Bringing DevOps to Network OperationsAhren Stevens-Taylor
In this article by Steven Armstrong, author of the book DevOps for Networking, we will focus on people and process with regards to DevOps. The DevOps initiative was initially about breaking down silos between development and operations teams and changing company’s operational models. It will highlight methods to unblock IT staff and allow them to work in a more productive fashion, but these mindsets have since been extended to quality assurance testing, security, and now network operations. This article will primarily focus on the evolving role of the network engineer, which is changing like the operations engineer before them, and the need for network engineers to learn new skills that will allow network engineers to remain as valuable as they are today as the industry moves towards a completely programmatically controlled operational model.
(For more resources related to this topic, see here.)
This article will look at two differing roles, that of the CTO / senior manager and engineer, discussing at length some of the initiatives that can be utilized to facilitate the desired cultural changes that are required to create a successful DevOps transformation for a whole organization or even just allow a single department improve their internal processes by automating everything they do.
In this article, the following topics will be covered:
- Initiating a change in behavior
- Top-down DevOps initiatives for networking teams
- Bottom-up DevOps initiatives for networking teams
Initiating a change in behavior
The networking OSI model contains seven layers, but it is widely suggested that the OSI model has an additional 8th layer named the user layer, which governs how end users integrate and interact with the network. People are undoubtedly a harder beast to master and manage than technology, so there is no one size fits all solution to the vast amount of people issues that exist. The seven layers of OS are shown in the following image:
Initiating cultural change and changes in behavior is the most difficult task an organization will face, and it won’t occur overnight. To change behavior there must first be obvious business benefits. It is important to first outline the benefits that these cultural changes will bring to an organization, which will enable managers or change agents to make business justifications to implement the required changes.
Cultural change and dealing with people and processes is notoriously hard, so divorcing the tools and dealing with people and processes is paramount to the success of any DevOps initiative or project. Cultural change is not something that needs to be planned and a company initiative. In a recent study by Gartner, it was shown that selecting the wrong tooling was not the main reason that cloud projects were a failure, instead the top reason was failure to change the operational model.
Reasons to implement DevOps
When implementing DevOps, some myths are often perpetuated, such as DevOps only works for start-ups, it won’t bring any value to a particular team, or that it is simply a buzz word and a fad.
The quantifiable benefits of DevOps initiatives are undeniable when done correctly. Some of these benefits include improvements to the following:
- The velocity of change
- Mean time to resolve
- Improved uptime
- Increased number of deployments
- Cross-skilling between teams
- The removal of the bus factor of one
Any team in the IT industry would benefit from these improvements, so really teams can’t afford to not adopt DevOps, as it will undoubtedly improve their business functions.
By implementing a DevOps initiative, it promotes repeatability, measurement, and automation. Implementing automation naturally improves the velocity of change and increased number of deployments a team can do in any given day and time to market. Automation of the deployment process allows teams to push fixes through to production quickly as well as allowing an organization to push new products and features to market.
A byproduct of automation is that the mean time to resolve will also become quicker for infrastructure issues. If infrastructure or network changes are automated, they can be applied much more efficiently than if they were carried out manually. Manual changes depend on the velocity of the engineer implementing the change rather than an automated script that can be measured more accurately.
Implementing DevOps also means measuring and monitoring efficiently too, so having effective monitoring is crucial on all parts of infrastructure and networking, as it means the pace in which root cause analysis can carried out improves. Having effective monitoring helps to facilitate the process of mean time to resolve, so when a production issue occurs, the source of the issue can be found quicker than numerous engineers logging onto consoles and servers trying to debug issues.
Instead a well-implemented monitoring system can provide a quick notification to localize the source of the issue, silencing any resultant alarms that result from the initial root cause, allowing the issue to be highlighted and fixed efficiently.
