of development work are currently in the inventory for all applications?
      3. What % of delivered features are being used by customers and fit the expected results?
    2. An important note here – organizations often commit 100% of dev resources to address work each sprint. This is terrible as a practice and means that the development teams are too busy meeting preset commitments to respond to changes in the marketplace or discoveries during development. The need here is for education – to tell the business to be reasonable in what they expect, and how to shape requirements so they are actual minimum functionality needed to support their business decisions. (Avoid requirements bloat due to overzealous business analysts/PM’s for example!)

  1. Provisioning environments
    1. Metrics:
      1. How much time does it take to provision environments (on avg)
      2. How many environments are requested per month/sprint
      3. % of time these environments require manual fixing before they are complete
      4. % of defects associated with non-code – i.e. environments, deployments, data layer, etc.
    2. The solution here for provisioning pinch points is infrastructure as code. Here there is no shortcut other than developers and IT/operations working together to build a working set of scripts to recreate environments and maintaining them jointly. This helps with triage as changes to environments now show up clearly in source control, and prevents DEV-QA-STG-PROD anomalies as it limits variances between environments.
    3. It’s critical here for Dev and Ops to use the same tool to identify and fix issues. Otherwise strong us vs them backlash and friction.
    4. This requires the organization to have a strong investment in tooling and think about their approach – esp with simulators/emulators for companies doing embedded development.

  1. Testing
    1. Metrics
      1. What is the time it takes to run a full set of tests?
      2. How repeatable are these? (i.e. what’s the % of false errors)
      3. What % of defects are found with testing (either manual, automated, or unit testing)
      4. What is the time it takes to approve a release?
      5. What’s the frequency of releases?
    2. In many organizations this is the most frequent bottleneck – the absurd amount of time it takes to complete a round of tests with a reasonable expectation the release will work as designed. These tests must run in hours, not days.
    3. You must choose a well-designed automation framework.
    4. Development is going to have to change their practices so the code they write is testable. And they’ll need to commit to making build stability a top priority – bugs are equal in priority (if not higher than) tasks/new features.
    5. This is the logical place to start for most organizations. Don’t just write a bunch of automated tests – instead just a few automated Build Acceptance Tests that will provide a base level of stability. Watch these carefully.
      1. If the tests reveal mostly issues with the testing harness, tweak the framework.
      2. If the tests are finding mostly infrastructure anomalies, you’ll need to create a set of post-deployment tests to check on the environments BEFORE you run your gated coding acceptance test. (i.e. fix the issues you have with provisioning, above).
      3. If you’re finding coding issues or anomalies – congrats, you’re in the sweet spot now!
    6. Horror story here – one company boasted of thousands of automated tests. However, these were found to not be stable, maintainable, and had to be junked.
    7. Improve and augment over time these BATs so your trunk quality gradually moves closer to release in terms of near-produciton quality.
      1. Issue – what about that “hot” project needed by the business (which generally arrives with a very low level of quality due to high pressure?
        1. Here the code absolutely should be folded into the release, but not exposed to the customer until it fits the new definition of done: “All the stories are signed off, automated testing in place and passing, and no known open defects.”

  1. Release to Production
    1. If a test cycle takes 6 weeks to run, and management approval takes one day – improving this part just isn’t worth it. But if you’re trying to do multiple test cycles a week and this is the bottleneck, absolutely address this with managers that are lagging in their approval or otherwise not trusting the gated testing you’re doing.
    2. Metrics
      1. Time and effort to release to production
      2. Number of issues found categorized by source (code, environment, deployment process, data, etc)
      3. Number of issues total found in production
      4. MTTR – mean time to restore service
      5. # of green builds a day
      6. Time to recover from a red build
      7. % of features requiring rework before acceptance
      8. Amt of effort to integrate code from the developers into a buildable release
    3. For #1-4 – Two areas that can help here are feature toggling (which you’ll be using anyway), and canary releases where key pieces of new functionality are turned on for a subset of users to “test in production.”
    4. For #5-6 – here Continuous Integration is the healer. This is where you avoid branching by versioning your services (and even the database – see Refactoring Databases book by Scott)
    5. For #7-8 – If you’re facing a lot of static here likely a scrum/agile coach will help significantly.


So – how to win, once you’ve identified the pain points? You begin by partitioning the issue:

  • Break off pieces that are tightly coupled versus not developed/tested/deployed as a unit. (i.e. HR or Purchasing processes)
  • Segment these into business critical and non-business critical.
  • Split these into tightly coupled monoliths with common code sharing requirements vs microservices (small, independent teams a la Amazon). The reality is – in most enterprises there’s very valid reasons why these applications were built the way they are, You can’t ignore this complexity, much as we’d like to say “microservices everywhere!”

