What Is DevOps?
While there are varying definitions, DevOps is at its core a philosophy of software development that uses the agile paradigm and also requires the re-engineering of business processes and a profound cultural shift.
“You can be agile but not DevOps,” explains Dhaval Shrimankar, a director with the Ambit Group consultancy. “But if you are DevOps, you have to be agile.”
The name is a literal combination of “software developer” and “operations end user.” The term binds them together as a team in a continuous Mobius loop of planning, writing, testing, deploying, operating and monitoring new software. “Software is never a final, finished product,” Shrimankar says.
DevOps requires the collapsing of organizational silos. People can’t work together on software if they aren’t allowed to interact. IT leaders must buy in to the arrangement and be willing to shift from a high-risk, low-reward model of development (waterfall) to a low-risk, constantly iterative one that delivers high reward in the form of functioning software (DevOps).
Commercial technology companies such as Google, Amazon, Netflix and Facebook have perfected DevOps to the point where in-house software upgrades are deployed thousands of times per day. Federal agencies are much newer to the approach, and it presents some unique challenges.
What Is Continuous Integration and Delivery?
Essential to DevOps is the use of a continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD) pipeline. The model follows keys stages: development, integration, quality assurance, user acceptance testing, staging, preproduction and, finally, production. It is also highly automated and depends on a series of platforms called tool chains that help manage the workflow.
The automation of CI/CD allows software engineers to focus more on the business requirements of the end product. It also makes it much easier for multiple code writers to work on a project simultaneously.
“Such a pipeline allows individuals to achieve high-quality code and the flexibility to deploy or roll back without impeding others’ work,” Shrimankar says. Plus, it boosts the ability to make numerous deployments, which is at the center of the agile and DevOps philosophies.
What Are the Leading DevOps Tool Chains?
DevOps tool chains encompass five key areas.
CI/CD: This is a platform that allows automation and organization of the software development process. It is the central conductor of the pipeline. Leading tools include GitLab, Jenkins, Travis CI, CircleCI, TeamCity and Bamboo.
Version control: This is a central repository for code that can be accessed by multiple developers simultaneously. Regardless of programming language, the code is automatically versioned to help everyone keep track of who worked on what, when. Leading tools are mostly open source and include Apache Subversion, Mercurial, CVS and Git.
Server: This is where the compiled code is hosted and the software in development runs. Server software makers include Microsoft IIS, NGINX, Oracle WebLogic, Red Hat Jboss, Apache Tomcat, Django, Ruby on Rails and Node.js.
Testing: Testing code early and often is critical to a successful DevOps project. Automated testing platforms include IBM’s Rational Functional Tester, Katalon Studio, Selenium, Appium, Watir, JUnit and SonarQube.
Build tools: Code for an application must be compiled into an executable file. A build tool automates this process and is usually designed to handle a specific programming language. Leading tools include Apache Ant, Gradle, Rake and Maven.
DevOps Training and Certification
There is no formal federal DevOps certification process. However, several vendors and training organizations offer credentials, including Microsoft, Google Cloud, AWS, Docker, A Cloud Guru, and the DevOps Institute.
DevOps in the Federal Government
DevOps is still very new to federal agencies. While speeding software development should be welcomed in Washington, the new paradigm has faced predictable challenges.
However, a few intrepid agencies have jumped in. In 2017, the Air Force found itself way behind in delivering software for its Air Operations Centers. So, it moved experimentally to DevOps in a program with a Star Wars-inspired name, Kessel Run.
“It’s pretty common that using waterfall methodology in the Defense Department takes a couple of years — and that’s probably generous,” says Air Force Lt. Col. Max Reele, deputy commander of Kessel Run. “Our pursuit was to completely knock that down. Now, the time from inception to product in the field is 90 days.”
In some cases, the program delivers software releases, updates and bug fixes on a weekly basis, a pace previously unheard of in the Air Force. About 1,200 service personnel and contractors are part of Kessel Run and interest in the program is growing, according to Reele. Most important, it has full support from his commanders.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office started using DevOps in 2019. About 40 applications are now leveraging the pipeline, including team management and custom patent and trademark software. Sixty deployments go to the patents team annually.
“We’re trying to go from a culture of handoffs to a model where the team has ownership,” says Melissa Rummel, agile delivery and transformation lead for the agency.