The monitoring then hands over to the repeatable automation, which can then push out the localized fix to production. This process provides a highly accurate feedback loop, where processes will improve daily. If alerts are missed, they will ideally be built into the monitoring system over time as part of the incident post-mortem.
Effective monitoring and automation results in quicker mean time to resolve, which leads to happier customers, and results in improved uptime of products. Utilizing automation and effective monitoring also means that all members of a team have access to see how processes work and how fixes and new features are pushed out.
This will mean less of a reliance on key individuals removing the bus factor of one where a key engineer needs to do the majority of tasks in the team as he is the most highly skilled individual and has all of the system knowledge stored in his head.
Using a DevOps model means that the very highly skilled engineer can instead use their talents to help cross skill other team members and create effective monitoring that can help any team member carry out the root cause analysis they normally do manually. This builds the talented engineers deep knowledge into the monitoring system, so the monitoring system as opposed to the talented engineer becomes the go to point of reference when an issue first occurs, or ideally the monitoring system becomes the source of truth that alerts on events to prevent customer facing issues. To improve cross-skilling, the talented engineer should ideally help write automation too, so they are not the only member of the team that can carry out specific tasks.
Reasons to implement DevOps for networking
So how do some of those DevOps benefits apply to traditional networking teams? Some of the common complaints with siloed networking teams today are the following:
- Slow often using ticketing systems to collaborate
- Manual processes carried out using admin terminals
- Lack of preproduction testing
- Manual mistakes leading to network outages
- Constantly in firefighting mode
- Lack of automation in daily processes
Network teams like infrastructure teams before them are essentially used to working in siloed teams, interacting with other teams in large organizations via ticketing systems or using suboptimal processes. This is not a streamlined or optimized way of working, which led to the DevOps initiative that sought to break down barriers between Development and Operations staff, but its remit has since widened.
Networking does not seem to have been initially included in this DevOps movement yet, but software delivery can only operate as fast as the slowest component. The slowest component will eventually become the bottleneck or blocker of the entire delivery process. That slowest component often becomes the star engineer in a siloed team that can’t process enough tickets in a day manually to keep up with demand, thus becoming the bus factor of one. If that engineer goes off sick, then work is blocked, the company becomes too reliant and cannot function efficiently without them.
If a team is not operating in the same way as the rest of the business, then all other departments will be slowed down as the siloed department is not agile enough. Put simply, the reason networking teams exist in most companies is to provide a service to development teams. Development teams require networking to be deployed, so they deliver applications to production so that the business can make money from those products.
So networking changes to ACL policies, load-balancing rules, and provisioning of new subnets for new applications can no longer be deemed acceptable if they take days, months or even weeks. Networking has a direct impact on the velocity of change, mean time to resolve, uptime, as well as the number of deployments, which are four of the key performance indicators of a successful DevOps initiative. So networking needs to be included in a DevOps model by companies, otherwise all of these quantifiable benefits will become constrained.
Given the rapid way AWS, Microsoft Azure, OpenStack, and Software-defined Networking (SDN) can be used to provision network functions in the private and public cloud, it is no longer acceptable for network teams to not adapt their operational processes and learn new skills. But the caveat is that the evolution of networking has been quick, and they need the support and time to do this.
If a cloud solution is implemented and the operational model does not change, then no real quantifiable benefits will be felt by the organization. Cloud projects traditionally do not fail because of technology, cloud projects fail because of the incumbent operational models that hinder them from being a success. There is zero value to be had from building a brand new OpenStack private cloud, with its open set of extensible APIs to manage compute, networking, and storage if a company doesn’t change its operational model and allow end users to use those APIs to self-service their requests.
If network engineers are still using the GUI to point and click and cut and paste then this doesn’t bring any real business value as the network engineer that cuts and pastes the slowest is the bottleneck. The company may as well stick with their current processes as implementing a private cloud solution with manual processes will not result in a speeding up time to market or mean time to recover from failure.