I really admire Gary’s very pragmatic approach as it doesn’t try to accomplish large, difficult things all at once but it focuses on winnable wars at a company’s true pain points. Instead of trying to force large, tightly coupled organizations to work likely loosely coupled orgs – you need to understand the complex systems and determine together how to release code more frequently without sacrificing quality. Convince these teams of DevOps principles.


Ok, we all love DevOps. But now what?

We commonly find that everyone – and I mean EVERYONE – is in favor of DevOps once they realize how great it is. Entire teams read through “Continuous Development” by Jez Humble or “The Phoenix Project” by Gene Kim and they are full of enthusiasm, ready to change their deployment processes so changes are safer and more repeatable. But then these teams have a “now what?” moment – we know we want to improve our processes, but where to start?

One of the cool things about DevOps is the lack of fuzziness – it is very, very tangible in terms of measuring ROI and tracking progress. For example, check out the very specific metrics you can use below that the thought leaders above have identified as being common traits of highly effective organizations:

  1. High service levels and availability (as measured by Mean Time To Repair – MTTR, Mean Time Between Failures or MTBF)
  2. High throughput of effective change (change success rate >99%)
  3. Tight collaboration between dev, Ops/IT, QA team, and security auditors
  4. Controls are visible, verifiable, regularly reported
  5. Low amount of unplanned work (<5% of time spent firefighting, compared to the average of 40%)
  6. Systems highly automated and hands-free
  7. Server to System Admins ratio 100:1 or greater (average is 15:1)

Those factors above are beautiful because they’re so specific, not subjective. You could – and should – publish these on a dashboard, showing your current state and tracking your maturity level improvement over time.

So, getting down to brass tacks, once we do a baseline and see where we measure up on those 7 key factors above, how do we get to “Phoenix Project” greatness?

You could tackle this in three stages, as follows:



Phase 1 – Assessment

Create a release management team

Institute weekly change management meetings

Begin gathering and publishing “7 power metrics” (above)

Inventory applications and systems, and identify business stakeholders

Phase 2 – Enforcement

Identify fragile artifacts (Martin Fowler’s infamous “snowflake servers“)

Document your policy and change window system by system with stakeholders

Remove access to all but authorized change managers

Electrify the fence with monitoring / active enforcement of policy

Phase 3 – Stabilization

Build a library of repeatable builds

Feed change info to first responders and trouble ticket system

Kaizen (improve and expand metrics gathering, feedback to stakeholders and management)


These phases aren’t strictly done in a series – there’ll be overlap, and its definitely a monumental undertaking. But, if you love the idea of change management and reducing all the wasted time and stress you spend in firefighting in your company, rest assured – DevOps isn’t just buzz and fluff, it’s tangible and measurable. And it’s a journey that – while it has no true ending – you’ll be very glad that you took. It’ll mean a happier relationship with your business partners and customers, less time tied down in reactive troubleshooting, and more time with your loved ones and families. What’s not to love?

P.S. if you enjoyed The Phoenix Project and want to read up more on your next steps, check out “Visible Ops“. This tiny little book is 100 pages of very specific, tangible steps you can take to inject some DevOps goodness into your own IT organization.

“All Happy Families Are Alike” – Visible Ops by Gene Kim review

This is the third of a series of three posts I’ve done on DevOps recently. The first focused on the three ways explored in the Phoenix Project, and I stuck in some thoughts from the Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Lencioni. The second discussed the lessons taught by GM’s failure in adopting Toyota’s Lean processes with their NUMMI plant. This one will go through some great lessons I’ve learned from a terrific – and very short and readable – little book entitled “Visible Ops” by Gene Kim. Please, order this book (just $17 on Amazon!) and give it some thought.

“The single largest improvement an IT organization can benefit from is implementing repeatable system builds. This can’t be done without first managing change and having an accurate inventory. When you convert a person-centric and heavily manual process to a quick and repeatable mechanism, the reaction is always positive. Even a partially automated release/build process greatly improves the ability for individuals to be freed from firefighting and focus on their areas of real value. And by making it more efficient to rebuild than repair, you also get much faster systems downtime and significantly reduced downtime.” (Joe Judge, Adero)

I was always struck by the phrase from Tolstoy – “All happy families are alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Turns out that’s true of DevOps as well. Successful companies, it turns out, have some very common threads in terms of IT:

  • High service levels and availability
    • Mean Time To Repair (MTTR)
    • Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF)
  • High throughput of effective change
    • Change success rate >99% (for example, amazon with 1500+ changes a week)
  • Tight collaboration between dev, Ops/IT, QA team, and security auditors
    • Controls are visible, verifiable, regularly reported
  • Low amt of unplanned work
    • <5% of time spent firefighting – typical is 40%
  • Systems highly automated and hands-free
    • Server to System Admins ratio 100:1 or greater (typical 15:1)


So what are the common factors with the happy families” that have these highly efficient, repeatable RM culture?