However, cloud should not be used as an excuse to deride your internal network staff with, as incumbent operational models in companies are typically not designed or set up by current staff, they are normally inherited. Moving to public cloud doesn’t solve the problem of the operational agility of a company’s network team, it is a quick fix and bandage that disguises the deeper rooted cultural challenges that exist.
However, smarter ways of working allied with use of automation, measurement, and monitoring can help network teams refine their internal processes and facilitate the developers and operations staff that they work with daily. Cultural change can be initiated in two different ways, grass roots bottom-up initiatives coming from engineers, or top-down management initiatives.
Top-down DevOps initiatives for networking teams
Top-down DevOps initiatives are when a CTO, Directors, or Senior Manager have to buy in from the company to make changes to the operational model. These changes are required as the incumbent operational model is deemed suboptimal and not set up to deliver software at the speed of competitors, which inherently delays new products or crucial fixes from being delivered to market.
When doing DevOps transformations from a top-down management level, it is imperative that some ground work is done with the teams involved, if large changes are going to be made to the operational model, it can often cause unrest or stress to staff on the ground.
When implementing operational changes, upper management need to have the buy in of the people on the ground as they will operate within that model daily. Having teams buy in is a very important aspect; otherwise, the company will end up with an unhappy workforce, which will mean the best staff will ultimately leave.
It is very important that upper management engage staff when implementing new operational processes and deal with any concerns transparently from the outset, as opposed to going for an offsite management meeting and coming back with an enforced plan, which is all too common a theme.
Management should survey the teams to understand how they operate on a daily basis, what they like about the current processes and where their frustrations lie. The biggest impediment to changing an operational model is misunderstanding the current operational model. All initiatives should ideally be led and not enforced. So let’s focus on some specific top-down initiatives that could be used to help.
Analyzing successful teams
One approach would be for the management is to look at other teams within the organization whose processes are working well and are delivering in an incremental agile fashion, if no other team in the organization is working in this fashion, then reach out to other companies.
Ask if it would be possible to go and look at the way another company operate for a day. Most companies will happily use successful projects as reference cases to public audiences at conferences or meet-ups, as they enjoy showing their achievements, so it shouldn’t be difficult to seek out companies that have overcome similar cultural challenges. It is good to attend some DevOps conferences and look at who is speaking, so approach the speakers and they will undoubtedly be happy to help.
Management teams should initially book a meeting with the high-performing team and do a question and answer session focusing on the following points, if it is an external vendor then an introduction phone call can suffice.
Some important questions to ask in the initial meeting are the following:
- Which processes normally work well?
- What tools they actually use on a daily basis?
- How is work assigned?
- How do they track work?
- What is the team structure?
- How do other teams make requests to the team?
- How is work prioritized?
- How do they deal with interruptions?
- How are meetings structured?
It is important not to reinvent the wheel, if a team in the organization already has a proven template that works well, then that team could also be invaluable in helping facilitate cultural change within the networks team. It will be slightly more challenging if focus is put on an external team as the evangelist as it opens up excuses such as it being easier for them because of x, y, and z in their company.
A good strategy, when utilizing a local team in the organization as the evangelist, is to embed a network engineer in that team for a few weeks and have them observe and give feedback how the other teams operate and document their findings. This is imperative, so the network engineers on the ground understand the processes.
Flexibility is also important, as only some of the successful team’s processes may be applicable to a network team, so don’t expect two teams to work identically. The sum of parts and personal individuals in the team really do mean that every team is different, so focus on goals rather than the implementation of strict process. If teams achieve the same outcomes in slightly different ways, then as long as work can be tracked and is visible to management, it shouldn’t be an issue as long as it can be easily reported on.
Make sure pace is prioritized, select specific change agents to make sure teams are comfortable with new processes, so empower change agents in the network team to choose how they want to work by engaging with the team by creating new processes and also put them in charge of eventual tool selection. However, before selecting any tooling, it is important to start with process and agree on the new operational model to prevent tooling driving processes, this is a common mistake in IT.