  • A change management culture
    • Management by fact versus belief
    • All changes go through a formal change management process
      • “The only acceptable number of unvetted change is zero.”
      • “Change management is important to us, because we are always one change away from being a low performer.”
      • “Perceptions of nimbleness and speed are a delusion if you are tied down in firefighting.”
      • “The biggest failure in any process engineering effort is accountability and true management commitment to the process.”
  • No voodoo – causality over gut feel
    • Trouble ticket systems – inside each ticket are all scheduled changes and all detected changes with the system.
      • This leads to 90% first fix rate and 80% success rate in initial diagnosis
  • Human Factors Come First in Continual Improvement
    • Strong desire to find production variance early
    • Controls to find variance, preventative and detective.

Every unhappy family though is unhappy in their own way. You’ll hear sayings like the following in these “DevOps won’t work for us, we’re unique and special” type organizations:

  • “80% of our outages are due to changes – and 80% of the time we take in implementing a repair is trying to find that change” – Gartner
  • Data and continual improvement takes a back seat to intuition, gut feel, highly skilled IT Ops staff
  • SLA not met
  • “Most of our work is caused by self-inflicted problems and uncontrolled changes. Each sprint I start with a blank slate, and each sprint ends with 50% of my development firepower getting sucked away into firefighting.”
  • Infrastructure is repaired not rebuilt- “priceless works of art”
  • System failures happening at worst possible time, IT’s rep is damaged
  • Changes have a long fuse
  • One change can undo a series of change(s)

So how does an unhappy family move towards becoming more functional? Gene Kim has broken it down into four logical steps.

  • Phase 1 – Stabilize the Patient
    • Freeze changes outside maintenance window
    • First responders have all change related data at hand
  • Phase 2 – Find the Problem Child
    • Inventory your systems and identify systems with low change success, high repair time, high downtime business impact
  • Phase 3 – Grow your Repeatable Build Library
  • Phase 4 – Enable continuous Improvement

In a little more detail:

  • Phase 1 – Stabilize The Patient
    • Beginning of step for Goal is to allow highest possible change throughput with least amount of bureaucracy possible. No rubber stamping, change request tracking system feeds info to first responders, ensure solid backup plan.
    • Inventory applications and identify stakeholders and systems
    • Document new change management policy and change window with stakeholders
    • Institute weekly change management meetings
    • Eliminate access to all but authorized change managers
    • Electrify the fence with instrumentation, monitoring
      • you’ll be shocked at what you find!
      • this prevents org from falling back into bad old habits, like a rock climber with a ratchet and rope
    • Failure Points
      • We won’t be able to get anything done!
      • The business pays us to make changes. Not to sit in boring CM meetings.
      • We trust our own people – they’re professionals and don’t need micromanaging.
      • We already tried that – it didn’t work
      • We believe there are no unauthorized changes.
  • Phase 2 – Find The Problem Children
    • Analyze assets, find fragile artifacts (use list from Phase 1)
    • Must be fast. Can’t freeze changes forever.
    • Soft freeze, where truly urgent changes during this period go through CAB.
    • Failure Points
      • Pockets of knowledge and proficiency
      • Servers are snowflakes – irreplaceable artifacts of mission critical infrastructure
  • Phase 3 – Grow Your Repeatable Build Library
    • Create a RM team. (Shifts team to pre-prod activities)
    • Take fragile artifacts in priority – create golden builds stored in software library
    • Separation of roles – devs have no access to production
    • Amount of unplanned changes (and related work) further drops
    • # of unique configurations in deployment drops, increasing server/admin ratio
    • Mitigated the “patch and pray” dilemma, updates integrated into the RM process for patches to be tested and safely rolled out
  • Phase 4 – Enable Continuous Improvement
    • This has to do with gathering metrics and measuring improvement along three lines – release, controls, and resolution.

  • Release – how efficiently and effectively can we generate and provision infrastructure?
    • Time to provision known good builds
    • Number of turns to a known good build
    • Shelf life of a build
    • % of systems that match known good builds
    • % of builds with security signoff
    • # of fast-tracked builds
    • Ratio of Release Engineers to System Admins
  • Controls – how effectively do we make good change decisions that keep infrastructure available, predictable and secure?
    • # of changes authorized per week
    • # of actual changes made per week
    • # of unauthorized changes
    • Change success rate
    • Number of unauthorized changes
    • Changes submitted vs changes reviewed
    • Change success rate
    • Number of service-affecting outages
    • Number of emergency changes or “special” changes
    • Change management overhead (measure bureaucracy, lower is better!)
  • Resolution – when things go wrong, how effectively do we diagnose and resolve issue?
    • MTTR – Mean Time To Repair
    • MTBF – Mean Time Between Failure