Mapping out activity diagrams
A good piece of advice is to use an activity diagram as a visual aid to understand how a team’s interactions work and where they can be improved.
A typical development activity diagram, with manual hand-off to a quality assurance team is shown here:
Utilizing activity diagrams as a visual aid is important as it highlights suboptimal business process flows. In the example, we see a development team’s activity diagram. This process is suboptimal as it doesn’t include the quality assurance team in the Test locally and Peer review phases. Instead it has a formalized QA hand-off phase, which is very late in the development cycle, and a suboptimal way of working as it promotes a development and QA silo, which is a DevOps anti-pattern.
A better approach would be to have QA engineers work on creating test tasks and creating automated tests, whereas the development team works on coding tasks. This would allow the development Peer review process to have QA engineers’ review and test developer code earlier in the development lifecycle and make sure that every piece of code written has appropriate test coverage before the code is checked in.
Another shortcoming in the process is that it does not cater for software bugs found by the quality assurance team or in production by customers, so mapping these streams of work into the activity diagram would also be useful to show all potential feedback loops.
If a feedback loop is missed in the overall activity diagram, then it can cause a breakdown in the process flow, so it is important to capture all permutations in the overarching flow that could occur before mapping tooling to facilitate the process.
Each team should look at ways of shortening interactions to aid mean time to resolve and improve the velocity of change at which work can flow through the overall process.
Management should dedicate some time in their schedule with the development, infrastructure, networking, and test teams and map out what they believe the team processes to be in their individual teams. Keep it high level, this should represent a simple activity swim-lane utilizing the start point where they accept work and the process the team goes through to deliver that work.
Once each team has mapped out the initial approach, they should focus on optimizing it and removing the parts of the process they dislike and discuss ways the process could be improved as a team. It may take many iterations before this is mapped out effectively, so don’t rush this process, it should be used as a learning experience for each team. The finalized activity diagram will normally include management and technical functions combined in an optimized way to show the overall process flow. Try not to bother using Business Process Management (BPM) software at this stage a simple white board will suffice to keep it simple and informal.
It is a good practice to utilize two layers of an activity diagram, so the first layer can be a box that simply says Peer review, which then references a nested activity diagrams outlining what the teams peer review process is. Both need refined but the nested tier of business processes should be dictated by the individual teams as these are specific to their needs, so it’s important to leave teams the flexibility they need at this level.
It is important to split the two out tiers; otherwise, the overall top layer of activity diagram will be too complex to extract any real value from, so try and minimize the complexity at the top layer, as this will need to be integrated with other teams processes. The activity doesn’t need to contain team-specific details such as how an internal team’s Peer review process operates as this will always be subjective to that team; this should be included but will be a nested layer activity that won’t be shared.
Another team should be able to look at a team’s top layer activity diagram and understand the process without explanation. It can sometimes be useful to first map out a high performing teams top layer activity diagram to show how an integrated joined up business process should look.
This will help teams that struggle a bit more with these concepts and allow them to use that team’s activity diagram as a guide. This can be used as a point of reference and show how these teams have solved their cross team interaction issues and facilitated one or more teams interacting without friction. The main aim of this exercise is to join up business processes, so they are not siloed between teams, so the planning and execution of work is as integrated as possible for joined up initiatives.
Once each team has completed their individual activity diagram and optimized it to the way the team wants, the second phase of the process can begin. This involves layering each team’s top layer of their activity diagrams together to create a joined up process.
Teams should use this layering exercise as an excuse to talk about suboptimal processes and how the overall business process should look end to end. Utilize this session to remove perceived bottlenecks between teams, completely ignoring existing tools and the constraints of current tools, this whole exercise should be focusing on process not tooling.
A good example of a suboptimum process flow that is constrained by tooling would be a stage on a top layer activity diagram that says raise ticket with ticketing system. This should be broken down so work is people focused, what does the person requesting the change actually require?
Developers’ day job involves writing code and building great features and products, so if a new feature needs a network change, then networking should be treated as part of that feature change. So the time taken for the network changes needs to be catered for as part of the planning and estimation for that feature rather than a ticketed request that will hinder the velocity of change when it is done reactively as an afterthought.
This is normally a very successful exercise when engagement is good, it is good to utilize a senior engineer and manager from each team in the combined activity diagram layering exercise with more junior engineers involved in each team included in the team-specific activity diagram exercise.
Changing the network team’s operational model
The network team’s operational model at the end of the activity diagram exercise should ideally be fully integrated with the rest of the business. Once the new operational model has been agreed with all teams, it is time to implement it.
It is important to note that because the teams on the ground created the operational model and joined up activity diagram, it should be signed off by all parties as the new business process. So this removes the issue of an enforced model from management as those using it have been involved in creating it. The operational model can be iterated and improved over time, but interactions shouldn’t change greatly although new interaction points may be added that have been initially missed. A master copy of the business process can then be stored and updated, so anyone new joining the company knows exactly how to interact with other teams.
Short term it may seem the new approach is slowing down development estimates as automation is not in place for network functions, so estimation for developer features becomes higher when they require network changes.
This is often just a truer reflection of reality, as estimations didn’t take into account network changes and then they became blockers as they were tickets, but once reported, it can be optimized and improved over time.
Once the overall activity diagram has been merged together and agreed with all the teams, it is important to remember if the processes are properly optimized, there should not be pages and pages of high-level operations on the diagram. If the interactions are too verbose, it will take any change hours and hours to traverse each of the steps on the activity diagram.
The activity diagram below shows a joined up business process, where work is either defined from a single roadmap producing user stories for all teams. New user stories, which are units of work, are then estimated out by cross-functional teams, including developers, infrastructure, quality assurance, and network engineers. Each team will review the user story and working out which cross-functional tasks are involved to deliver the feature.
The user story then becomes part of the sprint with the cross-functional teams working on the user story together making sure that it has everything it needs to work prior to the check-in. After Peer review, the feature or change is then handed off to the automated processes to deliver the code, infrastructure, and network changes to production.
The checked-in feature then flows through unit testing, quality assurance, integration, performance testing quality gates, which will include any new tests that were written by the quality assurance team before check-in. Once every stage is passed, the automation is invoked by a button press to push the changes to production. Each environment has the same network changes applied, so network changes are made first on test environments before production. This relies on treating networking as code, meaning automated network processes need to be created so the network team can be as agile as the developers.
Once the agreed operational model is mapped out only then should the DevOps transformation begin. This will involve selecting the best of breed tools at every stage to deliver the desired outcome with the focus on the following benefits:
- The velocity of change
- Mean time to resolve
- Improved uptime
- Increased number of deployments
- Cross-skilling between teams
- The removal of the bus factor of one
All business processes will be different for each company, so it is important to engage each department and have the buy in from all managers to make this activity a success.
Changing the network teams behavior
Once a new operational model has been established in the business, it is important to help prevent the network team from becoming the bottleneck in a DevOps-focused continuous delivery model.
Traditionally, network engineers will be used to operating command lines and logging into admin consoles on network devices to make changes. Infrastructure engineers adjusted to automation as they already had scripting experience in bash and PowerShell coupled with a firm grounding in Linux or Windows operating systems, so transitioning to configuration management tooling was not a huge step.
However, it may be more difficult to persuade network engineers from making that same transition initially. Moving network engineers towards coding against APIs and adopting configuration management tools may initially appear daunting, as it is a higher barrier to entry, but having an experienced automation engineer on hand, can help network engineers make this transition.
It is important to be patient, so try to change this behavior gradually by setting some automation initiatives for the network team in their objectives. This will encourage the correct behavior and try and incentivize it too. It may be useful to start off automation initiatives by offering training or purchasing particular coding books for teams.
It may also be useful to hold an initial automation hack day; this will give network engineers a day away from their day jobs and time to attempt to automate a small process, which is repeated everyday by network engineers. If possible, make this a mandatory exercise, so that it is adopted and make other teams available to cover for the network team, so they aren’t distracted. This is a good way of seeing which members of the network team may be open to evangelizing DevOps and automation. If any particular individual stands out, then work with them to help push automation initiatives forward to the rest of the team by making them the champion for automation.
Establishing an internal DevOps meet-up where teams present back their automation achievements is also a good way of promoting automation in network teams and this keeping the momentum going. Encourage each team across the business to present back interesting things they have achieved each quarter and incentivize this too by allowing each team time off from their day job to attend if they participate. This leads to a sense of community and illustrates to teams they are part of bigger movement that is bringing real cost benefits to the business. This also helps to focus teams on the common goal of making the company better and breaks down barriers between teams in the process.
One approach that should be avoided at all costs is having other teams write all the network automation for networking teams. Ideally, it should be the networking team that evolve and adopt automation, so giving the network team a sense of ownership over the network automation is very important. This though requires full buy in from networking teams and discipline not to revert back to manual tasks at any point even if issues occur.
To ease the transition offer to put an automation engineer into the network team from infrastructure or development, but this should only be a temporary measure. It is important to select an automation engineer that is respected by the network team and knowledgeable in networking, as no one should ever attempt to automate something that they cannot operate by hand, so having someone well-versed in networking to help with network automation is crucial, as they will be training the network team so have to be respected. If an automation engineer is assigned to the network team and isn’t knowledgeable or respected, then the initiative will likely fail, so choose wisely.
It is important to accept at an early stage, that this transition towards DevOps and automation may not be for everyone, so not every network engineer will be able to make the journey. It is all about the network team seizing the opportunity and showing initiative and willingness to pick up and learn new skills. It is important to stamp out disruptive behavior early on which may be a bad influence on the team. It is fine to have for people to have a cynical skepticism at first, but not attempting to change or build new skills shouldn’t be tolerated, as it will disrupt the team dynamic and this should be monitored so it doesn’t cause automation initiatives to fail or stall, just because individuals are proving to be blockers or being disruptive.
It is important to note that every organization has its own unique culture and a company’s rate of change will be subject to cultural uptake of the new processes and ways of working. When initiating cultural change, change agents are necessary and can come from internal IT staff or external sources depending on the aptitude and appetite of the staff to change. Every change project is different, but it is important that it has the correct individuals involved to make it a success along with the correct management sponsorship and backing.
Bottom-up DevOps initiatives for networking teams
Bottom-up DevOps initiatives are when an engineer, team leads, or lower management don’t necessarily have buy in from the company to make changes to the operational model. However, they realize that although changes can’t be made to the overall incumbent operational model, they can try and facilitate positive changes using DevOps philosophies within their team that can help the team perform better and make their productivity more efficient.
When implementing DevOps initiatives from a bottom-up initiative, it is much more difficult and challenging at times as some individuals or teams may not be willing to change the way they work and operate as they don’t have to. But it is important not to become disheartened and do the best possible job for the business.
It is still possible to eventually convince upper management to implement a DevOps initiative using grass roots initiatives to prove the process brings real business benefits.
Evangelizing DevOps in the networking team
It is important to try and stay positive at all times, working on a bottom-up initiative can be tiring, but it is important to roll with the punches and not take things too personally. Always remain positive and try to focus on evangelizing the benefits associated with DevOps processes and positive behavior first within your own team. The first challenge is to convince your own team of the merits of adopting a DevOps approach before even attempting to convince other teams in the business.
A good way of doing this is by showing the benefits that DevOps approach has made to other companies, such as Google, Facebook, and Etsy, focusing on what they have done in the networking space. A pushback from individuals may be the fact that these companies are unicorns and DevOps has only worked for companies for this reason, so be prepared to be challenged. Seek out initiatives that have been implemented by these companies that the networking team could adopt and are actually applicable to your company.
In order to facilitate an environment of change, work out your colleagues drivers are, what motivates them? Try tailor the sell to individuals motivations, the sell to an engineer or manager may be completely different, an engineer on the ground may be motivated by the following:
- Doing more interesting work
- Developing skills and experience
- Helping automate menial daily tasks
- Learning sought-after configuration management skills
- Understanding the development lifecycle
- Learning to code
A manager on the other hand will probably be more motivated by offering to measure KPI’s that make his team look better such as:
- Time taken to implement changes
- Mean time to resolve failures
- Improved uptime of the network
Another way to promote engagement is to invite your networking team to DevOps meet-ups arranged by forward thinking networking vendors. They may be amazed that most networking and load-balancing vendors are now actively promoting automation and DevOps and not yet be aware of this. Some of the new innovations in this space may be enough to change their opinions and make them interested in picking up some of the new approaches, so they can keep pace with the industry.
Seeking sponsorship from a respected manager or engineer
After making the network team aware of the DevOps initiatives, it is important to take this to the next stage. Seek out a respected manager or senior engineer in the networking team that may be open to trying out DevOps and automation. It is important to sell this person the dream, state how you are passionate about implementing some changes to help the team, and that you are keen to utilize some proven best practices that have worked well for other successful companies.
It is important to be humble, try not to rant or spew generalized DevOps jargon to your peers, which can be very off-putting. Always make reasonable arguments and justify them while avoid making sweeping statements or generalizations. Try not to appear to be trying to undermine the manager or senior engineer, instead ask for their help to achieve the goal by seeking their approval to back the initiative or idea. A charm offensive may be necessary at this stage to convince the manager or engineer that it’s a good idea but gradually building up to the request can help otherwise it may appear insincere if the request comes out the blue. Potentially analyze the situation over lunch or drinks and gauge if it is something they would be interested in, there is little point trying to convince people that are stubborn as they probably will not budge unless the initiative comes from above.
Once you have found the courage to broach the subject, it is now time to put forward numerous suggestions on how the team could work differently with the help of a mediator that could take the form of a project manager. Ask for the opportunity to try this out on a small scale and offer to lead the initiative and ask for their support and backing. It is likely that the manager or senior engineer will be impressed at your initiative and allow you to run with the idea, but they may choose the initiative you implement. So, never suggest anything you can’t achieve, you may only get one opportunity at this so it is important to make a good impression.
Try and focus on a small task to start with; that’s typically a pain point, and attempt to automate it. Anyone can write an automation script, but try and make the automation process easy to use, find what the team likes in the current process, and try and incorporate aspects of it. For example, if they often see the output from a command line displayed in a particular way, write the automation script so that it still displays the same output, so the process is not completely alien to them.
Try not to hardcode values into scripts and extract them into a configuration files to make the automation more flexible, so it could potentially be used again in different ways. By showing engineers the flexibility of automation, it will encourage them to use it more, show other in the teams how you wrote the automation and ways they could adapt it to apply it to other activities. If this is done wisely, then automation will be adopted by enthusiastic members of the team, and you will gain enough momentum to impress the sponsor enough to take it forward onto more complex tasks.
Automate a complex problem with the networking team
The next stage of the process after building confidence by automating small repeatable tasks is to take on a more complex problem; this can be used to cement the use of automation within the networking team going forward.
This part of the process is about empowering others to take charge, and lead automation initiatives themselves in the future, so will be more time-consuming. It is imperative that the more difficult to work with engineers that may have been deliberately avoided while building out the initial automation is involved this time.
These engineers more than likely have not been involved in automation at all at this stage. This probably means the most certified person in the team and alpha of the team, nobody said it was going to be easy, but it will be worth it in the long run convincing the biggest skeptics of the merits of DevOps and automation. At this stage, automation within the network team should have enough credibility and momentum to broach the subject citing successful use cases.
It’s easier to involve all difficult individuals in the process rather than presenting ideas back to them at the end of the process. Difficult senior engineers or managers are less likely to shoot down your ideas in front of your peers if they are involved in the creation of the process and have contributed in some way.
Try and be respectful, even if you do not agree with their viewpoints, but don’t back down if you believe that you are correct or give up. Make arguments fact based and non-emotive, write down pros and cons, and document any concerns without ignoring them, you have to be willing to compromise but not to the point of devaluing the solution.
There may actually be genuine risks involved that need addressed, so valid points should not be glossed over or ignored. Where possible seek backup from your sponsor if you are not sure on some of the points or feel individuals are being unreasonable.
When implementing the complex automation task work as a team, not as an individual, this is a learning experience for others as well as yourself. Try and teach the network team a configuration management tool, they may just be scared try out new things, so go with a gentle approach. Potentially stopping at times to try out some online tutorials to familiarize everyone with the tool and try out various approaches to solve problems in the easiest way possible.
Try and show the network engineers how easy it is to use configuration management tools and the benefits. Don’t use complicated configuration management tools as it may put them off. The majority of network engineers can’t currently code, something that will potentially change in the coming years. As stated before, infrastructure engineers at least had a grounding in bash or PowerShell to help get started, so pick tooling that they like and give them options. Try not to enforce tools they are not comfortable with. When utilizing automation, one of the key concerns for network engineers is peer review as they have a natural distrust that the automation has worked. Try and build in gated processes to address these concerns, automation doesn’t mean any peer review so create a lightweight process to help. Make the automation easy to review by utilizing source control to show diffs and educate the network engineers on how to do this.
Coding can be a scary prospect initially, so propose to do some team exercises each week on a coding or configuration management task. Work on it as a team. This makes it less threatening, and it is important to listen to feedback. If the consensus is that something isn’t working well or isn’t of benefit, then look at alternate ways to achieve the same goal that works for the whole team. Before releasing any new automated process, test it in preproduction environment, alongside an experienced engineer and have them peer review it, and try to make it fail against numerous test cases. There is only one opportunity to make a first impression, with a new process, so make sure it is a successful one.
Try and set up knowledge-sharing session between the team to discuss the automation and make sure everyone knows how to do operations manually too, so they can easily debug any future issues or extend or amend the automation. Make sure that output and logging is clear to all users as they will all need to support the automation when it is used in production.
In this article, we covered practical initiatives, which when combined, will allow IT staff to implement successful DevOps models in their organization. Rather than just focusing on departmental issues, it has promoted using a set of practical strategies to change the day-to-day operational models that constrain teams. It also focuses on the need for network engineers to learn new skills and techniques in order to make the most of a new operational model and not become the bottleneck for delivery.
This article has provided practical real-world examples that could help senior managers and engineers to improve their own companies, emphasizing collaboration between teams and showing that networking departments now required to automate all network operations to deliver at the pace expected by businesses.
Key takeaways from this article are:
- DevOps is not just about development and operations staff it can be applied to network teams
- Before starting a DevOps initiative analyze successful teams or companies and what made them successful
- Senior management sponsorship is a key to creating a successful DevOps model
- Your own companies model will not identically mirror other companies, so try not to copy like for like, adapt it so that it works in your own organization
- Allow teams to create their own processes and don’t dictate processes
- Allow change agents to initiate changes that teams are comfortable with
- Automate all operational work, start small, and build up to larger more complex problems once the team is comfortable with new ways of working
- Successful change will not happen overnight; it will only work through a model of continuous improvement
Useful links on DevOps are:
Resources for Article:
Further resources on this subject:
- Jenkins 2.0: The impetus for DevOps Movement [article]
- Introduction to DevOps [article]
- Command Line Tools for DevOps [article]